Columnists > Voices

For good or ill?

Authors offer sound advice on giving without doing harm

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

Are poor people poor because they're paying the price for their own personal failures—or because the systems in which they find themselves have been broken and have failed the people within them?

It is, of course, an age-old question. Authors Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, in a brand new book called When Helping Hurts, note that political conservatives have tended to stress the former explanation, while liberals have emphasized the latter. Which, they ask, is correct?

Before jumping to their answer, I can't help thinking how different the responses might be right now, if I posed that question to all of WORLD's readers, from the answers I might have gotten 18 months ago. If a whole lot of us find ourselves poorer than we were at the end of 2007, how many of us are admitting that our new "poverty" is the result of our own failures and bad decisions—versus those of us who are complaining that a broken system has let us down?

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God has His own pointed ways of changing the shape of such discussions. I would suggest that the Fikkert-Corbett book, coming to an evangelical audience from Moody Publishers, arrives as a timely and potentially key element in that discussion.

To the question—is it personal behavior or systemic structure that produces poverty?—When Helping Hurts never cheats by merely trying to split the difference or to find a clever balance. The book is built instead, from beginning to end, on a radically biblical foundation that assumes the pervasiveness of the fall after God's good creation. The fall, according to Fikkert and Corbett, profoundly affects both individuals and systems. Both need profound redemption.

But that's just a starting point for the Fikkert-Corbett book. Readers whose hearts have been softened to help restore both individuals and systems in a genuinely helpful manner will find useful direction here. Way too much of well-meaning restoration efforts, the authors argue, has gone wacky—and may be doing more harm than good. They suggest that a comprehensively biblical worldview is essential to set things straight—a worldview that includes both individuals and systems.

In both cases—individual and systemic—the Fikkert-Corbett approach insists on dividing the process into three stages: (1) Relief, or the urgent and temporary provision of aid; (2) Rehabilitation, or the restoration of people and communities, after the "bleeding" has stopped; and (3) Development, or the promotion of an empowering process alongside the people being helped. "One of the biggest mistakes North American churches make—by far," say the authors, "—is applying relief in situations where rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention."

The second half of When Helping Hurts offers practical diagnostic assistance for those wanting to know whether relief, rehabilitation, or development is called for in a specific circumstance. And although the authors are academics—heading the Chalmers Center, an economic development program at Covenant College—their guidance here is as nitty-gritty as can be. At one point, they ask: "How do you spell 'effective relief'?" Their answer: "S-e-l-d-o-m, I-m-m-e-d-i-a-t-e, and T-e-m-p-o-r-a-r-y." A few pages later, they are just as practical and blunt: "Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves. Memorize this, recite it under your breath all day long, and wear it like a garland around your neck. Every time you are engaged in poverty-alleviation ministry, keep this at the forefront of your mind, for it can keep you from doing all sorts of harm."

I can think of at least three categories of folks who should read this book—or, better yet, study it together in small groups. First are the officers of local churches who have responsibility for relief and assistance in the church's local community, or benevolent giving in foreign countries. Second are small donors ($10 to $50 a month) who get regular appeals in the mail from "relief" agencies. Third are major donors with significant resources to give but needing wise counsel about what works and what doesn't.

I've watched these authors up close for a number of years. I've watched their students and the work they are doing. I can tell you: This is solid stuff. Please don't pursue a lot more "relief" giving until you have digested When Helping Hurts.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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