When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and YourselfIt was all starting to make perfect sense. I listened to stories about communities who didn’t seem to care about maintenance as I stood there in Haiti looking at a broken (and now unusable) well. I also heard stories about American missions teams coming to visit well projects they’ve funded, only to return home disappointed after witnessing the condition of the water source they thought would change lives in a poor community.

This was one of those in-your-face moments of clarity when everything that I’ve read and discussed over the last few years became very real.

We talked about how well water projects are more than just digging a deep hole, but should start with community meetings and training programs to make sure that the projects don’t fail in a couple of months.

In their book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert deal with this tension between missions that have a positive impact and those that may unintentionally cause more harm than good. Even the authors admit that churches always send people with the best intentions. However, without fully understanding the impact of our actions, we may be creating a void, dependence, or some other problem when we leave.

Corbett and Fikkert share several stories that serve to illustrate the points they’re trying to make. Through these stories it’s easy to see the impacts of good and not so good missions projects. One of my personal favorites is one they tell in the introduction of the book about a ‘successful’ evangelism experience with a witch doctor in Uganda. In telling this story, the author shares their excitement in reaching someone, but also clearly identifies everything that was wrong in their approach resulting in a conversion that ultimately failed.

That’s one of the things that I really like about what the authors did in this book. They started by being critical of themselves, and not pointing the finger at someone else. Corbett and Fikkert are both Professors in Economics and Community Development, and they run The Chalmers Center for Economic Development. In their work with The Chalmers Center, they focus on research and training churches in economic development strategies that empower the poor.

I don’t know that I’ll ever look at missions the same way again. If I’m completely honest with myself, I used to think that the people in less developed nations needed people like me to help fix things for them. The more time I spend in the mission field, the more I realize that my presence there should be closer to invisible. I’m not there to bring answers and fix problems. I’m there to support and encourage the incredible work that God is already doing through the local churches who are transforming their communities.

It doesn’t matter if you’re into supporting global missions, or working within your own city. This is an important book if you want to be a Christian (or church) who wants to impact a community… the right way.

book review: when helping hurts [how to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor … and yourself]

by Dan King time to read: 3 min