Part 1 of When Helping Hurts was good, but the most provocative chapters are in Parts 2 and 3. Today we come to the second part of the book.

Part Two: General Principles for Helping Without Hurting

In my opinion, Chapter 4 is the most important chapter in the book. Here Fikkert explains the three different approaches to poverty alleviation. The first is relief. Relief is the urgent, temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering. The second is rehabilitation. Rehabilitation begins once “the bleeding stops.” It seeks to restore people and communities to the positive elements of their pre-crisis conditions. The third approach is development. Development is the process of ongoing change that moves all people involved (“helpers” and “helped”) closer to being in a right relationship with God, self, others, and creation.

If you don’t ever read the book, or get anything else of these blog posts, try to remember the differences between relief, rehabilitation, and development. When North American churches think of helping the poor, they almost always think in terms of relief. This, says Fikkert, is “by far” the biggest mistake our churches continue to make.

Most people we come in contact with do not need relief. They are not about to die like the man helped by the Good Samaritan. Most people we see are not truly destitute. Before we give relief we need to ask: Is there really a crisis at hand? Is this person responsible for his crisis? Can this person help himself? Has he already been receiving relief from others in the past? If we do give relief it should be seldom, immediate, and temporary (108, 110).

Confused? Fikkert lays out a good rule of thumb that cuts through a lot of complexity: Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves (115). Avoid resource paternalism which can undermine local businesses and undercut prices. Avoid spiritual paternalism, doing all the teaching or leading the VBS when local people can and should do so. Avoid knowledge paternalism, thinking we have all the answers, if only the needy would listen to us. Avoid labor paternalism, going on spring break trips to Mississippi to rebuild houses while able-bodied locals sit and watch. Avoid managerial paternalism, doing things our way on our time.

Chapter 5 is about one basic, powerful suggestion for helping the poor: begin with assets, not needs (126). Fikkert talks about several ways to do this, but the underlying approach is the same. Don’t start by asking people what their problems are. Ask people what they can do. Let the poor share their hopes and dreams. Give them opportunity to see and use their gifts. Don’t view the “helped” as clients of beneficiaries. Look at them as they are: people made in the image of God who have their own resources and abilities.

In Chapter 6 Fikkert explains that one of the main reasons efforts at poverty alleviation have been so ineffective is due to inadequate participation of poor people in the process (142). Despite 2.3 trillion dollars in foreign aid since World War II, more 2.5 billion people live on less than two dollars per day. Likewise, 45 years after LBJ launched the War on Poverty, the poverty rate in the U.S. still hovers around 12%. A big part of the problem is a lack of participation. Church and governments have tried to do things to poor people or to do things for poor people, instead of responding to the initiatives of the poor or doing things with them.

An striking example of the principles in Chapters 4-6 comes from Fikkert’s own life. He was in Uganda teaching classes on small business. During the class, a witch-doctor rededicated her life to Christ and starting going to church again. But she had gotten sick and was in terrible pain. She needed penicillin fast. Sensing her pain and dire situation, Fikkert gave Elizabeth, a Ugandan church leader, eight dollars so she could get Grace (the ex-witch doctor) the medicine that would make her better. This seemed like the compassionate thing to do. Grace needed help. Fikkert could easily give eight dollars to save her life. But looking back, he thinks he made the wrong choice. Grace needed relief, but Fikkert didn’t need to give it. He should have given the local church he was speaking at the opportunity to help Grace. Sure, the church was in a slum. But they could have mustered up eight dollars. This would have provided a much needed connection between Grace and a church. This would have given the church the opportunity to minister and establish a long-term relationship with a new convert. The pastor of the church would have been able to lead his church to care for this woman, instead of having his ministry subtly underminded by a tall (6’10″!) white man who comes into town for a couple weeks, draws big crowds for his class, sees a witch-doctor join the church, and then pays for her medicine. I think almost any of us would have given Grace eight dollars, or eight hundred dollars for that matter, right there on the spot. But this was not the best way to help her or the people at St. Luke’s Church in Kampala. If we are serious about reconciling all things to Christ, we need more than good intentions.

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6 thoughts on “When Helping Hurts, Part 2”

  1. Terry says:

    This is incredibly good stuff. You have sold me on the book. I will look for it soon.

    I have one question: Does the book address how to help those who are unable to ever care for themselves, who are always in need of relief and have no real prospects for rehabilitation until Christ returns? I am thinking about people with mental disabilities (such as mental retardation) and do not have other friends or family members to care for them. We face such situations once in a while.

  2. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Great question. The book doesn't talk about ministry to those with disabilities. I'm sure there are some good books out there on this important subject.

  3. Dave says:

    How can we best help people who can't help themselves (due to mental disabilities or otherwise)?

    Good question. The simple answer is to HELP THE HELPERS. Help, through microfinance and/or other ministries of economic empowerment, relatives and friends so that THEY can help the "least of these". Don't try to directly help "my" 95-year-old grandmother. Instead, help strengthen ME so that I can then help her – much better than you ever could.

    Dave Larson
    Economoic Development Consultant
    Portland, OR

  4. helpmyunbelief says:

    This is way late, but a book that may be of interest to Terry is Stephanie Hubach's Same Lake, Different Boat (http://www.amazon.com/Same-Lake-Different-Boat-Disability/dp/1596380519/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1254170058&sr=8-1).

    Kevin: thanks for your ministry of writing to the larger Church.

    grace…Adam

  5. Check out the organization one mission (www.onemission.us) its an organization dedicated to mobilizing people for the long term good. enjoy the experience of short term missions AND support an on going community development program owned and led by local leaders and pastors.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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