Monday, May 29, 2017

When Helping Hurts - How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting The Poor... And Yourself

One of the things that has quickly become a favorite thing to do is to connect people with books, with information, ideas that can change their minds and their lives.

In this post I want to share with you a book, By Steve Corbett, whose title I found quite provocative.

While I certainly disagree with the Author on a few points, this book is a necessity for Christians who have a heart for the poor (that should be all of us by the way). The benefits that this book provides in perspective and practical/actionable information is unmatched when thinking about ministry for/with/by the poor.

You can get yourself a copy and form your own opinions to argue with me if you want.


You can read my review of the book and just send a copy to a friend who you think should have it on their shelf

 Here Is My Review:

According to Steve Corbett, poverty is broken relationships that manifest various effects on the person-hood of individuals or communities. He understands there to be four primary cases of poverty: lack of knowledge, oppression by powerful people, the personal sins of the poor, and a lack of material resources (55). The broken relationships that contribute to these causes of poverty are relations to self, others, and the rest of creation (58). These types of relationships affect the systems that people use to affect people. “People affect systems, and systems affect people,” (59). Steve identifies four types of systems: economic, social, religious, and political (61). These concepts are laid out fairly early in the book because they serve as the foundation for which the theme of poverty alleviation comes. With this understanding laid out of what poverty is and what contributes to it, one can understand poverty alleviation as the restoration of broken relationships. If our goal is to restore relationships, then we must be even more careful about causing harm to individuals or systems with our charitable intentions.  Ultimately, the goal of this book is to illustrate that, “by renewing our commitment, by adjusting our methods, and by repenting daily, we North American Christians can play a powerful role in alleviating poverty at home and abroad” (28).
There is a great deal of this book that is practical and useful in coming to understand both reason and techniques for poverty alleviation. The book begins with a story of our author co-leading a small business class on mission in India, in which he hands over 6 dollars to get a woman in the class some penicillin. He then wonders and explores the thought that his actions may have actually been more harmful to the woman and the community of ministry she was in than the good it did, even though it saved the woman’s life. For much of the book, the logic is easy to follow and it fits nicely with the practical application tips, but I find myself disagreeing with the theological and psychological positions the author puts forward. Anytime a writer, claiming to be a voice for Christianity, uses the phrase “the bible clearly teaches…” (147), they must be very careful and provide a significant amount of support for the statement. This author fell short of my expectation when using the phrase.
The theological understanding that I disagree with, that is most predominate in the writing, is the concept of refusing to do something for someone that they could do themselves. Surely, it is important to teach individual responsibility and to develop people to be self-sustaining, but it must not come at the cost of our faithfulness to humble service. The disciples could have washed their own feet, but our Lord Jesus Christ as an example for how we should live, humbled himself and washed the disciple’s feet for them in John 13. Another instance where Jesus meets a need that the people could have otherwise taken care of themselves is the famous feeding of the five thousand. Christ could have sent people away, empowering them to find food on their own, but instead he just fed them. It is important to try to balance service to others and what could become harmful; yet, even our Lord did not worry about creating dependence by feeding them.

When teaching on the subject of help without hurting, allowing others to do for themselves is more effectively explained in section two of the book, where the author lays out the three stages of need. Relief, rehabilitation, and development have specific characteristics which require unique ministry approaches. Within these approaches, it can be a bad thing to serve the wrong way. The author does an excellent job explaining these points of need and provides practical approaches for moving forward in ministry to each of the different areas of need. The sections on Asset Mapping, Participatory Learning and Action, and Appreciative Inquiry are brief, yet insightful.  

There is also a great deal of value to be found in the examples of effective ministries in chapter eight. The author correctly points out that “Financial education ministries can help to mitigate the problem of low-wage employment” (195). The section on wealth accumulation ministries is also beneficial in offering a substitute for simply handing over a donation large enough to change a family’s future. It shows an example of how you can put conditions on the aid in a way that helps the family to develop better financial habits, while empowering them with the dignity of earning the aid. Again, this is beneficial from a practical aid perspective and possibly flawed theologically because it appears to be in conflict with the concept of free grace.

Last, but not least, I enjoyed the section on micro-finance in chapter nine which includes discussion of Savings and Credit Associations which offer individuals financing on low interest terms. This is also a great piece of practical benefit when exploring opportunities for ministry but also has some theological problems when you explore scripture passages that talk about lending without expectation of return(Luke 6:35)  and without interest (Deut 23:19, Exodus 22:25).

Ultimately, I find the entire credibility of his contribution to the conversation on ministry and poverty to be put in question by claims he makes that are not backed up, either with enough scripture or research. For instance, he claims, “Many poor people have behavioral problems that make them less than ideal workers” (186).  While one could make a logical argument to find much agreement with this statement, without a study reference it holds no value. From my personal life experience, poor people and wealthy people alike have behavioral problems that affect their work. I would rather he address why the behavior problems affect the poor and not the rich.  A refusal to acknowledge the behavior problems of the wealthy goes against a basic concept of the book, which suggests that we must approach poverty alleviation humbly acknowledging that we all have these broken relationships. With this subtle omission of support for his claim, the integrity of argument is compromised.
The value of the book rests with its practical instruction. By providing a framework and definition of poverty alleviation, anyone could be convinced that this is work they should do as a basic function of living their faith. The author also does a really good job of laying out different places of need, identifying them in enough depth to help those in ministry assess individuals and communities they are in ministry to. I would use this book as a chapter a week study book with a small group of individuals who lead, or desire to lead, aid ministries at or through the church. Perhaps the greatest benefit is the questions that call the readers to reflect on the concepts presented. Discussion on the answers to the questions and the other content of the book could easily serve to help launch, or transform, the way a church practices aid ministry in their community. If even one church can use the book to move from falsely giving relief where development is needed to actual community development, then the book is a success. I plan to keep the book on my shelf and have already recommended it to persons at my church who are in charge of community aid ministries. The practical benefit is much greater than my theological irritations with the author.

Bibliography –
Corbett, Steve and Fikkert, Brian.  When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009. ISBN-10: 0802457053

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