Book Review: When Helping Hurts

On the second Thursday of each month, I would like to share my thoughts about some of the books I have read recently that have impacted my life in meaningful ways. This week’s book is When Helping Hurts. It is an essential resource for anyone who desires to help people in poverty; domestically or internationally. You can purchase it here:

http://www.amazon.com/When-Helping-Hurts-Alleviate-Yourself/dp/0802457061

When someone needs help, what is your first reaction? Probably to provide the most pressing, obvious need. Maybe even go above and beyond to take care of the person. For instance, take the person at the street corner asking for whatever change you can spare; maybe you give them some change but then also take them to the closest fast food restaurant and buy them a meal.

And that is a good thing. But it may not be the best thing.

Our country is full of people who want to help others. That’s why we see so many churches and other organizations sending truckloads full of supplies and carloads full of people to places that are devastated by hurricanes or tornadoes. That’s why so many popular media outlets set up the opportunity to text in donations for causes across the world. There are numerous agencies that send people into distant countries to help fight the extreme poverty that exists.

All of these are good things. But we need to ask if they are the best thing.

In When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert challenge us to understand, truly understand, poverty. In truth, all of us experience poverty in some way, whether it is poverty of resources or poverty of being.

Early in the book, Corbett and Fikkert make two major points: first, “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good” (p. 61). Second, “one of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich—their god-complexes—and the poverty of being of the economically poor—their feelings of inferiority and shame” (p. 62).

This book will challenge its readers to articulate their definitions. What is your worldview? How do you define poverty? What do you think causes poverty? Why do people stay in poverty? Many of us have made up our minds on these questions and may not even realize it. Reading this book will help give a good foundation for understanding the causes of poverty and the best tools to move people out of poverty.

Overall, the most important point the authors make is that in order to combat poverty we need relationships. It is not helpful to insert ourselves into people’s lives for a short time, give to them out of our abundance, and then leave. We must listen to people who are in need; find out what they truly need. We need to build relationships. This means listening, repenting, reconciling, and empowering.

In other words, we need to move from a relief model to a development model. Corbett and Fikkert speak a lot about the need for development as well as the difference in Doing To, Doing For, Doing With, and Responding To.

The challenge for many people is to realize that it is not our duty to swoop in and give those who have less what we think they need. We need to repent of the ways we have failed the poor among us in the past and look for ways to serve those in poverty around us.

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