Thoughts on "When Helping Hurts" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert- A Book Review
I love to read. Really, my B.A. is in English Lit. Sometimes in recent years I've kind of lost touch with that, but I still enjoy a good book when I do make reading a priority. While previously I've primarily enjoyed fiction (mostly that's over 100 years old), I've also started trying to read some non-fiction to learn about certain topics. It's nice to have the solid feel of a book sometimes instead of the Google/internet rabbit hole!
I actually set out wanting to read Becoming Whole by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic. I heard it being discussed on the radio on the way to church one Sunday morning, was intrigued, and hopped on Amazon to order it. (Obviously I wasn't the one driving.) When I found it on Amazon, the description said it built on When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, so I thought maybe I'd better read that first, and ordered them both.
The full title is When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor...And Yourself. That "yourself" bit is probably unexpected; at least it was for me. It's not about giving too much or even "compassion fatigue." The book is based on restoring relationships - with God, Self, Others, and the World. According to the authors, for those of us in a position to give, it's a "god-complex" (the perception of ourselves as being able to "fix" things or people and having all the "right" answers) that gets us into trouble when we seek to contribute to poverty alleviation. If we're approaching giving with the wrong heart, those relationships with God, self, and others can be negatively affected for all involved. Yikes. The book brought this concept to my attention multiple times as it discussed different scenarios and concepts, which helped me to remember that generosity, like many other aspects of faith, is both a matter of the heart AND actions, and how one affects the other.
Overall, I found the concepts and tools presented interesting and thought-provoking. What if there is a better way than giving $20 to a needy person, or even spending my time and money to go on a volunteer trip? You've probably heard the quote "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life." The book is full of information about why this is important and how to help in a way that brings hope, long-term improvements, and dignity to people in poverty. The authors draw a distinction between "relief," "restoration," and "development." Relief means meeting immediate needs, typically following some sort of disaster, and there are really limited times when it is appropriate. Restoration is something to be worked toward following
relief, and basically means just what it implies, restoring conditions to what they were pre-crisis. Development, on the other hand, is truly the hard, important work of "teaching a man to fish," and is the most needed and most misunderstood part of alleviating poverty. It involves building relationships, connecting resources, and empowering people to help themselves.
One aspect of this book I appreciated was the recognition that poverty exists in the U.S., and is both similar to and different from poverty in other parts of the world. It's not just a problem "over there," and when needed the authors describe the similarities and differences between poverty alleviation work internationally and in our own cities.
From a practical perspective, the main thing I got out of the book is a much better framework to evaluate where and how I'm giving when I decide how to use my personal finances. I want my dollars to do not only the most good, but also the best good! It also left me feeling better prepared to wisely choose where to volunteer when I have the opportunity. (In my current position as stay-at-home mom and nap-time blogger, that's not really a thing, but maybe someday.) Otherwise, I really felt this book was geared toward those in a leadership role, whether that's as a business person, minister, nonprofit worker, or missions director. It's not light reading; I found myself taking a break to think about and process what I was reading multiple times (and the authors intend that, with exercises and questions for discussion/reflection in each chapter). My husband wants to read it, then I'll definitely be passing this book on to someone else that could further benefit from it. The book really challenged me to question things I'd thought about poverty, and my role as someone who wants to help. I would encourage anyone who reads When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor...And Yourself to be prepared to allow themselves to think in new ways about relationships, poverty, and poverty alleviation.