Musing about mission: When helping hurts

You can’t have a discussion about mission, justice and poverty without some reference to When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor and yourself (Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert). Not everyone agrees with it but the book makes important claims and provides some helpful ways to think about this area. The companion volume, Helping without hurting in short term missions raises vital questions about how short term mission trips make things worse for people rather than better.

The argument goes like this:

The basic outline of creation is familiar to us: how God created the world to be good, but sin got in.  Sin affected everything, especially humanity’s relationship with God, with creation and with each other.

In time Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind….. he came to bind up the brokenhearted

But now, when we see needs in Latin America and elsewhere, we want to help but are not sure how:

  • The evidence is that places which were poor decades ago are still poor. Even after large sums of money have been given.
  • I’ve been to lots of villages where people have dug wells for water, built churches or schools. And yet a few years later, the well is silted up, the church is falling down. Nothing much has changed.

Why is this?

Corbett and Fikkert’s answer is that we have failed to appreciate that poverty isn’t a lack of stuff. Rather poverty is a breakdown of relationships.

Jesus came to bring good news to the poor.

The gospel is good news because it is about justice, about reconciliation. Reconciliation between God and humanity. The breaking in of shalom, peace.

The solution to poverty isn’t stuff it is reconciliation. People being in a right relationship with God, self, others and creation.

Poverty’s roots lie in broken relationships; relationships that don’t work, are not just, are not harmonious. Poverty is the absence of shalom and all of us are affected, even if we are materially well off.

As well as the broken relationships that an individual might experience, there are more systemic implications in broken political, economic, social and religious systems. These systems can play a large part in affecting the opportunities open to people and the assistance they receive.

Poverty is about broken systems and that includes ours, wherever we are in the world.

Image adapted from Bryant L Myers “Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development”.

Often, they claim, poverty doesn’t just rob you of material things like food, shelter, clothing but of social and spiritual things, which affect people’s self-esteem and sense of value.

Instead of talking about how they are made in the image of God, people typically talk [about their poverty] in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness…… they can feel inferior.

If poverty is rooted in broken relationships the solution is Jesus’ ability to put things into right relationship again.

Conversely, those who are materially wealthy fail to see their own poverty. As a result when they see poverty, they think the solution is to give material things and they ignore the underlying things. What’s more they tend to see themselves as superior (often expressed in subtle things like believing they know what the poor need, or what’s best) or even have something of a God-complex. The reality is that we are all poor and until we admit our mutual brokenness, we are likely to do harm rather than good.

Thus, projects that give material things, whether that’s food or clothing, building work, or the rest actually do more harm than good. They perpetuate a cycle of poverty.

So what should we do?

There are some occasions when material relief is appropriate. Usually in a crisis when the person is unable to help themselves. Such relief needs to be immediate and temporary, only for as long as people can’t help themselves.

More typically what’s needed is rehabilitation and development. This requires those affected to be involved in the assessment, design, implementation and monitoring of what’s done; it needs to be based on an understanding of what’s needed and cover things that local people are unable to do for themselves.

This more developmental approach starts with the assets the community has, not what they haven’t. And it seeks to avoid paternalism but encourages local communities and their leaders to take control. Usually, the key is – don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.

Which often means that small scale stuff works best.  

Poverty alleviation isn’t just giving material things but about taking care of the whole person: the social, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual aspects.

People have raised some criticisms of the ideas Corbett and Kikkert put forward; noting that this is very much a US book and continues to view poverty as something of a disease, albeit one that is complex to diagnose. It’s suggested that the focus on relationships obscures some of the simple practical ground-level issues which can make a difference. Others argue (wrongly in my view) that by defining poverty primarily in terms of broken relationships rather than a lack of material resources, it downplays the Biblical picture which often focuses poverty on material and economic matters as well as recognising the structural sin involved.

Personally, I find the overall understanding of the four key relationships (God, self, others, creation) is a helpful framework, the realisation that poverty is about both people and systems, and that solutions should focus on development rather than relief is an important foundation.

So how might we respond to these thoughts?

To be effective in mission we need to recognise that real life is often more complex than the book but it is important to pay attention to these things. We should work with local churches, projects and communities to promote whole people in right relationship with God, themselves, others and creation. Often we can:

  • Help to build community relations
  • Help the local church tell people about Jesus and deepen people’s walk with God.
  • Help the local community to take the lead, signposting people to available resources and helping communities to access them.

But we also need to grapple with the fact that effective mission isn’t just about serving alongside a local community but working with others to prevent political, social and other injustices.

But in all the areas we work in, we need to ask what the appropriate role for us is. Perhaps we serve best when we are in the background when we are enabling and encouraging and not when we are in the lead or in the spotlight.

For another discussion of the book see

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