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

by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert have sought to help North American congregations—and their missionaries—to constructively participate in poverty-alleviating strategies.

Moody Publishers, 820 N. LaSalle Blvd., Chicago, IL 60610, 208 pages, 2009, $14.99.

Reviewed by Laurie Fortunak Nichols, editorial coordinator, Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS); managing editor, Evangelical Missions Quarterly.

Christian ministry is not theoretical. It is lived-out, experienced; it is best done when applying biblical principles to everyday life. This  too is true for any effort to undertake alleviating poverty.  It must be prayed over, thought-out, planned, and carefully implemented. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, both with the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College, have sought to help North American congregations—and their missionaries—to constructively participate in poverty-alleviating strategies. To put it in their words, “…nobody can deny the upswing in social concern among North American evangelicals in the past two decades….but our excitement…is seriously tempered by two convictions….First, North American Christians are simply not doing enough….Second, many observers…believe that 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” (pp. 27-28). The topic of eliminating poverty is not a new one, but the way the authors approach it is. The book, unlike many others on the topic, is not pedantic in nature; instead, it includes case studies and reflection questions and exercises at the beginning and end of each chapter. Before even getting into the main chapters, the authors present a scenario to readers: how would they and their churches assist in restarting small businesses which were devastated by the 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia?

When Helping Hurts is divided into three parts. Part One includes foundational concepts, where the authors discuss why Jesus came to earth, the fundamental nature of poverty, and how we are doing with ministering to the material poor. Part Two includes general principles for helping without hurting. This section alone is worth the price of the book. The authors discuss the importance of knowing first what the poor in any context need: relief, rehabilitation, or development. In fact, the authors insist, “…the failure to distinguish among these situations is one of the reasons that poverty-alleviation efforts often do harm” (p. 104). They go on to discuss different types of paternalism which may do more harm than good. So how do we go about doing “good?” It includes what the authors term “asset-based community development” (ABCD), which fosters reconciliation between people’s relationship with God, self, others, and creation (p. 126). The short explanation is that God has blessed each community and individual with many gifts and we need to help others find those. Corbett and Fikkert also discuss approaches to ABCD, ways to engage communities, and various reasons poverty-alleviation efforts have been so slow. They also redefine “poverty alleviation”: "restoring people to experiencing humanness in the way that God intended” (p. 145).

Part Three includes strategies for alleviating material poverty.

This is an ideal book for those desiring to start up a ministry which includes poverty alleviation, churches which have social justice ministries, and mission agencies and missionaries seeking to be as helpful as possible to those they are ministering among. Corbett and Fikkert give readers good food-for-thought in asking the question, “In our efforts to help those in poverty, are we doing more harm than good?” God willing, our answer at the end of the day will be no.

Check these titles:
Cannon, May Elise. 2009. Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Hughes, Dewi. 2009. Power and Poverty: Divine and Human Rule in a World of Need. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.


EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 253. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


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