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

Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert


The book in a nutshell:

Poverty is complex.  We need to re-examine how we think we're helping and humbly work with those actually in need.  


My summary:

With so many Christians and churches in the world, there shouldn't be so much poverty alongside so much wealth.  The Bible is full of exhortations to help the poor, but the church has largely forsaken that calling (dating back to The Great Reversal).  Thus, the poverty-wealth dichotomy is marring people’s understanding of God, the church, and the gospel.  This book encourages Christians and churches to intentionally discover our individual roles in alleviating poverty and gives practical tips about what we can do to help. 

The thing is, we don’t know it all and we don’t have all the answers (although some developing countries and communities may mistakenly look to us as experts).  A paternalistic god-complex-type attitude (even an unintentional one) is both self-destructive and destructive to those we’re trying to help… especially for those already experiencing shame about the situations they’re in (eye-opening prison ministry example in chapter 2!). 

Instead, we need to learn from those in need about how to partner with and empower them most effectively.  Rather than focusing on completing projects FOR those in need (as often happens during short-term trips), we should be working WITH them to determine how to best empower them for the long-run.  

Poverty is complicated, and it's incredibly difficult to get out of impoverished situations.  Those of us who have been blessed materially can offer our networks, education about money management, and advocacy within the system(s) for those in need.  Those of us who are Christians can also offer the transformational truth of the Gospel.

 (This is obviously a simplistic summary.  Check out the book for many, many more insights about the complexities of poverty and practical ways to help.)


Helpful organizations: 

Chalmers Center for Economic Development  (Covenant College)

Asset-Based Community Development Institute (Northwestern University)

Communities First Association

Jobs for Life

Covenant Community Capital

National Circles Campaign

Family Consultation Service (FCS) Urban Ministries in Atlanta

The Umoja Initiative of Tearfund

Village Earth


Helpful resources: 

Ministry Inventory Guide: Assess Your Church's Ministry Capacity and Identity

Diaconal Ministries Canada's Guidelines for Benevolence

The Beauty of Partnership Study Guide

The Lausanne Standards: Affirmations & Agreements for Giving & Receiving Money in Mission

Empowering Communities Participatory Techniques for Community-Based Programme Development

United Way 2-1-1 Resource Guide (different link for each location) 





Key terms and concepts:

Understand the situation to offer appropriate help (Ch. 4):

:: relief:  "the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis"

:: rehabilitation: "begins as soon as the bleeding stops; it seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their precrisis conditions"; "working with  the... victims as they participate in their own recovery"

:: development: "a process of ongoing change"; "not done to or for people but with people"; an empowering process for all involved - "both the 'helpers' and the 'helped'"


Actively involve those we're trying to help (Ch. 5):

:: asset mapping: "individual or group-based interviews to calatogue the assets in a particular community" to "determine the best ways to leverage these assets to improve the community and to solve problems"

:: participatory learning and action: "group-based exercises to engage and energize community members' knowledge and skills... to empower them to take greater ownership of their futures"

:: appreciative inquiry: "focuses on what is right and good in a community's past [to create] a more positive future"


Key biblical references:

James 1:27

Isaiah 1:10-13, 16-17

Isaiah 58:6-7

II Corinthians 5:18-20