Reviewed by Mary Grace Edwards, guest contributor–
Forty percent of the world’s inhabitants are living on less than two dollars a day. From the slums of Calcutta to the housing project a few miles from your front door, poverty is everywhere. Thankfully, some are taking action to recognize and help the poor. But what happens when our good intentions are only making things worse? What if for all of our efforts, we are only keeping the poor poor? And how can we recognize if this is happening? This is the question tackled by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in their book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor.
Clearly, all Christ followers are called to share God’s heart for the poor. Given our relative level of wealth, North American Christians have particular responsibility. When Helping Hurts focuses specifically on the role the church should play. From a deep well of experience, the authors—both professors at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College–examine both domestic and international poverty. They discuss Biblical principles and theology, share stories from the front lines, and offer practical advice.
Fikkert and Corbett believe that successful poverty alleviation must be grounded in a Biblical understanding of poverty. They explain poverty as the result of the brokenness in the four key relationships: with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. Poverty, therefore, is “the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings” (62).
This definition contrasts with the one that is typical for most North Americans. We tend to see poverty primarily in terms of material lack. As a result, we respond by offering more material resources. This treats only symptoms. But that’s not the only problematic consequence.
From a Biblical definition of poverty, we are all poor—since none of us enjoys a perfect relationship of shalom with God, self, others, or the earth. The failure to recognize this has created an us-them dichotomy. By focusing on meeting the physical needs of the poor, the authors argue, we exacerbate the poor’s feelings of inferiority while puffing our own false pride at being “non-poor.” At that point, “helping” actually hurts.
What the “helpers” need, Fikkert and Corbett explain, is an ownership of their own spiritual and psychological poverty and a greater sensitivity to the fundamental need of reconciling broken relationships. Our faith becomes central in effective poverty alleviation efforts since we all need Jesus to restore our “poverty of being.” Our poverty-fighting efforts, fully informed by a Biblical understanding, become centered on the ministry of reconciliation. Our goal is to restore people to humanness and dignity by moving them toward reconciliation in their relationships with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation. From this perspective, Corbett and Fikkert then go on to define material poverty alleviation as working to reconcile these four relationships “so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work” (78).
In the second section of the book, Corbett and Fikkert lay out the key strategies needed for effective material poverty alleviation. First they walk readers through the critical differences between relief, rehabilitation, and development. They lament that “one of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make—by far—is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention” (105). By explaining the circumstances necessary for each response, the authors instruct churches on how to appropriately respond to people in different situations of need. The point is to ask the right questions in order to accurately diagnose the situation and determine if relief—or something else—is the best response.
When Helping Hurts also provides a useful, accessible discussion of “Asset Based Community Development” (ABCD). This paradigm–which emerged from secular thinkers but has been tweaked and adopted by a number of forward-thinking Christians engaged in frontline ministry–starts with the gifts and resources that poor people already have, rather than with their needs. Such an approach comports with the Bible’s affirmation of the human dignity of all people, including the poor, and its call to all humans to be good stewards. People’s needs, and the community problems, will surface soon enough. By focusing on what is right first, we protect the dignity of the materially poor. It also serves as a guard against possible paternalism by the non-poor.
The authors further emphasize that churches need to move away from ministry “to” or “for” communities to ministry “with” them. Not many churches excel at this, so there will be learning process needed over time. Moreover, as Corbett and Fikkert explain, there is no easy blueprint right for all circumstances. Each church will have to discern with their neighbors how best to create avenues that allow the poor to participate in all aspects of the poverty alleviation plans.
The final section of the book takes an unflinching look at one of the most common ways many individual church members first come face to face with poverty: the short-term mission trip. Western “short-termers” can fall into a number of errors: failing to recognize cultural differences; holding to a material view of poverty; being blind to the non-material dimensions of poverty; acting in paternalistic ways (such as assuming our methods are the best); and being far too quick to give money in situations where money really isn’t the best response. This section feels the most empowering to readers because it provides practical and doable advice on how to implement principles that benefit the poor. For example, the authors offer suggestions on how to go about funding short-term mission trips and they encourage groups to consider doing activities on the ground that support long-term development strategies such as micro-financing (rather than engaging in mere relief-oriented activities).
Corbett and Fikkert have written a book that challenges how many Christians think about and do ministry with the poor. The book could come off sounding overly critical, but the authors take time to honestly point out the ways in which they personally have made mistakes over the years. That humble candor—combined with their vast experience in frontline ministry both in the USA and abroad—creates a tone that stirs an equal balance of healthy repentance and renewed, refocused action. The book’s many interactive exercises also help in creating a sense of hope—that despite previous errors, we can learn how to do this work better. The pre- and post-chapter reflection questions are thoughtful and should prompt good discussion when the book is used in a small group setting. Overall, readers of When Helping Hurts will take away a deeper understanding of their own poverty and need for restoration as well as a greater sense of calling about how to engage in poverty alleviation effectively.
*Mary Grace Edwards is a Research Assistant for Dr. Amy Sherman, the Senior Founding Consultant for the J.V. Morsch Center for Social Justice.