Saturday, September 2, 2017

Book Review: 'When Helping Hurts' by Brian Fikkert

"'I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.' Then they also will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?' Then He will answer them, saying, 'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.'" -- Matthew 25:43-45 (NKJV)

Don't miss this book. You need to read it . . . especially if you think you don't need to do so. Humble yourself and read it!

Statistics about poor people fly around like dried straw during a hurricane. If billions live on less than two dollars a day, it's easy to assume that sending along five dollars a day would be a big help. If villages lack clean water, drill wells. If youngsters are sick, send them physicians and medicine. What those examples have in common is that they are applying the perspective of educated, high-income societies to the circumstances of poor people in poorly educated, low-income societies. Sometimes those "solutions" are called for, but often they are not.

Let me explain. If you just send more money, you may unintentionally stifle efforts for people to help themselves by encouraging people to wait for a handout. If villages lack clean water because husbands want their wives and daughters out carrying water while they entertain themselves without female complaining, the wells won't be maintained. If youngsters don't wash their hands, they will just get sick again . . . with something different. Yes, sometimes people in a catastrophe just need a helping handout . . . immediate food, water, and medicine. But soon they need also different kind of help, enhancing their ability to help themselves.

It's a standard joke in many countries how the "helpers" from outside the nation drive around in Land Rovers burning up lots of scarce, expensive fuel while enjoying $100,000 tax-free incomes and not doing much good other than when they hire a local person to do some work.

When Helping Hurts addresses the hard truths behind the ways that Christians often attempt to alleviate poverty without addressing the actual needs that poor people have . . . especially such as low self-esteem, lacking confidence, and needing stronger relationships with one another.

The book covers one of my favorite examples of how resources can be wasted: How a short-term missions trip to do some minor repair work and painting might cost more than the budget needed to make a breakthrough for a local Christian activity. The authors wisely suggest asking the people being visited if they would prefer the money or the visit.

For many years in many countries, I have worked with local partners to make breakthroughs in poverty alleviation. From these experiences, I have learned the following lessons:

1. No one need go there from another country. You can send any information needed by e-mail.

2. Local people have all the knowledge and resources to succeed in alleviating a great deal of poverty very quickly, but they need someone from that country to bounce ideas around with who has done it before. Get someone like that involved, and it goes smoothly.

3. Train one person in how to alleviate poverty in one way, and a whole village can learn and apply the same lesson from that person in a short amount of time. If the people in that village each train one person a month, tens of thousands can be lifted out of poverty in two years.

4. Christian leaders who are native to these nations where poverty is rampant are extremely capable at finding poverty alleviating solutions. Encourage them and give them the resources they ask for, and get out of their way.

5. Applying technology is seldom the answer.

While I could list more things, the more profound point of the book is that Christians should approach poor people in other nations as people to develop relationships with and to learn from. I'm always impressed by stories I hear of visiting ramshackle churches sited on garbage dumps where the love of God vastly exceeds what anyone from a developed country has ever seen before. From such experiences, Christians from the developed countries can learn to appreciate how materialism gets in the way of spiritual health and loving as God wants us to do.

The problem of alleviating poverty is a lot like the problem of obeying God was during the time when Jesus was born. People were going through the motions of meaningless rituals and ignoring God's plan.

I pray that this book will help many Christians to learn to reconsider how they "alleviate" poverty.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Donald Mitchell. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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