Thursday, August 13, 2009

When Helping Hurts, a review

Of the few books I've read recently, one of the most important ones is "When Helping Hurts, How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor . . . and yourself" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. ref=sib_dp_pt.jpg
Corbett and Fikkert are scholars based at the Chalmers Insitute at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA. These guys know their stuff about international economic development and have been at it a while. I was interested to see that the book was published by Moody Press.

The premise of the book is that much of what Christians do in the way of ministry among the poor (they call it poverty alleviation) is actually harmful to both parties (those "reached", those "reaching"). I agree.

As a practitioner myself, and a teacher, this book resonated strongly with me. The challenges that we have in our desire to "serve" others, purportedly under the desire to be like Jesus (who came to serve) is too often done out of an unrecognized desire to keep ourselves in the superior place. The sensibility that develops is a truth that ultimately wounds us: It is better to give than to receive, so we (only) want to give. But we are not Jesus. . . we need to receive too.

Out of this sensibility (appropriately called paternalism by Corbett and Fikkert) we think it's not only best for us always to give/serve, but we think we are the only ones who have something to offer. Acting on this (even when well intended) injures both us by adding to our pride, and others, by affirming them as fundamentally "lacking".

Here are some other highlights for the book:

As westerners we generally understand poverty in material terms. Logically, we then assume that work among the poor is primarily about leveraging resources or skills. Yet they demonstrate that poverty as defined by those in poverty is often primarily understood in fundamentally psychological terms. Terms like "powerless", "shameful", worthless" and others are self-applied.

Poverty must be understood in Creation-Fall-Redemption terms. Poverty is fundamentally the absence of Shalom. Shalom is all about relationships, therefore poverty is fundamentally about the broken relationships (with God, self, others, the creation) and NOT fundamentally about lack of something. Addressing poverty then MUST be part of our understanding of the work of Christ, the gospel, the calling of the church and the Kingdom of God.

All poverty is NOT created equal. Differing levels of distress and poverty require differing levels of response. The 3 levels of response are: relief, rehabilitation, development. Most of the work of the church is in the area of relief, whereas most of the need is for development. As Abraham Kuyper said 100+ years ago, Christians just don't understand economics and so our work and $ is put in the wrong place.

The section detailing a definition of multiple kinds of paternalism was great! It was bold to publish this on Moody Press since MBI is one of the leading senders of missionaries around the world. Yet it is clearly a topic that is important and generally unspoken about (same thing with the STM discussion below).

1/3 of all missionary giving is towards Short Term Missions (STM). Most STMs do more harm than good. I was both challenged and affirmed in reading this (we run a STM program). We have thought very carefully about this and have sought to do things very differently than most STM programs. I was about 90% affirmed in reading this chapter but was still challenged to think about sharpening some aspects of what we do.

My critique of the book is that it is too short and too wide to be a helpful tool practically. The reality is that this is an entry level book that is critical to get people started. I just wish it had more follow up tools.

The section on relief-rehabilitation-development was also so introductory that it lacked any real meat about what each of these three things are. Relief is only appropriate where there is such a crisis that "the bleeding needs to be stopped". I don't know what "bleeding" is in contexts of entrenched poverty. I also came away with NO idea what rehabilitation is in thier model. People around my church aren't getting quality food, are dealing with high rates of violence, are in schools that are a catastrophe. I assume that since it is generational poverty and crime that is at issue that the most appropriate connection is development, yet using this book I didn't know how to actually draw those lines or really define the 3 categories well (especially the first 2).

The connection between Shalom and Poverty was the richest contribution for me personally. I teach on these topics in depth every time we have an STM team here and so think about them alot. Clearly the book is a great help on the whole!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why we need one more rule.

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, 2 guys from the Chalmers Center at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain GA have really got me thinking.

At Sunshine we have 3 rules for the kids:

Respect God
Respect Others
Respect the Building

We try to keep it simple and build discernment with the kids rather than a long list of do's and dont's. I was listening to Pastor Pete (or is that "The Father"?) explain our rules for Summer Blast (50 kids in the building for summer VBS type programming all summer). The BB students help run the program. . . anyway, he was explaining this and other concepts for our working with the youth and doing a great job talking about how we share the gospel, love the kids, encourage/challenge them in these 3 areas.

The ironic thing was that I had just finished teaching about "Shalom" and on a dry erase board near the sign with the 3 R's listed above, I had written out that Shalom entails 3 things:

Joy in Relationship to:
our Environment.

As I sat back listening to Pete I realized that these rules are anchored in a much deeper set of truths than "tell 'em about Jesus and keep 'em in line". Of course I already knew this but sitting back with fresh review of "Shalom" and then hearing The Father speak, it just clicked: even our rules with our kids are anchored in this pursuit of what we as Image Bearers were designed for, the Shalom of God.

Back to Steve and Brian: I am reading their new book "When Helping Hurts" which is a serious critique and overall very insightful book about "alleviating poverty" aka. ministry among the poor.

They made this connection between what poverty is and what Shalom is that got me thinking. As westerners we tend to define poverty in material and financial terms, whereas most of those who are actually poor tend to define poverty in relational and psychological terms of brokkeness.

"Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings." p15, quoting B Myers.

This is a rich and complicated statement but goes to the heart of alleviating poverty that we all suffer under, just in differing ways. The narrative of scripture is Creation, Fall, Redemption. Everything is broken. . . all relationships. . . for poverty to be addressed and shalom to be attained, we need healing in all areas and to add to our list above. When it says Jesus was about restoring "All things" (Col 1) is is consistent with his announcement of his public ministry that was equally all encompassing (Luke 4).

To consider our "rules" we have to recognized that part of our poverty is about the broken relationship we have with ourselves. We tend either toward "God complexes" (the rich) or toward "shame" (the poor).

So let's add one important aspect of shalom ruling:
Respect yourself (its part of shalom!)