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When helping hurts

How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor ... and yourself

Cruel to be kind?

WHEN HELPING HURTS
How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor ... and yourself
By Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert
Moody. 274 pages. 8.99
ISBN 978 0 802 457 066

The renewed emphasis in evangelicalism on social involvement has led to more involvement by Christians and churches in ‘mercy ministries’, helping those in need at home and abroad. Christians are giving their money, time, efforts and skills to such work. In itself, this is admirable, but it raises essential questions about how best to provide help and who it is, precisely, who needs that help and why.

The authors of this book (first published in 2009 but now re-issued in an expanded edition) are both professors at Covenant College in the US. They are profoundly critical of many well-meaning attempts by Christians in the West to ‘help’ the poor and deprived. They recount numerous stories where such help has done more harm than good to the individuals or communities at which it is aimed: expensive equipment donated by Western churches but abandoned by the recipients and never used again after the donor team had left; a single mother on benefits, on the receiving end of financial help from a generous church, but left firmly in the poverty trap from which she desperately wished to escape; short-term mission trips that built homes which the local people felt ashamed to live in, due to cultural misunderstandings. Corbett and Fikkert urge a radical re-think of Western churches’ approaches to helping the needy, based firmly in a biblical understanding of the real nature of human need after the Fall.

Paternalism?

A truly biblical approach to the problem, they argue, highlights the universal brokenness of humanity in our relations with God, with one another and with creation. This undermines the paternalism and ‘the West knows best’ attitude which permeates so much well-meaning effort to provide help. It also focuses on the true solution, which is the restoration of broken relationships, supremely with God, through Jesus Christ alone. Material help without the gospel is, ultimately, of little long-term use.

At the same time, the authors do not allow us any excuse for failing to engage in practical help. They want us to re-think our approach and analyse more closely and realistically what the needs are and how best to help. They advocate approaches which are long-term and far more radically integrated in an understanding of the particular situation where help is needed, working with the community rather than simply aiming aid at them.

Common sense

Much of the advice and principles in this book are common sense, once pointed out. An approach which truly loves those whom we seek to help seems to be the key — treating them as competent fellow humans, with their own resources, skills and abilities which need to be put to use, rather than simply regarding them as the targets of our goodwill. The book is written from a North American perspective, but provides some very down-to-earth, biblical thinking in this difficult area. Anyone engaged in, or concerned about, how Christians can best help others in need would benefit from reflecting seriously on the approach advocated in this book.

Robert Strivens,
Principal, London Theological Seminary