Book Review – When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikker

When Helping Hurts

I read a story in one of Jen Hatmaker’s books about a school in Africa visited every summer by a group of American teens on a short-term mission trip. Every year the local leaders sent kids to muddy the walls of their school in preparation for the Americans coming in. The building didn’t need painting, but they needed the Americans’ support, so they had to give the missions team something to do to feel useful. Clearly the Americans thought they were helping, but the local people didn’t have the heart (or possibly the power) to tell them they were wasting time and ridiculous amounts of money. Having been on a short term missions trip and part of outreaches, it made me wonder how often I have reinvented a perfectly good wheel and gotten in the way of what really needed to be done.

A few years ago I heard about the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I’ll admit it paralyzed me. Until I read the book, just knowing that it was out there made me afraid I would find out that the mission trip and outreach programs I had participated in were full of mistakes that had done more harm than good. As we prepared for the Convoy of Hope event, I decided that it was time to read the book. Maybe it would give me some guidance as we planned the outreach.

I didn’t love it. There are some good points, for sure. But I feel that it lacks focus. Some parts are for average people who want to help, and some parts are like a policy manual for people starting a non-profit or establishing benevolence policy for a church. Not being a pastor or policy maker, I became frustrated with the advice about things I can’t control, and bored with the technical financial jargon. There are a ton of acronyms and technical financial concepts (not my particular skill set). I feel it should have been two books – one for minimizing the mistakes of average people involved in charitable work, and one more technical manual for pastors and policy makers.

Least you think I hated the book, let me share with you some of the good parts:

“Our relationship to the materially poor should be one in which we recognize that both of us are broken and that both of us need the blessing of reconciliation. Our perspective should be less about how we are going to fix the materially poor and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us.” (p.79)

There is a necessary emphasis on helping the poor in a way that empowers them and restores dignity. The authors encourage people to start their charitable programs by taking an inventory of what a community has to work with, rather than what it lacks. “…the very nature of the question – What gifts do you have? – affirms people’s dignity and contributes to the process of overcoming their poverty of being. And as they tell us of their gifts and abilities, we can start to see them as God does, helping us to overcome our superiority, that is, our own poverty of being.” (p. 126)

“Pouring in outside resources is not sustainable and only exacerbates the feelings of helplessness and inferiority that limit low-income people from being better stewards of their God-given talents and resources.” (p. 126)

“The money spent on a single STM (short term missions) team for a one- to two-week experience would be sufficient to support more than a dozen far more effective indigenous workers for an entire year.” (p. 173)

So you see, there are valuable practical insights throughout the book, but I’m afraid they’re lost on the less business-minded. I found it hard to keep reading when the authors spent several chapters on banking details and interest rates, as that’s not likely something I’ll ever make decisions about.

The other problem I have with this book is the way the authors encourage us to judge people in need to determine not just what type of aid will be most beneficial, but whether we should help at all or let people learn from consequences. In my experience, most people are more than happy to blame the poor for their plight and use that excuse to not help. A Christian engaging in relief work should look first and foremost to the Bible for direction, and the Bible tells us “judge not.” On the other hand, if you’re a policy maker for a church or non-profit, there are judgments you have to make to efficiently and responsibly manage your organization. Separating this into two books would have made this clear and allowed the authors to go into greater detail for the different audiences.

So I give this book a mixed review. On one hand it has many thought-provoking insights, and on the other hand, it spends too much time on technical financial issues and encourages judgment over mercy. If you’re in a position to be making benevolence policies for your church or non-profit, it’s worth a read. If you’re just an average volunteer who wants to avoid making blunders, don’t let the knowledge that this book exists stop you from getting involved. A little compassion and respect is what you really need to make sure your help doesn’t actually hurt.

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