Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves
. Chicago: Moody, 2009.
Steve Corbett is the community development specialist for the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, and an assistant professor in the department of economics and community development at Covenant College. Brian Fikkert is an associate professor of economics at Covenant College, and the founder and executive director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College.
Matt Edwards, our reviewer, is a graduate of Cedarville University (BA: Cross-Cultural Ministry, 2000) and Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM: New Testament Theology, 2005). He is a pastor at Believers Fellowship in Gig Harbor, Washington.
Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert have written an excellent book on how North American Christians can best help the global poor. In When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, they outline philosophical and theological foundations for aid, principles for helping the poor rather than hurting them, and practical steps churches can take to best reach out to the poor.
Too many Christians haven’t thought about “how” to help the poor; moved by compassion, yes, but letting that compassion move in the best ways … not always. What are the best ways to help the poor today? Let’s hear your thoughts. (I have found some of my economically-conservative friends to have thought about this the most, and who have also arrived at sustainable and profound suggestions.)
In chapter one, Corbett and Fikkert expound a holistic Gospel. They recount Charles Marsh’s experience growing up in 1960s Mississippi as told in his book, The Last Days: A Son’s Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of the New South. Marsh’s father, a noted reverend, reacted to segregation differently than contemporary civil rights leaders. Reverend Marsh preached a Gospel of personal piety and branded the civil rights leaders “unbathed beatniks,” “immoral kooks,” and “sign-carrying degenerates” (37). While Corbett and Fikkert see truth in Reverend Marsh’s criticisms, they also note a myopic vision of the kingdom of God, “Reverend Marsh sought the King without the kingdom. The civil rights leaders sought the kingdom without the King. The church needs a Christ-centered, fully orbed, kingdom perspective to correctly answer the question: ‘What would Jesus do?'” (38) They advocate an approach to mission that balances social action and kingdom proclamation, one that recognizes that Jesus came to earth to reconcile all of creation to the Creator (42).
In chapter two, Corbett and Fikkert expound a holistic definition of poverty. They assert that one of the reasons that North American efforts at poverty alleviation harm rather than help is because they define poverty solely in economic terms. However, surveys done by the World Bank in the 1990s found that the poor themselves define poverty differently–often in terms of shame, powerlessness, humiliation, and voicelessness (53). When North Americans try to solve what they perceive as a material problem with material aid, they often intensify feelings of shame, worthlessness, and hopelessness in the poor, worsening their plight (64-65). Instead, the authors advocate Bryan Meyers’ view on poverty, “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all of its meanings” (62, from Bryan Meyers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999], 86). However, Corbett and Fikkert do not deny the gravity of economic poverty, and insist that the economically poor have a special place in God’s heart (71).
In chapter three, Corbett and Fikkert expound a holistic approach to solving poverty. They define poverty alleviation as “the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation” (78). Thus, material poverty alleviation “involves more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things; rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in doing we move people closer to being what God created them to be” (79). Solutions to poverty tend to fall into one of two camps–conservative approaches that blame individuals for their own poverty, and liberal approaches that blame systems for individuals’ poverty. The authors assert that both sinful individuals and sinful systems produce poverty, and that both need to be challenged with the Gospel.
In chapter four, Corbett and Fikkert transition into principles for effective poverty alleviation. They distinguish between three types aid–relief, rehabilitation, and development. Relief is done for the poor in response to a disaster. It should be immediate and temporary (110). Rehabilitation is done with the poor to help them return to their pre-crisis position (110). Development is also done with the poor to help them become who God created them to be (105). Aid becomes detrimental when the wrong type of aid is provided. For instance, while victims of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile need relief, many homeless Americans need development. Giving able-bodied homeless Americans relief can do more harm than good. The authors insist, “Do not do for people what they can do for themselves” (115). Such “paternalism” heightens the “god-complex” in the helper, shames the poor, and hurts both.
In chapter five, Corbett and Fikkert insist that poverty alleviation emphasize a community’s assets rather than its liabilities. Often, poverty alleviation is need-based. Workers come into a community and ask, “What do you need?” This approach establishes a destructive paternal relationship from the start (125). Instead, the authors promote “asset-based community development” (ABCD) that emphasizes what poor communities are good at, and what they can offer each other. Such an approach preserves the dignity of the poor and encourages them to take ownership in their own development.
In chapter six, Corbett and Fikkert assert that the poor need to be involved in the planning and execution of alleviation programs in their communities. Often, “blueprint” plans for aid are developed in North America and shoehorned into Majority World contexts. The authors write, “Although the blueprint approach appears to be very efficient, it often fails because it imposes solutions on poor communities that are inconsistent with local culture, that are not embraced and ‘owned’ by the community members, or that cannot work in that particular setting. The fact that the equipment worked well in Kansas simply does not mean it will work in the cultural, economic, and institutional context of sub-Saharan Africa. ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore!'” (143)
In chapter seven, Corbett and Fikkert begin to outline strategies that individuals and churches and can use to help without hurting. They begin with an analysis of short-term missions (STMs) and how they can be harmful to local communities. In order to make sure that STMs are beneficial in the long-term, teams should make sure that they (1) act appropriately on the relief-rehabilitation-development continuum (166), (2) approach the mission with an asset-based, rather than needs-based perspective (169), and (3) allow the poor to plan and help execute the project (171). They also call for stewardship in evaluating the cost-effectiveness of STMs versus supporting long-term relief workers (173).
In chapter eight, Corbett and Fikkert suggest ways churches can aid people in a North American context. Fort he first time ever, more poor people live in the suburbs than in the city (183, from Alan Berube and Elizabeth Kneebone, Two Steps Back: City and Suburban Poverty Trends 1999-2005 [Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, December 2006], Living Cities Census Series), meaning that most churches have poor people in their own backyard. They claim that most work in the United States should be developmental, and that jobs preparedness (191), financial education (194), and wealth accumulation (196) are the biggest ministry opportunities.
In the ninth and final chapter of the book, Corbett and Fikkert discuss microfinance, savings and credit associations, and business-as-mission. Each of these approaches to development has proven to be effective, and churches can partner with organizations doing this work in the Majority World.
Those looking for a Third Way approach to poverty alleviation will find Corbett and Fikkert’s book refreshing, enlightening, and practical. The authors balance orthodoxy and a commitment to preaching the Word with compassion and a willingness to learn from the social sciences. Their Gospel avoids the extremes of a Gnostic separation of spiritual and physical matters and a monistic reduction of humanity’s needs to food and money. Their advice on philosophy and strategy for aiding the poor come from decades of experience in the field, and their suggestions to churches are both novel and sensible.
The book raises questions, however, about the relationship of the Gospel to wealth, how to best avoid “paternalism,” and how churches can best apply the book’s guidelines.
The authors rightly denounce the prosperity Gospel (68-69). While we confess that global prosperity is part of the kingdom of God and that there will not be poverty in the eschaton, we also insist that in the current age there is not a 1:1 correspondence between godliness and prosperity. Poverty and suffering may also be a part of the call to discipleship. The authors claim that, contrary to the prosperity Gospel, material wealth can be evidence of spiritual malnutrition. When the poor pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” they really mean it.
While I affirm the authors’ insistence that North Americans not consider themselves superior to the Majority World because we are wealthy and they are not, it is difficult for me to envision how this attitude translates into strategy at the ground level. There is obviously something working in the American system compared to other systems in which the majority of the people survive on less than $2 per day. The very fact that the Majority World is turning to America for development aid is an acknowledgment that something isn’t working in their system. If I ask a friend to teach me car repair, I can’t demand that he approach the relationship without assuming he knows more about cars than me.
Perhaps we need to approach development aid as a partnership. But, instead of insisting that we are all the same, perhaps we need to acknowledge both our differences and similarities. The poor do need to acknowledge that they have something to learn. But the wealthy, likewise, need to acknowledge that they have something to learn. We may all be broken, fallen people, but that doesn’t mean we are all broken in the same way. The poor need to be willing to turn to the wealthy for help, and the wealthy need to be willing to turn to the poor for help.
This question leads to the second uncertainty of the book–given that the poor are best helped when they plan their own programs and use their own resources, what is the basis for North American involvement at all? The authors make a great case that paternalism doesn’t work. When North Americans step in and solve the problems they identity using strategies that they develop, they hurt the poor. But the opposite (complete disinterest by the wealthy) seems equally as devastating. The answer must lay in the middle somewhere–the poor humbling themselves in accepting foreign help and foreign ideas, and the wealthy humbling themselves in recognizing their own needs and the wisdom of the poor.
In addition to these two questions, chapters 7-9 provide material for interaction from the Jesus Creed community. Those unfamiliar with microfinance will find the ninth chapter particularly informative. A lot of humanitarian organizations are adopting microfinance as part of their development strategy, as it has been shown to have a real effect in lifting people out of economic poverty. Kiva.org is one organization completely dedicated to microfinance.
Chapter eight, “Yes, In Your Backyard,” could possibly be a paradigm-shifter for the North American evangelical church–it’s a “must-read” for church leaders framing the local mission of their congregations. The trend in ministry philosophy seems to be a move away from highly programmed churches to a more “simple” model emphasizing preaching and small groups. In other words, if that financial stewardship seminar or that workshop on parenting doesn’t fit the mold of the one or two ministries that your church emphasizes, discontinue it. The advice in this book suggests that perhaps the highly programmed mega-churches of the 80s and 90s were getting something right.
Is the move away from sermon titles like “How to Be a Better Parent,” or “12 Steps to Financial Freedom” in favor of “preaching the Gospel” an unconscious step toward Gnosticism? Doesn’t the work of Christ extend to the family and the budget? Or is God only concerned about “spiritual things”? While I would never discourage a church from framing their mission around a call to preach the Gospel, I would have to insist that this “Gospel” be good news to real people.
For the Jesus Creed community: Do workshops and programs focused on teaching people financial stewardship and wealth generation have any place in the church? Shouldn’t the church relate Christ’s lordship to all of life? Is there a current movement away from these things in order to focus on “more spiritual things”? If so, is this movement in error?
[Note: “wealth generation” is not necessarily referring to owning a yacht, but rather having money in a bank account to prevent things like medical bills, unemployment, or unexpected car repair from demanding a high interest, short-term loan.]
The role of short-term missions continues to be an issue of debate, and Corbett and Fikkert contribute to the discussion in chapter seven, “Doing Short-Term Missions without Doing Long-Term Harm.” The negative aspects of short-term trips are well documented–they are cost-ineffective, they can reduce missions to “Christian vacationing,” and they can hamper the long-term work being done in the field. Is there a place for short-term missions in the ministry of the church?
I think that there is. If we accept that long-term development best happens in the context of a relationship, how are these relationships established? While the one extreme of a short-term team going to Mexico for one week, building a house, and then leaving may do more harm than good, is the opposite (no involvement) any better?
Again, there has to be some middle ground. Short-term trips, in the context of a long-term relationship, can form the basis of mutual edification.
One approach may be for North American churches to partner with a church or community in the Majority World. The assets and needs of both communities are identified, and the two communities work together to minister to each other.
Perhaps the North American church funds clean water projects, sanitation, education, or microfinance projects, working with the poor instead of for them. The poor, in turn, teach the North Americans about faithfulness to the family, faith in God rather than the dollar, and the freedom found in “slowing down.” Perhaps the North Americans even pay for the poor to take a short-term trip to North America to minister here (but with us, not for us!).
What do you think about short-term trips? Do they have a role in the mission of the church? How do we ensure that our short-term trips happen in the context of a long-term relationship, so that we help, rather than hurt the poor (and that they help us)?
Corbett and Fikkert have put together a great work for the North American church to consider as they evaluate the work they are doing with the poor.