Book Review: When Helping Hurts

Posted on July 5, 2012 by henrymartinez

By Kristyn Zollos    

           I recently finished the book, When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development.  Both contributing authors are professors in the department of economics and community development at Covenant College and are experienced practitioners and researchers, domestically and internationally. The book is organized into four main sections:

  1. Foundational concepts for helping without hurting
  2. General principles for helping without hurting
  3. Practical strategies for helping without hurting
  4. Getting started on helping without hurting

Each of these sections is then broken into three focused chapters that begin with “initial thoughts” questions and ending in “reflection questions and exercises”.  I really appreciated these questions and the thoughts they provoked throughout my reading.  It was interesting to return to my thoughts written down during the earlier chapters and see how they differed from my thoughts closer to the end.

This book would be a great read with your church, community group, or friends.  I believe that I would have benefited by reading through the material with another individual just to have someone with whom I could discuss my thoughts and insights.  I personally process information better through discussion and I found myself wanting to talk through many of the ideas with others during the times I was overwhelmed by the content. So much of what was said challenged me and what I had believed to be true.  There are three specific challenges or questions that came to my mind while reading When Helping Hurts that I would like to share.

First, I’ve always thought that supporting or giving money to a non-profit or charity was all the same, no matter which organization I chose.   I was helping those in need and I walked away feeling good about it.  I viewed the work of some organizations as more beneficial than others, but I thought there was no harm in supporting any charity that came my way asking for help….Or was there? From the start, Corbett and Fikkert explained how volunteering, charitable work, or ill-informed giving choices could be unsustainable and actually end up doing more harm than good.  Had all those times I had been intending to aid others been of no help at all?  Or worse, were they negatively affecting the lives of those I was trying to help in the long run?

 Second, When Helping Hurts explains that poverty is a result of broken relationships, whether with self, others, the rest of creation, or with God.  These broken relationships are the base from which the book builds.  To put things in perspective the authors make the statement, “We are all broken, just in different ways” (p. 61).  We all face broken relationships, and therefore we all face poverty, just in different ways, not all relating to materials and finances. 

Third, When Helping Hurts showed me that the needs of the poor are often very complex and we must take the time to understand those needs before deciding upon a solution.  If we do not take this time, we may mistake the problem for something that it is not and as a result offer a solution that only exacerbates the original problem. 

Fourth, poverty and its root causes are complex. Poverty is the outcome of some root problem.   You can’t fix the situation long-term if you do not know what is at its root.  Most poverty in the world cannot be truly fixed by handing out money or material things.  It varies everywhere that it exists, and therefore there is not one common cure.  The book explains what poverty is to those facing it, who the poor are, and the misconceptions often involved.  It also explains the root causes of poverty and what can be done in its alleviation.  Stories used throughout the book give better insight into “wrong” methods of poverty alleviation and successful, sustainable methods.

All this information built up in my mind through my reading and I was plagued by internal questions as I thought back to where my time and money had gone in the past.  However, in the end I decided that as with so many other things in my life, I must give it up to God.  All I can do now is use what I have learned as I move forward and make choices in the future.  I have to tell myself that those past choices were in God’s hands, so while they may not have supported the most effective methods of poverty alleviation, the Lord was still in control. 

               Reading When Helping Hurts only caused me to grow in appreciation for the work being done by ELCA World Hunger.   A focus is put on development, while also understanding the immediate needs of those around the world, especially in times of disaster.  “Accompaniment” is a word so often used around the office (see Audrey’s previous post ).  ELCA World Hunger is a ministry of our church.  We know the churches and companions we work with and through.  We work alongside groups that look at the long-term, deep-rooted changes within communities.  For a better understanding of this accompaniment model, visit www.elca.org/accompaniment

               After reading the book, I also appreciated the fact that through the work of ELCA World Hunger, we do not enter a community thinking we know the solution to people’s needs without taking time to understand the situation and be in relationship with the individuals involved.  Many times teams or organizations go into situations with a “God-complex” thinking that they have the one-size-fits-all solution and that they are saving the people or communities involved, forgetting to give glory to the one who mends the brokenness in all lives, non-poor included.  God alone saves, but may just work through us in some situations.  I think ELCA World Hunger acknowledges that fact.

               Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book.  I think everyone can learn from the knowledge and expertise of Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert on the issue of poverty.  I can honestly say that When Helping Hurts has reshaped my views on poverty, the poor, and methods for poverty alleviation.  So, happy reading with your own congregation or book club.  Let me know how it’s going and your personal thoughts on the book!

When Helping Hurts

Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett

Moody Publishers 2012

ISBN: 0-8024-5705-3

Kristyn Zollos is an ELCA World Hunger intern.

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