When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself

NOTICE: This post is not about our trip; it is a book summary for a book we are required to read for training. Skip this post if you don’t enjoy theory.


This book was quite a different read from the last one. It required concentration to read–not one to read while the kids are playing in the same room. 🙂 That said, it was a very good read and this review will probably get quite lengthy.

This book is not necessarily about missions, but rather about helping the poor. Though since much of missions involves working with the poor, this is a very useful book for missions work. I really like how it explored the issues; it helped me to understand why I’ve felt how I’ve felt about different situations I’ve encountered in the past. The gist of the book is that the primary way that we in the United States try to alleviate poverty–by throwing money at it–actually does more harm than good–both for the poor and for us!

It opens by looking at what the Bible has to say about the poor. Repeatedly, throughout both the Old and New Testaments,  God told his people to care for the poor. When Jesus came, he preached and showed help for the poor.

Next, the authors establish exactly what poverty is and why it is such a problem. Contrary to what many people think, the main issue with most poverty is not the lack of material goods, but the psychological and social issues that go along with it: shame and inferiority, hopelessness and voicelessness.

God created us as humans with the need for four foundational relationships: with God, with others, with self, and with the rest of creation. When one or more of these relationships is not functioning properly, poverty results. Sometimes this is material poverty, but other times it is a poverty of stewardship or community, or a physical or spiritual weakness. As a result of the fall, we are all broken in at least one of these areas. The authors state, “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.” We need to be able to say “I am not okay and you are not okay; but Jesus can fix us both.”

In light of this, they then defined material poverty alleviation as “working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of their work.” So, we are not to just ensure that others have sufficient material things, but empower them to earn through their own labor what they need. However, reconciliation is a work of God. We can work to make their lives better by providing affordable housing and jobs, but we also need to pray everyday for God to work in their lives and relationships. Most importantly, our work in this should not just reconcile the relationships for those being helped, but also provide for reconciliation of the relationships of the helpers; so that we are ALL growing in our ability to glorify God!

In the next section, the authors discuss three different phases of poverty alleviation: relief, rehabilitation, and development. Relief is seldom, immediate, and temporary. It is a stopgap measure following a crisis such as a natural disaster or debilitating accident. This type of aid is only required by a very small percentage of people, here or around the world. Rehabilitation involves working with people and communities to restore the positive elements of pre-crisis conditions. Development follows with ongoing change to move ALL involved (helpers and helped) closer to right foundational relationships. It is an empowering process in which all become more of what God created them to be.

They then warn against paternalism or doing for people what they can do for themselves. There are several different ways we can be guilty of exhibiting this behavior: with our resources, knowledge or labor, spiritually, or as managers of their projects. Often when taking control, we try to do things as would work best in our culture. These either fail in the native culture or don’t encourage local participation, which also fails in our stated purpose to allow those we are helping to support themselves.

I really enjoyed the next section of the book, where we get to the application of all this theory. Although, this quote was in a different part of the book, I think it applies wonderfully here: “We are not bringing Christ to poor communities…a significant part of working in poor communities involves discovering and appreciating what God has been doing there for a long time!”

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is a method that has been created to demonstrate a good way to improve poor communities. It begins, not by asking the people what they need, but by asking what gifts they have–what talents God has given them. This was a very eye-opening thought to me. I confess to usually being one to only look at the needs, but just looking at what God has given in terms of talents and abilities changes one’s perspective immensely. All the sudden there is hope and joy where before there was only despair. The stories they tell to demonstrate this principal illustrate very well the psychological change that can take place with just this one little question.

However, just answering that question will not solve most problems. The next questions to be asked are “What needs can you identify that must be addressed? What problems do you see that must be solved? How can you use your assets to address those needs and to solve those problems?” With these answers, one can begin to work with the people for change and development. A great deal of wisdom is required at this point to determine if and when to bring in outside resources. The focus needs to be on reconciling relationships, not putting band-aids on problems. ABCD shifts the focus from all that has gone wrong to all that has gone right. Important in this is to remember that it is not only about solving the material problems, but also bringing everyone into better relationships with God, self, others, and creation. We need to ask, “If Christ is Lord, how do we do farming, business, government, family, etc. to the glory of God?”

The next chapter was cause for a lot of thinking. It discusses the challenges of doing short-term missions without long-term harm. Because the majority of cultures where short-term trips go are “hot climate” cultures (harkening back to my last book review), things are done in relationship and it can take a while to get things done. Frequently short-term missions are project-focused with a deadline. However, getting things done quickly is not what development is about. They offer several suggestions for how to improve the impact of short-term trips which we will be keeping in mind as we continue to make our plans.

The book closes with several application chapters with specific ideas for helping locally and internationally.

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