When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself Summary: A very helpful book, when used rightly.

When Helping Hurts is a book that has really changed the way that many have looked at Christian social ministry and short term missions. But I have been reluctant to read it. Not because I thought it would be a bad book but because I feared how it misused. However, since christianaudio has it as the free book for February 2014, I thought it would be a good time to read and review it.

First a bit of background on me and how I am reading it. I have a Masters in Social Service Administration (like an MSW, but administratively focused.) I have been a consultant for small church based non-profits since 1997. Initially working for a denominational office, I spun off my work into an independent organization when the denominational office ran out of funding for my position.  My wife was also a short term volunteer coordinator for almost a year before we were married at the same denominational office.

So I do not come at this book ignorant of how Christians have approached social ministry or short term missions nor the current best practices for Christian ministry. I can tell you that this book (and several similar like Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton) have made a difference. Many funders and staff at non-profits have read these and really want to focus on doing the best work for the kingdom of Christ.

There are a variety of real problem among those that want to help the poor. One of the biggest is the outright antagonism toward evaluation. I frequently saw that problem in my grad school classes. Students, many with lots of experience in the non-profit and government worlds, were very reluctant to do evaluation of their methods. And much of that reluctance was rational. Good evaluation takes time. And many people that are good at social work are good at interpersonal relationship, and view paperwork as detracting from the greater importance of the relationship. They do not want to view people as clients or worse, ministry targets. But without evaluation we do not know if the work we do will make things better or worse. And increasingly there in evidence that many common activities that we do, at the best make little long term impact, and at the worst, do long term harm.

It is to that that problem Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert are writing. These are two Christians that write from both an academic and practical background in development. And the basic message is very needed. We as Christians need to focus on the long term reconciliation of people to their creator and community. The authors identify three types of need: emergency, rehabilitation and development. In general, most aid is focused on emergency types of assistance. But most people are poor or in need of assistance because of long term issues, not emergency issues.

Corbett and Fikkert want us to think more long term, focusing on how to empower and join in communities of poverty and not parochially decide how and what areas of assistance are needed for communities that we do not know and we do not listen to.

Much of this is fairly understandable, albeit hard to hear. We do not want to think that our short term missions projects where we felt so much spiritual growth might have actually been harmful. But it is real. I was involved in a short term focused project by a major denomination that wanted to bring thousands of volunteers (and a good bit of money) to Chicago in the year 2000. But because the denomination kept changing strategy, putting new conditions on money and volunteers, required lots of local spending to receive the money and some real strategy mistakes locally there was virtually no benefit to the work. The denominational office I worked for ended up laying off 80% of its staff because it was bankrupted by the required spending. Local churches were not empowered, projects required by outside funders were complete flops. There were some new churches planted, but most of them failed because the focus was too short term and the preparation was inadequate. Even before the implosion of the denominational office, most local churches had stopped accepting volunteer missions teams. These teams were a lot of work and provided almost no benefit to the local church or community. In the end, the project was more about publicity and image and not long term empowerment of the local church community, and the results showed that.

Also as a consultant I have been on the other end. Most commonly writing grants with good intentions but because of short deadlines and laziness I rarely had time to talk to staff about projects let alone the community. Many projects I have been involved in failed because of parochial values or a lack of listening.

While I am supportive of the authors’ goals and agree with their major points, I am concerned about how some will use this type of book. It is a misreading of the book, but I know that many will say that outside churches should not work with poor and/or social ministry is actually harmful to the gospel. Any real reading of this book will see that the authors do not believe that. But the long term focus, the abandonment of short term splash work and the requirement for long term relationship building mean that most churches and individuals will not really want to buy into the strategy of When Helping Hurts because it is hard.

And that is where I am concerned, because I worry about those that see this type of model as too intimidating to start doing anything. Good strategy is holistic and comprehensive. But most new ministries start small and with a few people or with a very narrow focus. Another way to say this, is that I am concerned that the intimidation of the perfect will prevent many from undertaking the good.

The after school program I primarily work with now does some of the things I see in the book, but far from all. It has made children its focus, but it knows that changing children apart from their parents is almost impossible. But ministry to adults is very different from ministry to children. So they have decided that even though ministry to the parents might be optimal, without additional partners and resources it is not possible to undertake the intensive relationship oriented partnership with parents that might in the long term be more effective than their current model. It has actively sought out churches (even helping to start a couple and provide space for them to meet) but it has not worked out as they have desired.

Poverty is difficult. There are no silver bullets. And I am reluctant to support the author’s quite negative views of international aid and governmental program. I agree that sometimes aid and the government is the problem. But I also think we do not always know a method is bad until we try it. It is part of a process of experimentation that is true of all areas. Some medicines we have found actually make things worse. But we only get to that point of knowing they make things worse by going through the process of evaluating and attempting to solve problems.

My main complaint is a generally negative view of current and past development and ministries. For instance, the authors complain of international development, which there is good reason to do. But spend no time talking about the fact that the number of people in extreme poverty have dropped at a greater rate over the past 25 years than at any point in history. And that advances in medicine and an increase in access to technology and financial structures mean that as a percentage the extreme poor are fewer than at any time in history. Yes more can be done, and that is the mission of this book, to get people to focus on the long term, not the short term solution. And to that major point I wholeheartedly agree. I just wish the presentation was more positive.

There is a new edition of When Helping Hurts that came out at the end of January 2014. I did not realize that until I started putting this blog post together. This review is of the first edition published in 2009. Links below are to the new edition where available.

When Helping Hurts Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook


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