Book Review: When Helping Hurts

ImageHave you ever wondered if what you’re doing for the poor is really helping? When Helping Hurts reveals the painful and complex truth about poverty and offers practical concepts, principles, and strategies. This book focuses on appropriate ways for the Western church—and its missionaries—to participate in poverty alleviation at home and abroad. Part 1 lays a foundation for all poverty-alleviation efforts by discussing the fundamental nature of poverty and then drawing out some implications. Part 2 discusses three key issues that should be considered in poverty-alleviation strategies. Part 3 then applies all of these concepts to a set of strategies designed to alleviate poverty through increasing people’s wealth.

If you are unable to read the whole book, chapters 4 and 7 are the best. Before surveying these two chapters, it’s important to understand a key point made by the authors. A wrong view of God affects everything, including economics. So, if we believe that the primary cause of poverty is oppression by powerful people, then we will primarily try to work for social justice. If we believe the primary cause is personal sins of the poor, we will labor to evangelize and disciple them.

If You Can Only Read Two Chapters… and a Couple Weaknesses

Essential Chapter #1 is “Not All Poverty Is Created Equal” (ch. 4). Whenever evaluating poverty alleviation, we must discern whether the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation, or development. “Relief” is the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering (e.g. The Good Samaritan). “Rehabilitation” begins as soon as the bleeding stops. It works with the victims. “Development” is a process of ongoing change in the life of the people. “One of the biggest mistakes that the North American churches make—by far—is applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention” (105). Asking the right questions is essential (v. 106). Above all, we must avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.

Essential Chapter #2 is “Doing Short-Term Missions without Doing Long-Term Harm” (ch.7). The authors dare to question the validity of STM’s, especially those done to help the material needs of the poor. Though there are benefits, here is a summary of seven problems that STM’s create. (1) A failure to understand the culture (individualism v. collectivism, monochronic v. polychromic). (2) Giving must be done in a short time. (3) “Relief” is usually the wrong response. (4) Deep relationships with the nationals are impossible. (5) Paternalism is created (read the long quote on p. 169!). (6) STM’s is often a colossal waste of funds. It is not unusual for a trip to cost $30k in airline tickets for a single team to have a two-week experience. “The money spent on a single STM team…would be sufficient to support more than a dozen far more effective indigenous workers for an entire year. And we complain about wasteful government spending!” (173). (7) Some Christians will only give to missions if they can experience a trip themselves. If there is no trip, the money will go elsewhere.

Are there solutions? Absolutely! (1) Make sure the host organization requests a team. The church shouldn’t force the matter. (2) Be sincerely open to not sending a team. (3) Design the trip to be about “being” and “learning” as much as “doing”. (4) Avoid paternalism. (5) Keep the number of team members small. (6) Don’t focus on the adventure and fun the team will have. (7) Don’t overstate that STM’s are the only ones serious about missions.

The weaknesses of this book are few. At times the authors appear naïve, especially when presenting the almost Utopian motives of the Third World (e.g. Africa is not as time conscious as the West because it wants to “build relationships”; many poor Americans are not working because they feel inferior). Further, the books suggests that the Great Reversal (the church’s large scale retreat from poverty alleviation from 1900-1930) was caused by the evangelical’s split from the overall theological drift by liberals toward the Social Gospel. It was not a result of government programs (like FDR and LBJ’s war on poverty). I remain unconvinced.


I typically don’t gravitate toward books that emphasize the church’s role in poverty alleviation. This book was different because it understands the dangers and complexities of social ministry and proposes biblical solutions. Chapter four was the most helpful, but every pastor and Christian interested in missions must read chapter 7.


Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. Chicago: Moody, 2009. 230 pp.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: When Helping Hurts

  1. Pingback: Blitzkrieg Missions: “Are Short-Term Trips A Friend or Foe to Missionaries?” | Between Two Cultures

  2. Pingback: Review (pt.1): When Helping Hurts | Between Two Cultures

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