When Helping Hurts

How do we react when we see people in extreme poverty, or when we are asked to help, or give something to a person or group of people in need?  What do we do when we pass someone on the street begging? Nine times out of ten, we respond with some form of relief – giving money or resources we believe will meet the need, and alleviate the pain.  Those of us who have seen firsthand the excruciating affects of poverty in Third World countries understand the sense of compassion and sincere desire to do something – anything, even if it’s wrong.

What we fail to realize is that in many situations this type of response might not really help.  In fact, it could actually hurt the very people we are trying to help, and although this response might make us feel better, in the end, it could actually hurt us as well. How then, can we help alleviate poverty without hurting the poor and ourselves in the process? This is the question Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert address in their book, When Helping Hurts:  How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, (Moody Publisher, Chicago, 2009).

First, we have to understand the many types of poverty. We first think of material poverty, and ignore the more devastating forms of poverty such as the poverty of self image, and the poverty of relationships with others, with God and with the rest of creation.

It is only when we understand the complicated nature of poverty that are able to see how our “band-aid approach” to alleviating material poverty often hurts the very people we are trying to help. Corbett and Fikkert do an outstanding job laying out a solid biblical and practical foundation for addressing the important issue of poverty.

This book is by far the most practical guide in print today addressing alleviating all types of poverty.  The authors walk you through the intricate and complicated issues surrounding poverty, with examples and stories that bring both clarity and conviction. The authors discuss the fundamental nature of poverty, and then identify three key issues that must be addressed in any poverty alleviation strategy: relief, rehabilitation and development. The last section of the book applies all these concepts to a set of strategies designed to alleviate material poverty through “economic development.”

Once we have determined whether relief, rehabilitation or development is our strategy, where do we start? Many times, we begin by asking, “What do you need?”  This needs-based approach, however can communicate the wrong message. Starting with a focus on needs, amounts to beginning a relationship with materially poor people by asking them, “What’s wrong with you? Or how can I fix you?”  This approach creates and confirms feelings of inferiority on their part, as well as superiority on our part.

The authors suggest an asset-based approach.  Why not begin with a focus on their strengths?  What resources do they have?  What are the assets they bring to the table?  This approach affirms people’s dignity and moves us away from our western god-complex.  It empowers them to participate in the solution, rather than being part of the problem, destined to receiving handouts.  This approach enlists and inspires local involvement, and it enhances local initiatives.  It creates a sense of self-worth, and is the basis for helping them discover, celebrate and develop God’s gifts to them.  From this position, we can better present the Gospel – God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself – a reconciliation of relationships between the individual and God, self, others and the rest of creation.

In other words, the essence of alleviating poverty is reconciling these relationships.  Everything we do therefore must focus on building relationships – helping people discover how God designed them to relate to Him, to relate to themselves, to others and to all of creation.  Here is a powerful question to ask about our efforts to alleviate poverty:  “At the end of the day, the ultimate question for our poverty-alleviation efforts is this:  Have we worked in such a way that both we and the materially poor are closer to fulfilling our highest calling of “glorifying God and enjoying Him forever?”

I wish I had read this book many years ago, before leading dozens of short-term mission trips to Majority World countries. This book would have been a tremendous help to me when, as a young pastor, I had to respond to requests from people coming by my church asking for gas money, for help to pay the rent, or buying groceries.

Every pastor, every person planning to participate in a short-term mission project, and every missionary simply must read this book.

Reviewed by:

Dr. Larry Doyle



About Larry Doyle

Larry is the Director of Missions for the Piedmont Baptist Association. He has served overseas with the International Mission Board (SBC), in Charlotte NC as the Director of International Ministries, and as a pastor in North Carolina and Kentucky. He is married to Rebekah Hill, a native of Greensboro NC, and has two children and three grandchildren.
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