Thursday, October 6, 2011

When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts is an excellent book, recommended to me by Pastor Chris Smith.  Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert each bring practical, philosophical, theological and economic experience to bear on their assessment of poverty - its causes, its perpetuation and its alleviation.  They are forthright in their criticism of current models, but they are also helpful, encouraging, and specific in their suggestions for altering our mindset, thus transforming our approach to those living in poverty. 

You'll need to read the book to get the full import of their ideas, but here are a couple of issues that stood out to me.

One significant problem in the way we approach the poor is rooted in faulty assumptions about the nature of poverty.  We define poverty too narrowly in terms of material deficit, when in reality, it has everything to do with relationship deficits: relationships to self, community, creation and God are all in various states of poverty.  These broken relationships sometimes lead to material poverty and in order to be truly effective in our efforts, all 4 relationships must be addressed. 

Instead, our most common approach is to offer RELIEF (providing "stuff" or labor), when relief efforts ought to be seldom, immediate and temporary.  Relief is appropriate in certain circumstances (i.e. immediately following disasters), but ongoing relief too often keeps the poor trapped in the same broken place in which we found them.

So why do we tend to focus on relief? 

1) It's doable.  Most of us can take a short-term missions trip to provide temporary assistance, or participate in a food drive, or some other event where we can step briefly into and  out of a particular context.  Most of us don't have (or don't believe we have) time or the desire to devote to long-term, ongoing involvement in the lives of the needy.  We tend to believe that relief is all they want anyway.

2)  It's manageable.  Relief is something we do TO and FOR the poor, so we are in complete control of what is given and done.  We don't want to go getting entangled in the mess of rehabilitation and development, which require us to work intimately WITH the poor to help them create a different future for themselves by restoring relationships with self, community, God, and the rest of creation.  This one of the authors' main arguments: the poor must be involved in the decisions and process which help them move to a healthier place in life.

3)  It's rewarding.  Quite frankly, it makes us feel good about ourselves.  Problem is, we often end up with a god-complex while we leave the poor feeling inferior, indebted, and helpless.  This is almost certainly unintentional on most of our parts, but it's an unfortunate truth that hurts both parties...the helping and the helped. 

One of the things I love most about this book, is the authors' insistence that because God is present and active in all of His creation, including poor communities, we must take the time to see, uncover, display and build upon the work and image of God in every human and community.  These people and communities already have strengths which they and we need to recognize, give thanks for, and capitalize on! Those of us who are not materially poor, tend to sweep in with an "I'm going to save you" attitude that assumes we have all the answers and resources, while "they" have all need and deficits.  In reality, we are often just as deficient in our relationships as those we seek to serve...we too are broken and needy, and we can actually learn from those we are trying to "help."  But only if we have an attitude of humility.

I could go on and on, but you really just need to read the book!  These guys lay a strong theological and anthropological foundation, then offer very concrete advice about when and how to do relief, rehabilitation and development among the needy according to their own context.  Even if you don't anticipate personal involvement in charitable work, this book will challenge you to think more biblically, with a more God-like attitude toward your fellow man.  This will likely influence allocation of your funds, and may transform your political views as well.   If you ARE actively involved in charitable ministries that attempt to make a difference among the poor, you will be helped not only by the book, but by ongoing resources offered through The Chalmers Center in Chattanooga.

Thanks, Pastor Smith, for the challenge and for creating and providing ongoing opportunities to put these principles into action.

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