PRISM MAGAZINE — January-February 2010
WHEN HELPING HURTS
How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself
By Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert (Moody Publishers)
Reviewed by Rodolpho Carrasco
“Have you ever done anything to hurt poor people?” asks Dr. John Perkins in the foreword to the timely book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself. Evangelical America is awash in books calling for greater engagement in ministry to the poor via direct help and social justice advocacy. Much of the material in these books is introductory, focusing on the theological case for holistic gospel engagement and then providing starting points for ministry. But not many approach the topic with a narrative thread that constantly returns to the core premise that not all help is helpful.
How can help not help? Here’s how: In the introduction, co-author Brian Fikkert tells of “helping” a suffering woman in Kampala, Uganda, by ponying up $8 so she could purchase penicillin. The penicillin was needed — long story short — to fight an infection she had developed after asking her neighbor (who complied) to treat her tonsillitis by cutting out her tonsils with a kitchen knife.
Fikkert felt great about it at the time, but the realization eventually dawned on him that his help had undermined the local believers with whom the woman related. The purpose of this book is to explain how his help (and similar efforts) didn’t — in the long run – help. But I’ll give you a little spoiler here. Fikkert writes that he “failed to consider that local assets that already existed in this slum, assets that included small amounts of money, a church, a pastor, and the social bonds of the 100 refugees attending the small-business class” that he had journeyed to Uganda to teach over a two-week period. “The truth is that there was more than enough time to walk back to the church… and ask people there to help. While the refugees were extremely poor, they could have mustered the eight cents per person to pay for the penicillin,” thus deepening a bond of relationship among people who would continue to live together long after he left the scene.
Applying long-term solutions in times of short-term crisis — that’s the challenge for believers who desire to be used effectively by God. From this starting point, Fikkert and co-author Steve Corbett provide background, theology, and practical experience that will help churches, small groups, and individuals to grasp concepts that appear basic but are difficult to implement in practice.
Their definition of poverty as broken relationships in four spheres (with God, self, others, and creation) will help readers assess the effectiveness of their own ministries and outreach efforts. Asset-based development, do’s and don’ts of short-term missions, and overviews of current practices in wealth generation and poverty alleviation are right on target.
The practical experience of the authors is bedrock to this approach. I’ve been in the poverty-fighting trenches for decades. Some things you understand only as you do them. This book will not replace experience. But inasmuch as concepts for effective poverty alleviation can be taught didactically, When Helping Hurts does the trick. In the words of Dr. Amy Sherman, “While accessible to beginners, [this book] is rich with insights for veterans, too.” I concur.