There was a time when I felt alone in my thoughts on the damaging effects and arrogance of many short-term mission trips. While working as a full-time missionary in a rural area of Central America, I’ve even been pushed to the side and encouraged to keep quiet about the perpetuation of a welfare state and divisiveness of a community by those visiting from my supporting congregation in the US. Once I was eventually completely silenced and pushed out of that work, I began to discover others outside of my own tradition had been wrestling with these things, too. We were (are) concerned with the long-term impact of short-term mission trips and were seeing a wake of cultural and theological devastation in the way things have been going. “White is right” and “money heals” has often been the practical approach, even if it is denied and described in other terms. Most of the people and teams I’ve come across do not lack good intentions; they do often lack humility and effectiveness.
Why did I begin with this specific experience? Most American church “missions” are focused on “the poor” (as perceived by the churches), and it is to this end (and further) that When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by economists Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert has much to offer. Emphasizing an holistic approach to helping those in need, Corbett and Fikkert take into account the much disregarded economic factors in the way we “help” others, noting that we are often blinded to the reality of our doing more harm than good. Leaving behind the method of paternalism, the reader is encouraged to come alongside and work with others (not doing things for or to them), as well as recognizing that not all “poor” is created equal.
One of the principle equations used to demonstrate the harm done to both parties follows thusly: Material Definition of Poverty + God-complexes of Materially Non-Poor + Feelings of Inferiority of Materially Poor = Harm to Both Materially Poor and Non-Poor. The authors help the reader see the distinctions between relief, rehabilitation, and development, as well as the time and place for their relevancy and proper implementation, though always encouraging participation of the one being aided (if that’s even the right word to use for a given situation). Of course, the authors want to be clear of their intentions and note the following in this new edition:
Some of our readers have misunderstood the message of the first edition of this book to be: “Individuals and churches with financial resources should stop writing checks.” That is not our message. We do believe that individuals, churches, and ministries should rarely be simply “writing checks” or handing out cash or material resources directly to materially poor people. However, we also believe that individuals and churches that have been blessed with financial resources…should dramatically increase their financial giving to churches and ministries that pursue gospel-focused, asset-based, participatory development. The churches and ministries that are engaged in development work have a very difficult time raising the funds needed to pay for this highly relational, time-intensive approach, an approach in which there are not always clear measures of success or of the “return on the investment.” Development ministries need financial supporters who understand what poverty alleviation is really about—reconciling the four, key relationships—and who are willing to fund the long and winding process that must be used to get there. (233, emphasis original)
My wife had already read the first edition of this book, but I’m thankful Fikkert recently provided her with the latest edition and that it was passed on to me. It doesn’t provide all the answers, nor does it make such a claim; in fact, it should be used as an introduction to further processing and discussion among churches and religious organizations. For more information, the authors encourage checking out www.chalmers.org.
As an added plug, I was blessed to be able to participate in a private showing of the new documentary “Poverty, Inc.” while reading this book. They have much in common and I highly recommend it for both religious and non-religious institutions. The film has yet to be fully released, but you can look at hosting a showing in your area by visiting www.povertyinc.org.