I mentioned before that our book of the month feature wasn’t necessarily going to be a monthly feature. I wasn’t lying. We’ll just post about great books we’ve read whenever we feel like passing them on to you.
This “month” I want to recommend When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. You might think that this book is only directed at people who are ambitiously trying to end world hunger, but the reality is that this book is a must read for every Christian. If you’ve ever gone on a short term mission trip, this book is for you. If you’ve ever donated money to a ministry that reaches out to the underprivileged, this book is for you. If you’ve ever felt any degree of compassion for those who are suffering…well, you guessed it.
Though North American Christians often try to live as though there were no major problems in the world, poverty is a huge problem, both overseas and in our own neighborhoods. Corbett and Fikkert convincingly argue that very often, our efforts to help those who are impoverished show our ignorance regarding the issues involved and the solutions that would truly help these people. Because of this, our efforts to help often hurt both ourselves and the poor people we are reaching out to. We hurt the people we are trying to help by making them dependent on us financially, making them feel inadequate or dehumanized, and/or removing any opportunity they have to work towards a solution to their own problems. We hurt ourselves by fostering our pride and sense of superiority when we swoop in like superman to save the day.
Their book explores the nature of poverty, the problems and systems that cause it, and the right way to think about help those who are hurting. This doesn’t mean that we leave the materially poor to solve their own problems. It means that we get actively involved in correctly diagnosing the situation and offering solutions that include the impoverished in their own relief.
I’ll highlight three profound observations that Corbett and Fikker offer, observations which have completely changed the way I think about helping those who are hurting.
The first observation is that an “asset-based” approach to addressing poverty is better than a “needs-based” approach. In a needs-based approach, we go to the affected person or area, figure out what they need, then provide it, donate it, or build it. In an asset-based approach, however, we start by finding out what the affected community has to offer. What skills, knowledge, and systems do they bring to the table that can help them address the crisis using their own resources? This is an infinitely better approach because in addition to solving the immediate problem, it also gives those who are hurting affirmation and ownership over their ability to do what needs to be done.
The second observation is an insightful distinction that Corbett and Fikkert make between relief, rehabilitation, development. We tend to think of poverty as poverty, so we respond to it all the same. But they argue that not all poverty is created equal. Some situations (such as the aftermath of hurricane Katrina) require relief. Something needs to be done immediately, and often it will entail providing money, counseling, and building materials. Rehabilitation comes when the initial crisis is over, but the community needs to rebuild to get back to where they were before. Development comes when the infrastructure of a country needs long term work to improve the overall quality of life. The problem is that North Americans tend to treat all poverty through relief strategies, and providing this type of aid typically cripples rehabilitation and development.
The final observation comes through the way they define poverty. Material poverty is what usually comes to mind when we hear about poverty, but Corbett and Fikkert identify poverty in four fundamental relationships: with God, with our fellow man, with ourselves, and with the rest of creation. When these relationships are not working properly, we are impoverished. For this reason, middle to upper class North Americans are some of the most impoverished people on the planet. Often a poverty of relationship leads to material poverty, but the most important issue to address is the poverty of relationship.
If you choose to read this book, I can pretty much guarantee that it will be a game changer in terms of the way you view poverty alleviation, short term mission trips, and the nature of poverty itself.
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