How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor... and Yourself
by Stephen Corbett and Brian Fikkert
2014 / 274 pages
This book was recommended by a member of the audience of a documentary called Poverty, Inc. The movie showed how the efforts of many organizations to help the poor in the Third World (more correctly called the Majority World in the film) often just make matters worse for them, often much worse. True enough, but then what should we do?
Poverty, Inc. - the film - was not clearly from a specifically Christian perspective, but When Helping Hurts consciously seeks to determine how to truly help the poor in the name of Christ. The first step is to understand that Christ came to earth not only to save people from their own sins - something Reformed people rightly stress - but also to restore the relationships of people - first of all, obviously, with God Himself, but also with themselves, with others, and with creation. Old Testament Israel was supposed to demonstrate the restoration of these relationships, but so often failed, again and again, making clear the need for Christ to take on the task Himself. One way Israel was commanded to be a light to the nations was in its treatment of the poor, and now the New Testament Israel - the church - is given the same task.
This is actually the weakest part of the book, since both Israel and the New Testament church are commanded to help, first of all, their own poor. There is no command in either Old or New Testament to help the poor in society. That said, the New Testament does widen the scope of the kingdom to the whole world, not just the land of Canaan, and we are commanded to do good to all men (though, yes, especially those in the household of faith).
If we accept that helping the poor is a Biblical mandate (even if not the Great Commission itself), how can we do so without hurting the poor... and ourselves? To answer the question in reverse order, we hurt ourselves when we assume that we - the non-materially poor - are so much better than the materially poor, who often are much richer than we are in relationships with each other and with creation. The authors call this attitude of superiority to the materially poor a god-complex. To help the materially poor, we need instead to recognize where they can help themselves.
In that vein, the authors point us to helping the poor where they are seeking help, not where we (often mistakenly) think that they need help, and to help them by working with their strengths rather judging their weaknesses - something called Asset-Based Community Development. As far as I can see, these principles have been observed by such Reformed aid organizations as Word and Deed and Children of Light.
If there are some very good Reformed organizations helping the poor in the Majority World, what pitfalls can we avoid in that area, and how can we start helping more in our own cities and neighborhoods? The authors show how the poor often are able to manage their finances very well on their own, but that either some training or some small financial help can push the competent but struggling poor out of oppressive situations. They caution that short-term mission trips do not typically help the materially poor, but rather, out of (ironically) a poverty of knowledge and experience of those making the trip, actually hurt them. Finally, the authors tell us about "Getting Started on Helping Without Hurting" - the title of the last section.
Finally, let me address the issue of whether this focus on helping the poor is a distraction from the Great Commission. Historically, one of the things that set the church apart in the ancient Roman world was its willingness to help the sick and abandoned outcasts of society. That love for the neighbour has been a mark of the church ever since the ascension of Christ. Even now, Reformed churches are recognizing that reaching out to the poor is one way of bringing our congregations into contact with the people of their neighbourhoods.
If you think that this book will help you and your congregation alleviate poverty without hurting the poor... and yourself - and even of strengthening our evangelistic outreach, then you can buy it here.