Review of When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

When Helping Hurts is another book in the same genre as Jean Johnson’s We Are Not the Hero, a book that I reviewed a few years ago. Namely, it identifies some dangerous and potentially destructive patterns in the way that churches from Western countries typically conduct themselves when attempting to minister in poorer countries—what the authors call the “Majority World.” Like Johnson, Corbett and Fikkert identify what they call the “god-complexes” of the materially non-poor as a key reason why the aid provided Western churches so often proves to be ineffective, or even harmful, in the long run. A key difference, however, is that When Helping Hurts specifically focuses on poverty alleviation, and not just on spreading the gospel per se. Since its initial publication in 2009, When Helping Hurts has become very well known and has gained “must-read” status not only among churches that are engaged in international ministry but also among churches that are trying to alleviate domestic poverty. Because the book has been so influential, I would like to describe the contents in some detail before giving my reactions.

When Helping Hurts is divided into four parts:

One of the nice features of the book is that each chapter starts with some questions that the reader is invited to answer. The questions are carefully chosen to expose misconceptions that the reader may tacitly harbor. Often, the chapter ends with further questions for reflection, making the book well suited for group discussion as well as individual use.

Part 1 lays the philosophical and theological foundation for the book. The initial question in Chapter 1 is, Why did Jesus come to earth? In the authors’ experience, many readers respond by focusing on how Jesus died to provide us with eternal life after death, but overlook that Jesus came to usher in the kingdom of God, and prayed that “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The authors use the term evangelical gnosticism to refer to this tendency to focus only on the “spiritual” and neglect the material aspect of creation. As the authors demonstrate from numerous biblical texts, addressing people’s material needs is an essential part of our ministry as disciples of Christ.

The initial question in Chapter 2 is particularly interesting: What is poverty? The authors report the following results.

We have conducted the previous exercise in dozens of middle-to-upper-class, predominantly Caucasian, North American churches. In the vast majority of cases, these audiences describe poverty differently than the poor in low-income countries do. 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. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc. As will be discussed further below, this mismatch between many outsiders’ perceptions of poverty and the perceptions of poor people themselves can have devastating consequences for poverty-alleviation efforts.

Specifically, if the materially non-poor perceive poverty to be solely the lack of material things, then they will tend to respond by focusing solely on providing material things, and this may not only fail to solve the underlying problem of poverty, but may exacerbate it by amplifying the feelings of inferiority and helplessness of the poor people that they are trying to help. The authors summarize this effect with an equation:

Material   God-complexes   Feelings of   Harm to Both
Definition    +   of Materially  +     Inferiority of    =     Materially Poor
of Poverty   Non-Poor   Materially Poor   and Non-Poor

Instead of a material definition of poverty, the authors offer this alternative definition, which they attribute to Bryant Myers:

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.

Myers identifies four “foundational” relationships: relationship with God, relationship with self, relationship with others, and relationship with the rest of creation. Failure of any of these relationships results in poverty. One consequence of this point of view is that the materially non-poor must begin by recognizing their own poverty, and having an attitude of repentance, especially if they are guilty of harboring a god-complex.

Chapter 3 builds on Chapter 2 by studying the question, What is (material) poverty alleviation? They offer the following answer.

Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile the four foundational 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.

The authors cut through a common political debate by affirming that poverty results both from sinful individuals as well as broken systems.

Part 2 of the book moves from theological generalities to some specific theoretical ideas for thinking about poverty. Chapter 4 makes a crucial distinction between different types of poverty that require different types of alleviation: relief, rehabilitation, and development. Relief refers to rescue from a sudden, devastating disaster that leaves the victims unable to do almost anything for themselves. In such a situation, immediate delivery of material aid is typically the appropriate response. However, the authors emphasize that the vast majority of situations of poverty do not fall into this category. Rehabilitation, according to the authors, “seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their precrisis conditions. The key feature of rehabilitation is a dynamic of working with the victims as they participate in their own recovery.” Finally, development is “a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved—both the ‘helpers’ and the ‘helped’—closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.” It is a serious mistake to offer relief when rehabilitation or development is needed, because doing things for people that they should be doing themselves actually undermines the process of restoring right relationships. The authors express this point succinctly with the motto, avoid paternalism.

A second important theoretical concept is what the authors call asset-based community development (ABCD). The key idea here is to start by assessing the assets that a community has, and not by assessing needs or problems. That is, instead of beginning the conversation by asking, “What is wrong with you?” ABCD begins by asking, “What is right with you?” This approach does not deny the corrupting effects of the Fall but affirms that much good remains in Creation even in a fallen world. One of the authors gives a vivid illustration from his own experience of the dangers of neglecting this principle. On a visit to Uganda, he encountered a witch doctor named Grace who had recently come to Christ, but then acquired a life-threatening infection from a botched tonsillectomy. Instinctively he pulled out eight dollars to pay for penicillin. Later, he regretted his action, because the financial need could have been met by the local community, and if he had instead encouraged that to happen, not only would the immediate physical need have been met, but Grace would have developed relationships with the community that she desperately needed. By looking only at the need without thinking about the assets in the community, he was led to an inappropriate response. Instead of “doing things to” a community, the authors recommend fostering a participatory approach where the local people set their agenda and mobilize to carry it out without outside initiators and facilitators. Participation is not just the means to an end but rather a legitimate end in its own right.

Part 3 of the book then spells out how the above theory plays out in practice in three arenas: short-term missions, domestic poverty alleviation, and microfinance (both microfinance institutions [MFIs] and savings and credit associations [SCAs]). There is much sound practical advice in these chapters but I will not try to summarize it here (though I will say something about short-term missions later), since it is a part of the book that is best read in its entirety.

Part 4 is new to the second edition of the book. The authors provide the following explanation in the preface.

Unfortunately, we have also heard some readers of the first edition say that they are not quite sure what to do next. They want to “help without hurting,” but they are not sure how to get started. Some have even said that they feel a bit paralyzed, being so worried about doing harm that they are afraid to do anything at all. And in a few rare but disturbing cases, some have used the first edition to argue—erroneously—that nothing should be done to help people who are poor, as all efforts are likely to do harm. Hence, we want to say as loudly and clearly as we can: GET MOVING! We believe that the coexistence of agonizing poverty and unprecedented wealth—even just within the household of faith—is an affront to the gospel.

They wrote Part 4 to help people get started on helping without hurting. In Chapter 10 they lay out five principles. In Chapter 11 they offer a three-step process for getting started. They conclude the book by re-emphasizing that the most important step is to recognize our own poverty and repent of it.

There is no question that When Helping Hurts is an excellent book. Although I felt that I had already absorbed the authors’ main message from reading other books (such as the aforementioned Hero book), I still learned a lot, such as the pros and cons of MFIs and SCAs, and the concept of asset-based community development. The book also does a great job of communicating its message effectively. There have been times when I have tried unsuccessfully to explain to someone that their instincts for how to help may be misguided, and it is wonderful to be able to point to a book that conveys the point better than I can.

If there is a weakness in the book, I think it is in the chapter on short-term missions (STMs). The authors rightly point out that if not properly planned and executed, STMs can do harm. They cite a vivid African parable relayed by Miriam Adeney.

Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, “Mouse, let’s have a party!” Animals gathered from far and near. They ate. They drank. They sang. And they danced. And nobody celebrated more and danced harder than Elephant. After the party was over, Elephant exclaimed, “Mouse, did you ever go to a better part? What a blast!” But Mouse did not answer. “Mouse, where are you?” Elephant called. He looked around for his friend, and then shrank back in horror. There at Elephant’s feet lay Mouse. His little body was ground into the dirt. He had been smashed by the big feet of his exuberant friend, Elephant. “Sometimes, that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans,” the African storyteller commented. “It is like dancing with an Elephant.”

Adeney elaborates on the problem.

By definition, short-term missions have only a short time in which to “show a profit,” to achieve pre-defined goals. This can accentuate our American idols of speed, quantification, compartmentalization, money, achievement, and success. Projects become more important than people. The wells dug. Fifty people converted. Got to give the church back home a good report. Got to prove the time and expense was well worth it. To get the job done (on our time scale), imported technology becomes more important than contextualized methods. Individual drive becomes more important than respect for elders, for old courtesies, for taking time. We end up dancing like elephants. We dance hard, and we have big feet.

This is all very true. However, there is one particular paragraph later in the chapter that I feel misses the mark in a major way.

Some defenders of STMs argue that the money spent on STMs is new money for missions. Because the giver typically knows the person or team and the gift is seen as one time and without a deep commitment, money given for STMs is money that would not be given for other forms of missions such as supporting indigenous ministries. If this is an accurate description of the nature of giving to STMs, it is very sad. Why can’t God’s people be challenged—from the pulpit and beyond—to exercise better stewardship of kingdom resources with their missions giving? While higher impact strategies may provide less satisfaction than STMs for the giver in terms of “personal involvement or connection,” isn’t it a great modeling of the gospel to die to self so that others might benefit? Yes, this goes against the current cultural demand to touch, taste, and experience for myself. But the gospel has always called for challenging societal norms if they hinder the advancement of Christ’s kingdom. It is not about us. It is about Him!

To highlight what I think is wrong with this paragraph, let me recast the question in the following way. Which approach is better, to preach to people that, according to some cold calculation, they “ought” to donate their money to something with which they have no personal connection (and to shake one’s head sadly when people do not respond), or to encourage people to form personal relationships by going on an STM, and drawing in their own friends and family because of the personal connection? If we phrase the question this way, then I think we can see that the authors are guilty of the very thing they caution against, of prioritizing economic efficiency over personal relationships.

I can cite my own experience as an example. Before going on my first STM to Haiti, I asked myself if it would be better just to send a check to the missions organization. Most people who ask this kind of question and decide against the STM end up not sending the check either, but in my case I was definitely prepared to send the check. I ultimately decided to go on the STM, and now, looking back several years later, I can say that not only has that decision “paid off” in terms of long-term relationships that would never have been formed otherwise, but even from an economic perspective, far more money has gone to Haiti as a result. Because of my personal investment in Haiti, I have continued to donate, going far beyond the single check that I was initially contemplating. Furthermore, my friends and family have donated money that they would not otherwise have given, because they trust me and I can personally vouch for the work that the money is being donated towards. Two of my friends have even been inspired to come with me on an STM. Doesn’t all this seem healthy and normal? Yet the authors would have us believe that it is “very sad” that I chose the route of learning through personal experience, forming personal relationships with Haitians, and drawing others in through personal relationships; apparently, it would have been better if all of us had just sent the equivalent amount of cold cash after having listened to a theologically correct sermon.

Despite this false step, When Helping Hurts fully deserves its reputation as a must-read. Any church that wants to engage in addressing poverty, either at home or internationally, should study its lessons carefully and put them into practice.

Posted February 2017

Back to Christian Stuff