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.