‘When Helping Hurts,’ book review

I’m not sure what the literary equivalent of disruptive technology is, but When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert would certainly fit the description. Perhaps cognitive realignment could be suggested.

In the wake of the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile combined with ongoing struggles in Sudan and concerns about unemployment in the U. S., minds and hearts have been turned to those in need. While compassion is a good, even Christlike, attitude to have wisdom is also necessary which is where Corbett and Fikkert excel.

Subjects of the American poverty mindset.


This thoroughly biblical book looks at poverty from the aspect of four sets of relationships: our relationship to God, self, others and the rest of creation. Since all of God’s created order has been damaged by The Fall, every set of relationships have been royally messed up. The challenge to those in the West is to recognize the material poverty of The Majority World is no worse than the spiritual poverty of our own broken relationships in all areas. Due to this misunderstanding, many efforts at poverty relief fall short of helping for the long term.

Perhaps most helpful for Americans is a delineation between relief, rehabilitation and development. Americans and others tend to view every single instance of poverty, even extreme poverty, with a relief mentality when often development is the right approach. Since development is a more difficult and time-consuming process than relief, it is the approach often not taken. Not to mention our own pride causes us to seek a feeling of “having helped” or having “seen 50 people saved,” short term goals, rather than building the relationships necessary for long-term development.

One of the most cognitive realigning portions of the book has to do with the different ways poverty is viewed by the materially poor and the materially well off. Those with means tend to view poverty in terms of not having things, while those in poverty use terms related to shame and powerlessness. This leads the authors to this statement:

One of the biggest problems in many poverty alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich–their god-complexes–and the poverty of being of the economically poor–their feelings of inferiority and shame. The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates–albeit unintentionally–that we are superior and they are inferior. [pg. 65, emphasis in original

Had I done a “2009 Top Books” list, When Helping Hurts would have been tied for the top spot with Tim Keller’s, The Prodigal God. While the latter is a soteriological and exegetical masterwork, the former is a just-as-profound monument as a theology of economic justice.

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.