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When Helping Hurts

William Shishko

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009, 230 pages, $14.99, paper.

In "The Emperor's New Clothes," the well-known short story by Hans Christian Anderson, two charlatans promise a vain king the most exquisite suit of new clothes; however, to the foolish or incompetent, the garments will appear invisible. The king parades himself in his "new clothes," but his subjects are all too embarrassed (or too afraid of being regarded as foolish) to tell the truth—until a young child in the crowd cries out, "But he isn't wearing anything at all!"

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, in their book When Helping Hurts, have the holy temerity to say of so much well-meant assistance to the poor: "The Emperor has no clothes." Unfortunately, their book is far less pleasurable reading than the delightful Hans Christian Anderson tale. Nevertheless, it is critically important reading for those who truly want to help those who are poor and needy.

Both of these authors speak from a wealth of training and experience. Steve Corbett of Covenant College is the community development specialist for the school's Chalmers Center for Economic Development and an assistant professor in the department of economics and community development. Brian Fikkert is an associate professor of economics at Covenant College and is the founder and executive director of the Chalmers Center. He is also the son of the late OPC minister Henry Fikkert.

With good reason this book has been hailed across the evangelical spectrum. (It is endorsed by Dr. Ronald J. Sider, Joel Belz, Bryan Chappell, and many others.) It has been described as "a clarion call to rethink how we apply the gospel to a broken world," and as a book that "will transform our good intentions into genuine, lasting change" (Stephan J. Baunam, senior vice president of World Relief). While it may not actually "transform" our good intentions, it certainly provides material for a most excellent first step in that direction. Through riveting real-life accounts, well thought out lessons, and probing questions addressed to the reader, we cannot help but come to the same conclusion as the authors: "When North American Christians do attempt to alleviate poverty, the methods used often do considerable harm to both the materially poor and the materially non-poor" (28). We also cannot but come to the conclusion that there are better ways of doing these things.

Part 1 of the book offers "Foundational Concepts for Helping Without Hurting." Among the many helpful insights in these three chapters, the authors offer an expansive and illuminating look into the real meaning of poverty, together with how a lack of appreciation of that real meaning of poverty will lead to incomplete or misguided solutions. Unlike so many treatments of the subject, this one offers a forthright biblical framework that shows how the fall of man alters his relationship to God, himself, others, and the rest of creation. This brings an absence of shalom into every sphere of life. Any approach that will genuinely begin to address the problem of poverty must take all of this into account. However, the special contribution that Corbett and Fikkert offer in their treatment is to remind us that we too share in the brokenness of a world that has many forms of poverty. Understanding this (and living honestly with that knowledge) will help us avoid that proud paternalism that is often a substitute for true help to the materially poor. I was especially helped by the reminder that genuine ministry to the poor is not a matter of "projects and products," but rather of "people and processes." It was also most refreshing to read the authors' clear affirmations that personal reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ and his saving work are the sine qua non of all efforts to see true change in the relationship of the poor to themselves, others, and the world around them.

Part 2 presents "General Principles for Helping Without Hurting." Here the authors helpfully distinguish among relief, rehabilitation, and development, and illustrate situations that warrant each. Most readers (and especially those who serve as deacons) will find this material to be among the most practical and immediately useful in the entire book. It is likewise most helpful that the authors urge us to begin with the assets of those we are seeking to help, not the needs that are apparent. A program for doing this is presented, although helpers will seek to adapt this and simplify it for the more common situations we face in our less complex diaconal cases. The pattern and illustrations for the way helpers and the helped are to work together in assistance projects is likewise very illuminating.

Part 3 gives "Practical Strategies for Helping Without Hurting." Chapter 7, "Doing Short-term Missions Without Doing Long-term Harm" is easily worth the price of the book. Without dampening the ardor for American groups to do short-term missions (STMs), the authors point out the many well-known problems with such projects, and how they can be avoided. Any church that sends out STM teams simply must read this chapter and resolve to put its wise suggestions into practice. The authors sensitize us to the fact that various forms of poverty are all around us, even in wealthy suburban areas. They present an array of "ministries" that churches or groups of individuals can develop. Again, not all of these will apply in every situation; but the suggestions are still interesting and thought provoking.

This is one of these rare books in which most will find little to quibble about. Frankly, those who are heavily involved in services to help the poor are well aware of the ways in which our well-intentioned desires to help others so often do the opposite (and, eventually, make us cynical in our service). Any quibbles about particular sections should recede behind the book's basic tenets: 1. In our work with those in any kind of poverty, we need to think about what we are doing. 2. We need to seek wise counsel before we act. When Helping Hurts will help deacons' boards, individual Christians, and helping organizations to do exactly this.

Kudos to Corbett and Fikkert for this outstanding resource!

William Shishko
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Franklin Square, NY

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