Book Review: When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself

By Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (reviewed by Peter DeHaan)

As implied by the subtitle, the main premise of When Helping Hurts is that efforts to help those who are less fortunate often do more harm than good – to both the receiver and the giver. In communicating practical and tested insights on the subject, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert divide their book into three sections, first providing foundational concepts, then adding general principles, and concluding with practical strategies to provide assistance in a truly beneficial manner.

Ideal for both personal reflection as well as group study, each of the book’s nine chapters begins with some preliminary thought-provoking questions and ends with a set of reflection questions and exercises. While the text itself is sufficient to communicate the book’s identified problem and recommended solution, the questions aid both the casual reader and the serious practitioner in more fully assimilating the message.

While the focus of poverty alleviation is the meeting of material needs, the broader picture of the poor’s situation includes “shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness,” (p 53); these are often overlooked. Treating only the symptoms or missing the underlying problem will not improve the situation of the poor and may actually make things worse.

In providing assistance it is critical to first discern the situation. Does it call for relief, rehabilitation, or development? The failure of many well-meaning humanitarians is in providing relief (the quicker and easier solution) when it is no longer warranted, but what is actually needed is rehabilitation or development assistance. It is this provision of relief at the wrong times that can push people further into poverty instead of lifting them out. A related danger is providing aid with a paternalistic attitude, which also serves to keep the recipients mired in poverty.

A related concern is the effect on short-term mission trips, which likewise often focuses on the wrong solution or in the wrong ways, harming those who are being served and those who are serving, as well as the local organizations and indigenous peoples who are attempting to help year round. To address this, recommendations are given to aid short-term missionaries to be more effective and truly helpful. Even so, the more effective solution is often to stay home, donating an equivalent amount of money. Also noteworthy is the fact that there are needs for poverty alleviation in virtually every community in the US. These people can be served more effectively, saving on travel costs and avoiding the cultural miscues involved in traveling overseas. Also addressed are micro-financing initiatives and their helpful, sustaining effect – when they are done correctly.

Helping When it Hurts can be a discouraging read, but the solutions it presents – in both theoretical instruction and actual examples – will guide the serious practitioner to a holistic, God-honoring, truly helpful solution that will have lasting influence, both in this world and beyond.

[When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Published by Moody Publishers, 2009, ISDN: 978-0-8024-5705-9, 230 pages, $14.99]

Read more book reviews by Peter DeHaan.

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