Thursday, August 11, 2011

When Helping Hurts

We're doing it all wrong. That's the message conveyed by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. While acknowledging the centrality of helping the less fortunate to the Christian worldview, the authors make a compelling case that much of our "good works" are not only not helping, they are hurting the poor and ourselves in the process.

They trace the cause of poverty back to broken relationships: one's relationship with God, himself, others, and the rest of creation. Stating that very few people in the world are in stark, life-or-death material need, we should begin by helping the poor establish a correct relationship with God. Recognizing that we are all created in God's image with certain giftings and talents and that we are created to worship Him through work is the key to actually helping. Without this understanding, the poor have an incorrect relationship with themselves, often thinking they are worthless and incapable of bettering their own lives. Feeling ashamed, hopeless, depressed, and powerless leads to a cycle of poverty lasting generations.

But the affluent live in broken relationships as well. Christians are constantly in need of tending their relationship with God, discovering who they are in Christ and living confidently in that identity. But the affluent face the most danger in their relationship with themselves. By becoming "the great white hope" to the poverty-stricken, we take on the role of God. We provide. We are all-knowledgeable. From us all blessings flow. We take God from the poor and replace Him with ourselves... and feel pretty good about it in the process.

Therefore, poverty alleviation must begin and end with relationship. Together, the poor and the affluent come to recognize their true identity and learn a love and compassion for each other as well as an appreciation of God as the source of all things.

They give an example of a church that sought to follow Christ's command to help the less fortunate by serving the residents of a nearby housing project. Bringing them meals and gifts at holidays eventually led to "compassion fatigue" as the church members saw no improvement in the residents condition or lifestyle. They were locked in the following equation:

Material Definition of Poverty
God-complexes of Materially Non-Poor
Feelings of Inferiority of Materially Poor
Harm to Both Materially Poor and Non-Poor

So what's the solution? Corbett and Finkkert believe in a three step process of poverty alleviation:
1. Relief - this is when immediate life-sustaining supplies are needed, as in the case of a natural disaster.
2. Rehabilitation - this is the time to work with the victims, using their own positive elements to restore them to pre-disaster levels.
3. Development - this process moves both the "helped" and the "helper" closer to a right relationship with God, themselves, others, and creation.

Most poverty programs should consist of steps 2 and usually 3. Certainly, America's poor are almost never in a life-or-death situation. Yet almost all of our efforts all over the world and at home are focused on step #1. We are treating the wrong problem and making it worse.

The example of the Kibera slum is enlightening. "Development workers commonly refer to Kibera as 'scorched earth,' because decades of well-meaning outside organizations have made it nearly impossible to do long-lasting development work there. Failing to recognize that the appropriate intervention in Kibera is neither relief nor rehabilitation, outside organizations have poured in financial and human resources, crippling local initiative in the process." The good-Samaritans had fallen victim to the poison of paternalism. This leads to this very important principle: Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.

Our churches need to reflect heavily on how we are ministering to the poor. Find our niche, since we can't do it all, and work to develop the poor and the non-poor into who Christ wants them to be. "Our basic predisposition should be to see poor communities - including their natural resources, people, families, neighborhood associations, schools, businesses, governments, culture, etc. - as being created by Jesus Christ and reflective of His goodness. Hence, as we enter a poor community, there is a sense in which we are walking on holy ground, because Christ has been actively at work in that community since the creation of the world!"

When the church that sought to help the downcast in the nearby project realized that they had been doing it all wrong, they took up the Assets Based Community Development strategy. Awkwardly canvassing the neighborhood and asking, "What skills and abilities do you have?" rather than the paternalistic "What do you need?" led to the process of empowerment as the residents praised each others skills and abilities. No longer were they hopeless and worthless refuge, but they had gifts and talents are were capable human beings.

Finally, they end with a word about short-term mission projects. Clearly, these do not foster the relationship driven "development" method of helping the poor and ourselves. By focusing on "relief", STM often do more harm than good. One example from a Latin American group broke my heart: "The indigenous staff in my organization lead weekly Bible studies with children in low-income communities... After a short-term team conducts a Bible study in one of these communities, the children stop attending the Bible studies of my organization. ... the children stop coming because we do not have all the fancy materials and crafts that the short-term teams have, and we do not give away things like these teams do." How damning is that! I almost cried.

It may be possible for STMs to do real good, but they need to be very carefully thought out and and planned. At a cost of several thousand dollar per participant, it may be better to simply send the $40,000 or $50,000 raised to an indigenous group effectively developing relationships with the materially poor of a region. Our best bet, and most effective use of our resources may be in developing these type of ministries in our own backyard.

Our message should be, "I am not O.K.; and you are not O.K.; but Jesus can fix us both." But focusing on development is hard work. It's easier to hand a man a dollar at the freeway off ramp. However, in the process we have damaged both him and ourselves.

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