book report: When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert (2009)

In light of my experience of visiting Haiti before and after the earthquake in 2010, the idea of aid, and how to do it right, is a struggle for me, and this book, When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert has been very helpful in sorting out the issues. I learned a great deal from these authors and I think any church leader who wants to jump into ministry to those in need would benefit from the research and anecdotes presented in this book.

This explanation of how the poor view their poverty is an enlightening example. "While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness." p.53 Since that is the case, one should recognize that a $50 handout will do very little to address those issues. What this person needs is a hand-up and partners to walk the long path out of poverty, which is much harder and costlier than spare change.
Simply giving this person money is treating the symptoms rather than the underlying disease and will enable him to continue with his lack of self-discipline. In this case, the gift of money does more harm than good, and it would be better not to do anything at all than to give this handout. Really! Instead, a better - and far more costly- solution would be for your church to develop a relationship with this person, a relationship that says, "We are here to walk with you and to help you use your gifts and abilities to avoid being in this situation in the future. Let us into your life and let us work with you to determine the reason you are in this predicament." p. 55
The book provides a great framework to recognize the situation the poor are in and how to respond, distinguishing between relief (immediate handouts to save lives), rehabilitation and redevelopment. In my small view, Haiti is out of the woods for relief, except for where cholera still rages, but there is so much rehabilitation that needs to occur. There are broken wells, and tent cities, and violence in those tent camps, and poor sanitation, but people are no longer at risk of starvation or gangrene from injuries.

I appreciate the definition of poverty they use, in all the areas it affects and needs fixing. "Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings." p.62 Poverty is not just broken bank accounts. It's broken attitudes and mindsets and worldviews and government and trust. These are things that Christians in particular can help mend over the long haul. But the North American church has channeled a great deal of energy into short term mission (STM) trips, which one national described as an elephant dancing with mice. They rush in and do all sorts of work that nationals could do, or be trained to do, over a longer period of time, then vacate leaving all the other aspects of poverty intact. They speak very bluntly to this phenomenon.
Stay away from the "go-help-and-save-them" message and use a "go-as-a-learner" message. We need no more STM brochure covers with sad, dirty faces of children and the words "Will you die to self and go and serve?" Such a message places too much focus on the sacrifice the STM team is making to change people's lives - a level of change that is simply not realistic in two weeks - and on how helpless the poor people are without the team's help...; just don't label vacations as "missions" nor dare ask people to fund them with their tithes and offerings. Doing so is an outrageous insult to the thousands of indigenous and expatriate brotehrs and sisters who sacrifice in mighty ways in ministry and to the poor themselves. p.176
They have some very specific suggestions for a short term team, including discipling those team members for months before and a year after the trip.

They speak of the importance of involving those you are helping, not only so they can develop their gifts and talents and dignity through work, but also so inappropriate "solutions" are not dropped on them. They give an example of an indigenous pastor's house was built with a bathroom in the culturally unacceptable part of the house. But no one asked the pastor, and the house might never get used.

The book covers so much ground, but it is eye opening, and is, at it's most basic level, an explanation of Christ's golden rule, asking how would we like to be treated/ then treat others that way. For some reason we tend to believe a desperately poor person is very different from us and needs to be patronized by us. Not true. If we lose that assumption, we can better serve others. More information can be found at the eponymous website.

One organization I like doing redevelopment is Plant with a Purpose. Another I really like that has moved from relief to rehabilitation is Samaritan's Purse. Here is a video of recent work by them.

I was also able to give towards the work of well drilling and repair in Haiti through Living Water International. I think I saw these guys at work the first time I was in Haiti.

Haiti - Right Now from Living Water International on Vimeo.


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