Book of the Month: When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, has influenced several discussions among the McCropders recently. Corbett is a community development expert and Fikkert is an economist. They present a unique perspective on poverty, which in turn calls for a different way to go about poverty alleviation. The title refers to the unfortunate but frequent situation in which well-meaning people try to help, but their efforts actually do more harm than good for the people they are trying to help in the long run.

The authors begin by defining poverty. They suggest that at creation, humankind enjoyed a perfect relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, and with creation. When sin entered the picture, it corrupted each of those four relationships, and these corrupted relationships embody/define poverty. This is a different view of poverty from the more traditional understanding of poverty, which primarily implies a lack of material goods. In fact, this new explanation of poverty shows that the materially poor often have a lot to offer to the materially rich, in that relationships among materially impoverished people can often be stronger than relationships among those who are materially self-sufficient.

Poverty alleviation, then, is about restoring and reconciling these relationships between a person and God, others, themselves, and creation. Corbett and Fikkert gave some good recommendations on how to alleviate poverty effectively.

• We should focus on people and process rather than projects and products; the participation of all groups is critical to creating ownership and therefore sustainability.
• Systems need fixing too.
• Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development are three different stages of poverty alleviation, and they need different tactics. Using relief tactics (ie handouts) in a development situation (where people can largely help themselves through partnerships) is quite detrimental on many levels.
• Poverty alleviation efforts should start with assessing the resources that people have which can be used to help themselves, rather than assessing what they need.
• There is a good chapter on how many short term mission trips need significant revamping if they are to be part long-term poverty alleviation.

Overall, When Helping Hurts is a very thought-provoking book, and it will be helpful and challenging as we look towards alleviating poverty in Burundi, and indeed, as we aim to alleviate poverty in our own lives through restoring relationships.


Anonymous said...

Sounds great! I was wondering what my next reading book would be. Thanks for the book report. It sounds like one we all need to take to heart...both short term and long term. Thanks! Linda S.

David Sneller said...

While I have yet to read the book myself, I got to hear Corbett speak about the book in Indianapolis a few months back. I agree: the material is quite thought-provoking. It casts a new (and maybe not so positive) light on what we traditionally consider vital ministry to the poor. I think it must be even more of an engaging read for you right there on the front lines, where the theoretical must become the practical as you live it and see it every day.