January 31, 2000

When Helping Hurts, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett

We have been hosting a weekly book study for missionaries and interns the past couple of months, based on the book When Helping Hurts:Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor... and Yourself by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett.  From the book's webpage:

Pastors, deacon boards, mercy ministry teams, home and foreign missions committees, missionaries, and donors will all benefit from reading "When Helping Hurts." It is also appropriate for an individual or for a group such as a Sunday school class, a ministry team, and a small group Bible study.  This is a must read book for those ministering to the poor! 
This one is definitely sure to spark some discussions and changes in the way we consider and deal with missions locally and worldwide.  WARNING:  You will get your toes stepped on in this one.  I don't know anyone on earth who can read this and not recognize some error in how you've thought about or responded to poverty, but don't let that stop you.  We need to learn more about this and really change some things, and change isn't always easy.

The first part of the book deals with how we view the poor.  If you thought about your assumptions and came up with a list of what a poor person looks like and deals with, you may be surprised to compare with the actual poor person's description of himself.  As North Americans, we tend to look at poverty as a lack of material goods, and we visualize someone with ratty clothes, maybe a bit of bad hygiene, hungry, homeless--you get the idea.  But in interviewing very poor people in the US and abroad, what stood out in their descriptions of themselves was a broader picture, that of shame, isolation, fear, hopelessness, loneliness.

The authors then explain that being poor is not just lack of material possessions or resources, but is a poverty of the four relationships God ordained--with Him, with others, with self, and with one's environment.  Anyone who is out of whack in those areas is going to be lacking in material goods as well, and anyone lacking in material goods is out of whack in one or more of those areas.  The key to helping is to determine which area(s) and help reconcile the person.  Now, I'm oversimplifying this in a HUGE way, but keep in mind that this is just my personal take on the book.

Another very important point the authors make is in the type of relief we offer to folks.  There are several levels of help, starting with basic relief (think natural disaster and people displaced from their homes in an emergency situation) and progressing to rehabilitating and then developing.  The book is full of practical ways to properly help people based on the type of help they need.  For example, the single mom who can't pay her bills because she can't afford childcare during working hours.  She doesn't need someone to keep paying her bills, she needs someone to help her find childcare or a job where she can bring her child.  The community that suffered from a hurricane two years ago doesn't still need donations and building teams as much as they need their economy restored and their businesses functioning again.  The family who just lost their home to fire doesn't need career counseling, but they do need immediate relief.  Most times, we tend to respond very well in relief situations, especially after natural disasters, but we don't know when or how to move past this and help those affected get back to the level they were before the disaster, and then if needed, progress even further.

This has been a huge topic of conversation between Ken and me since arriving full-time on the mission field.  Our views of what people need and what we give them have changed so much over the past few years.  We've learned a lot about enabling poverty, and about contributing to people staying in poverty, all in the name of doing good.  We've looked back at many of the things we ourselves have done in our lives, thinking we were helping someone out, but probably doing more harm than good.  Missions is the perfect place to make this mistake, whether it's with the family who visits the church to ask for help with their electric bill, the community you'll visit as a youth group, or the village across the world where you'll send a short-term team.

Unfortunately, short-term mission trips are notorious for bringing relief to an area that needs the next step.  There are a million reasons for this.  It makes us feel good to give.  It seems like the right thing to do.  The rewards are immediate and the process is quick.  It's easy to prepare for this.  On and on and on.  There are times when this is appropriate, but not nearly as many times as it happens.  Recognizing those times and responding differently when needed, is where most tend to drop the ball.  There is a lot of buzz about short-term trips these days, and I'm thrilled about it.  I was involved in two-week to one-month-long trips to foreign countries before we came here, and there is a lot of good that can come from a mission trip.  However, there are lots of ways to hurt those we think we're ministering to, as well, and often without ever realizing it.  I think that honestly looking at these issues and being open to talk about them, changing what we need to change, is extremely important.

Let me reiterate that anyone interested in missions of any sort really should read this book.  It will revolutionize your short-term trips, your charitable giving, and your reactions to the guy on the corner with the "Need Work" sign.  I have to warn you that there are a few theological assumptions I don't particularly agree with, and it gets hard to follow and drawn out at times, but stick with this one anyway.  If we really want to make a dent in poverty around the block or around the world, I can agree 100% that we have to change some things.  We have to shift the way we view the poor, rethink our goals in helping them, and really understand the right way to alleviate their poverty.  This book is a great place to start.

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