What if When Helping Hurts Hurts Helping?

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When Helping Hurts is the title of a book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. The book provides a valuable service by pointing out that too often our efforts to alleviate poverty actually do harm to the very people we are meaning to help. We end up exacerbating the problems we are trying to solve. The book presents its thesis well. Churches in my region have had conferences to spread the word.  The Network has had discussion forums dedicated to these ideas. But sometimes I wonder whether When Helping Hurts hurts helping.

The book was mentioned at a school society meeting I recently attended. One of the addresses at the meeting was about action based learning. A respondent asked whether short term missions could be one avenue for learning by doing. The leader mentioned the book by name and said that they wanted to proceed very carefully. I appreciate that, but it was not clear whether anything was actually being done. Not long after that meeting I talked to another person who had read the book. He said that it left him with the feeling was that it might be better to do nothing rather than risk doing harm. That is obviously not the intention of the authors or their disciples, but I do wonder whether we are feeling a little paralyzed and as a consequence missing some opportunities to do good to all people.

Obviously no one wants to do harm in the name of good, but I think we need to accept that all our efforts will be imperfect. They will stem from mixed motives. We will make mistakes. But sometimes we need to make those mistakes in order to learn. Over the years I’ve talked to youth who have participated on short term missions projects (not all of which picked up on the good suggestions for these projects laid out in the book). Not all of them, but some, raised the very questions the book wants us to think about. But I doubt these young people would have raised the questions if they had not first gone on the trip.

 

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Community Builder

You bring up some interesting points here, Norman, and I agree with you in a lot of ways. It's so important that our fear of doing something wrong doesn't paralyze us to do something at all. As sinful humans, everything we do is tainted by sin, and regardless of how many books we read, how much we plan, how prepared we are to do community development, our efforts will never be perfect. How awesome is it that even in our fallen state God still is working in our efforts! Still, I believe we need to be extremely careful before we "help" to ensure that we aren't hurting. I also believe that this often is a selfish response--we feel the need to do something to make ourselves feel better and our efforts are more for our own consciences than they are for the person who needs to be helped.  

I also don't think we can set out and try a bunch of things on our own, hoping that trial and error gets us to a good place, meanwhile doing a ton of harm (not that I think this is what you're suggesting, but I think it's often what we do when we "help" without really realizing it). We should come together as Christians and rejoice that God has given us all different gifts, some are gifted in strategy and research, as I believe Corbett and Fikkert are, and take their advice.

I surely hope that When Helping Hurts does not hurt helping, but I also think it could curb a lot of negative efforts and that is a good thing. We hope and pray that we do not have to learn from our mistakes at the expense of others, and even though we know as sinners we will never do things perfectly, I think the ideas laid out in When Helping Hurts are good steps towards renewal.

Guide

I would also like to encourage people to attend the online study of When Helping Hurts. It's important that people don't just read it and become paralyzed. Rather, to jump in and start implementing what's learned. We hope the study will do that. http://network.crcna.org/deacons/when-helping-hurts-small-group-experien...

Community Builder

When Helping Hurts is a wonderful book; offering critical insights into what it means to answer the call to love our neighbors as ourselves. Treating people as whole people, the interconnectedness of issues and problems people face, the spiritual brokenness that is at the root, and being authentic in relationship. The book doesn't say never do short term missions - only that what we do needs to be considered carefully in light of a bigger picture.

Community Builder

Bonnie, I agree with what you say about short-term missions. I recently wrote about that on the Global Missions blog-- http://network.crcna.org/global-mission/honesty-and-short-term-missions

I have not read the book, but from the general description of the content, it may be a necessary read for those interested in helping others, particularly in third world countries.   I served on the board of a large NGO for 12 years and witnessed first hand some of the uselessness of some of the projects.   It struck me at the time that something important in the relationship with the recipients and the stewardship of the 'helper' was seriously missing.   There is a danger in rushing in with a solution when the problem has first not been clearly defined.  The best projects were those wherein the recipients arrived at the correct solution on their own with the NGO acting as a sounding board.   If the project is successful, credit has to go to the recipients.

Participant

Thanks for sharing this, Norman.  I know that the authors' intention was not "if you can't do missions perfectly, then stay home."  But it can come across that way, especially for some of the participants.  As our methods for engaging in short-term missions continues to mature, you have expressed an important part of that conversation.  The group I am involved with has encouraged past participants to read When Helping Hurts, and we are in the process of incorporating the books and videos of Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions and When Helping Hurts: The Small Group Experience into our orientation process. But each person is different, each team is different, and each host community is unique.  So one of the the things we have also brought into our 'best practices' is to, at the first opportunity to meet with the host community, ask that our time together be covered by grace and a spirit of forgiveness.  We explain that we are not on this mission trip because we are 'model Christians', but that we are sinners seeking to serve our Saviour.  Through some of those conversations we have discovered to what extent the host communities can also feel pressured, and that they too can feel as though they have been placed high on a pedestal.  Several communities have let out a collective sigh of relief as we together agreed that neither party is perfect, but let's do our best at learning about each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

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