When Helping Hurts: Book Review

January 20, 2011 // Book Reviews

The Summit staff just finished reading “When Helping Hurts,” which is a book that JD has recommended recently on his blog.  It was written by two Christians working for the Chalmers Center for Economic Development.  The senior vice-president of World Relief has this to say about the book:  it is “a clarion call to rethink how we apply the gospel to a broken world.  This book will transform our good intentions into genuine, lasting change.”

Here is an overview of the book’s argument and some of it’s main contributions:

The authors find inspiration and foundation in the reconciliatory work of Christ and the church.  A refrain of the book is that the fundamental need of humanity is NOT a lack of material resources, but the brokenness of our relationships.  Thus, missionary work, in our backyard and around the world, must begin with repairing a person’s relationships with God, others, self, and creation.

Two main implications of this idea are:  1) the gospel message of reconciling the world is the primary way to help a person.  2)  Simply handing out money does not bring any sustainable help to a community since money alone cannot restore relationships.  This explains why large hand-outs have, in some cases, been an utter waste of money, and in other cases have actually hurt communities.  The book provides several poignant examples of this effect.

Thus, when trying to help a community, it is important to properly identify the stage of help that the community needs:  relief, rehabilitation, or development.  Relief is needed in a time of crisis when the local community is unable or unwilling to provide for the needs in it.  This often comes after a natural disaster and is the time most likely appropriate for handouts.  Rehabilitation follows and seeks to restore communities to the positive elements of their pre-crisis conditions.  Vital in this process is to help people identify the strengths, skills, and resources already available in the community and use these primarily for restoration.

The development stage is where communities move closer to right relationship with God, self, others, and creation.  What is key here is that Westerners understand that we are not fully developed.  A wealthy, self-centered person with a god-complex may not be better suited to help with development than a lazy atheist.  In other words, there are all sorts of types of bankruptcy that are worse than monetary.

The book provides some other guidelines for Westerners who want to help.  Asset-mapping involves helping a community remember and identify what made it strong and good in the past and understand what resources are already available.  Encouraging participation from a community to help itself, even in the early stages of rehabilitation, is the only way to make sure that the positive effects are lasting.  Development can’t be done for people, it has to be done with people.

The last few chapters of the book give us caution and advice when going on short-term missions trips and helping the poor in our own backyard.  The authors get into specifics about microfinance, loans, and business as missions.  We strongly encourage any STM leader to read these chapters before they go.  The authors also remind us that long-term investment in relationship has to be a cornerstone of these efforts if we want to see real change.