When Helping Hurts: Part 3

“One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make – by far – is applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.”

Talk about blowing your hair back; this chapter in “When Helping Hurts” really put some of my long-held beliefs about poverty into the words I have always been searching for.  I have long been a proponent of not giving money to people who are poor stewards of the money they have.  I would rather buy food, clothes, etc… than give the cash to people.  More money is hardly ever the solution to the problem.  There are some key take-aways from Chapter 4 which help to understand this better:

  • A helpful first step in thinking about working with the poor in any context is to discern whether the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation, or development.
  • Failure to distinguish among these situations is one of the most common reasons that poverty-alleviation efforts often do harm.
  • The key feature of relief is a provider-receiver dynamic in which the provider gives assistance – often material – to the receiver, who is largely incapable of helping himself at the time.
  • The key feature of rehabilitation is a dynamic of working WITH people as they participate in their own recovery.
  • The key feature of development is promoting an empowering process in which all the people involved – both the helpers and the helped – become more of what God created them to be, moving to levels of reconciliation they have not experienced before.
  • I you fail to provide immediate help, will there really be serious, negative consequences?  If not, then relief is not the appropriate intervention, for there is time for the person to take actions on his own behalf.
  • Compassion and understanding are in order, especially when one remembers the systemic factors that can play a role in poverty. But it is still important to consider the person’s own culpability in the situation, as allowing people to feel some of the pain resulting from any irresponsible behavior on their part can be part of the “tough love” needed to facilitate the reconciliation of poverty alleviation.
  • The person may be obtaining “emergency” assistance from one church or organization after another, so that your “just-this-one-time-gift” might be the tenth such gift  the person has recently received.
  • We often project our own ideas of what is an acceptable standard of living onto the situation and are quick to take a relief approach, doling out money in ways the local people would consider unwise and dependence-creating.
  • In the process we can undermine local judgment, discipline, accountability, stewardship, savings, and institutions.
  • Research has shown that the injection of outside funds into local savings and credit groups typically dooms them to collapse.
  • The point is that in deciding if relief is the appropriate intervention, we must be careful lest we impose our own cultural assumptions into contexts that we do not understand very well.
  • The reality is that only a small percentage of the poor in your community or around the world require relief.
  • In order to provide timely relief, it is important to engage in disaster preparedness.
  • If relief is given for too long, it can do harm by creating dependence.
  • How do you spell effective relief? Seldom, Immediate, Temporary.
  • Ensure participation of the affected population in the assessment, design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of the assistance program.
  • Conduct an initial assessment to provide an understanding of the disaster situation and to determine the nature of the response.
  • Target assistance based on vulnerability and need, and provide it equitably and impartially.
  • Aid workers must possess appropriate qualifications, attitudes, and experience to plan and effectively implement appropriate assistance programs.
  • Relief efforts applied inappropriately often cause the beneficiaries to abstain from work, thereby limiting their relationship with God through distorted worship or through no worship at all.
  • Avoid Paternalism.  Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.
  • Resource Paternalism: North Americans often view the solution to poverty in material terms and tend to pour financial and other material resources into situations  where the real need is for the local people to steward their own resources.
  • Spiritual Paternalism: Many of us assume that we have a lot to teach the materially poor about God and that we should be the ones preaching from the pulpit, teaching the Sunday school class, or leading the vacation Bible school but often the materially poor have an even deeper walk with God and have insights and experiences that they can share with us, if we would just stop talking and listen.
  • Knowledge Paternalism: Occurs when we assume that we have all the best ideas about how to do things.  We must recognize that the materially poor also have unique insights into their own cultural contexts and are facing circumstances that we do not understand very well.
  • All of us need to remember that the materially poor really are created in the image of God and have the ability to think and to understand the world around them.
  • It is reflective of a god-complex to assume that we have all the knowledge and that we always know what is best.
  • Labor Paternalism: Occurs when we do work for people that they can do for themselves.
  • Managerial Paternalism: We often plan, manage, and direct initiatives in low-income communities when people in those communities could do these things quite well already.
  • Remember, the goal is not to produce houses or other material good but to pursue a process of walking with the materially poor so that they are better stewards of their lives and communities, including their own material needs.
  • Not all poverty is created equal; hence, there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

I know this was a long post.  I’m glad you hung in there for it all.  This is a complicated process which takes a while to flesh out.  Giving someone money isn’t ALWAYS the solution.  It is only a treatment for a symptom of a bigger problem.  As discussed in an earlier post, doctors are mistaken if they are only treating the symptoms of a bigger problem.  We are doing the same if we thing throwing money at the poor is the best solution.

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