At a recent meeting convened to discuss how best to come alongside Haitian leaders in rebuilding their country, my friend, Andreas Widmer made a strong book recommendation: "When Helping Hurts." Andreas knows more than most people about the pitfalls and victories of reaching out to developing economies and assisting in their sustainable development. He runs The S.E.V.E.N. Fund, which articulates its mission as follows:
"We encourage rigorous researchers to tackle the questions of enterprise solutions to poverty, and find the role models and artists that embody the experience of innovation in the world's poorest countries."
Seven Fund Website
So, when Andreas made the recommendation, I purchased the book and devoured it in a day and a half. I have had an opportunity to observe missionary outreach efforts and NGO relief efforts in a variety of nations, and I have seen the highs and the lows. The authors of this book, from their dual perspectives from academia and the Chalmers Center for Economic Development have done a masterful job of presenting a book that weaves solid biblical theology with insights and lessons from cultural anthropology. The result as a "How to" and "How not to" manual for an individual, church or non-profit that hopes to help alleviate the multiple dimensions of poverty in a healthy, holistic and sustainable way. The subtitle of the book is: "How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself."
The authors define poverty more broadly and differently than most who address this thorny issue. Here is their definition of poverty:
"Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings." (Page 62)
Consequently, their view of poverty alleviation is far from traditional:
"Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation." (Page 78)
There is a significant section of the book that discusses each of these types of deficiencies or poverty, including a "poverty of being" - an existential sickness that impacts even those with more than enough material wealth. So, a winnable and just "war on poverty" involves much more than making sure that people have enough "stuff." In this broader and more holistic view, material poverty alleviation looks like this:
"Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of their work." (Page 78)
Much of the book is taken up in sharing best practices by churches and other organizations, as well as in sharing cautionary tales of well-meaning Americans who went into developing nations (in this book termed "The Majority World") and the impact felt by those being helped was akin to a mouse being asked to dance with an elephant. No matter how gently the elephant dances, the mouse is going to come out a lot worse for wear after the dance.
One very practical suggestion that the authors make for those considering involvement in sort term missions or similar enterprises is to make a commitment to educate themselves before leaving home.
"Make pre-trip learning a requirement, not a suggestion. Simply wanting to go and coming up with the money is not sufficient to qualify somebody to join the team. If people do not want to spend the time to learn before they go on the trip, are they really going to have a learner's mind-set during and after the trip?
Include in the training at least a summary of the basic concepts presented thus far in this book. Emphasize in particular that we are all poor, just in different ways. This content should be offered in addition to the typical training that is offered on team-building, spiritual preparation, and country-specific information, including some basic language skills." (Page 178)
Many churches and individuals are committed to working out their faith in practical ways by helping at home and abroad with poverty alleviation. Praise God! This book is a "must read" for pastors, members of missions committees and boards, short term missionaries, and anyone who wants to help without hurting.
Thank you, Andreas!