Book Review: When Helping Hurts

At our university, we offer short term service trips over the week of Spring Break.  This year, I’m the primary staff person working with two amazing student leaders who run this program.  Over the summer, as we built partnerships for 2012, I found myself encountering the same title over and over again.

“Have you read When Helping Hurts?”

“You know, you may want to pick up When Helping Hurts.”

“Our team is just starting to read and discuss When Helping Hurts.  You might like it.”

So I got it.

And I loved it.

I talked about it so much that my husband got a little tired of it.  But then we realized that it was because he thought it was about giving even when you don’t feel like it.  As in, when helping makes you crabby and costs a lot and you want to say it’s hurting you, like a kid eating green veggies.

That is not what the title means.

The book is about the ways our well-intentioned efforts to do good in the world can actually damage both the people we intend to help and ourselves.  It’s about when helping makes you feel like you are high and mighty and saving people but really you are breeding paternalism and dependence and undermining God’s fundamental redemptive work in the world. 

Isn’t that way more interesting that my husband first thought?

Of course it is.

I highly recommend the book, the full title of which is When Helping Hurts:  How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself  and here’s why:

  • The authors have been engaged in this type of work for years, and they discuss not only things they’ve done well, but also things they have done wrong.  The book opens with a story from one author where he openly displays his own failure in a cross-cultural service situation.  His terrible error?  Giving $8 for penicillin to a recently-converted witch doctor was severely ill.  And if you, like me, struggle at first to see why that is so wrong, then you will learn a ton as they unpack the rest of the book.
  • The overarching framework that undergirds their approach.  The authors make recommendations based on a theological understanding of what God is doing in the world.  If indeed God wants to take us and all our brokenness, in every form, and heal it and use us for his glory, then our practices should work with, not against, that mission.  They have a four-part understanding of poverty–poverty of self, with God, with others, and with creation.  So in that first story, for example, just giving the money deprived the local Christians of chance to overcome their poverty with one another.  Given the opportunity, they could have taken care of one of their own, thereby becoming more of the type of community God calls the church to be.
  • They pay attention to the poverty that affluent people experience.  By distinguishing between material and non-material poverty, and then employing the four-part framework, income is no longer the primary thing that identifies someone as poor.  So take the example of poverty with God.  Wholeness and healing in this area means that a person understands that God loves them and is for them, that there is grace through Jesus Christ available to them.  On the one hand, poverty in this area can look like self-deprecation and shame.  On the other, it can look like a god-complex where someone has so much confidence in their own skills and self-sufficiency that they don’t need God.  Back to our $8.  See how the giver, however subtly, becomes the high and mighty provider who meets the need of that poor woman?  What is broken in the giver?  Nothing.  They’re just fine, thank you very much.  How is that in alignment with being a person in need of grace?

Bonus points:  It’s also a pretty quick and accessible read, which I appreciate, because the content is so good I want lots and lots of people to read it.

What’s some of the the best stuff you’ve read or heard on service, the poor, social justice, poverty alleviation, or advocacy?  Was there a speaker, book, or article that struck you?

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