When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor - Review

I picked up "When Helping Hurts" at the recommendation of a guy who reads the blog from time to time. He was excited about it and thought it might be the kind of book I would be interested in. He was right. Thanks James!

When Helping Hurts is written by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. The title and subtitle are fairly self-explanatory. Essentially, this book is written on the premise that many of our benevolence strategies may be counter-productive. Early in the book they use this illustration: "When a sick person goes to the doctor, the doctor could make two crucial mistakes: (1) Treating symptoms instead of the underlying illness; (2) Misdiagnosing the underlying illness and prescribing the wrong medicine. Either one of these mistakes will result in the patient not getting better and possibly getting worse." "When Helping Hurts" demonstrates that when wealthy, Western Christianity seeks to help the disadvantaged, we can easily make the same two mistakes. 

The authors point out the dangers of a messiah complex combined with a hidden health/wealth gospel that says explicitly or implicitly, "You are poor because you don't know better or aren't honoring God. We can fix you." 

Instead of the messiah complex, Fikkert and Corbett argue Christians who really want to help the poor should concentrate on making an accurate diagnosis: does the situation call for relief, rehabilitation, or development? They point out that relief is the most common diagnosis, though it is rarely the accurate diagnosis. Providing relief from the outside that systems and people on the inside are able to provide is almost always counter-productive. Outside help in non-emergency situations will devalue the people being helped, break systems that were intended to provide relief, and prevent long-term relationships from developing.

This obviously has implications on Short-Term mission trips. Fikkert and Corbett point to a stewardship question that mission committees and churches must answer: When is it appropriate to send a team as opposed to simply funding a team already on the ground. They point out that many short-term trips cost more per person than it would cost to fund an entire indigenous team for a year. That isn't to say Short Term Missions are not important and valuable, only that they must be closely evaluated to ensure good stewardship. 

A mission philosophy of partnership seems to be far more strategic than purposeless Christian tourism because it comes alongside someone with the capacity and skills to truly engage a culture in its own rehabilitation and development for the long-haul. 

"When Helping Hurts" is a really important read for anyone involved interested in alleviating poverty in the world for the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel. It is a quick, well-written, easy read that packs a paradigm-shifting punch for much of the Western Christian world. 


Andy Rodriguez said...

I'm reading a number of books on this topic this year, and this one has been the best one so far. Glad you have also benefited from it. If C. Lipp hasn't read it yet you should suggest it to him.

James W said...

Glad you liked it. One of my favorite quotes from the book (which has huge implications for how our church does short term missions) is this: "Avoid Paternalism -- Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves."

The focus on the real root cause of poverty (broken relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation) and the crucial distinction between relief, rehabilitation and development are game changing paradigm shifts for many of us. This book is a must for anyone dealing with poverty, whether overseas or in our own backyard.