Many churches are doing more harm than good in their attempts to alleviate poverty. Here’s how to fix that.
I know that I speak for our entire mission team when I say that this trip transformed our lives. I wish you all could’ve seen the looks on the kids’ faces as they watched our puppet show during VBS. They had never seen anything like that before. And the clothes we
gave them—oh my!—you would have thought we were giving them new cars or something!” Kevin swallowed hard to subdue the lump in his throat and concluded, “I know I will never be the same again.”
Kevin wasn’t the only one choking back tears; the entire congregation had played a role in the trip to assist a church in a rural village in Ethiopia. The youth group had washed cars to raise money for the VBS materials; the women’s society had collected donations of children’s clothing; and even the first-graders had helped, packing the clothes into individual boxes that they wrapped with pretty paper.
As Kevin spoke, Pastor Harrison scanned the faces of the members of his congregation. For years he had been fighting apathy in his flock, and now—finally—his prayers had been answered. With a deep sense of satisfaction he thought to himself: Yes, Kevin, you have been transformed, and our entire church has been transformed. Things will definitely be different around here in the future.
Eight thousand miles away in Ethiopia, things were already different. Kevin’s mission team had caused three businesses to close, had undermined the ministry of their Ethiopian partner church and had made the poor even poorer than they were before. Community Fellowship Church (CFC) meant well, but good intentions are not enough. It is possible to do considerable harm to poor people in the process of trying to help them.
The Need for a Sound Diagnosis
What had gone wrong? CFC had misdiagnosed the fundamental cause of poverty and had applied the wrong medicine. Like most North Americans, the members of CFC tended to view poverty as a lack of material things. Hence, CFC’s solutions tended toward giving material things to poor people in the form of clothing.
In contrast, poor people in the majority world (Africa, Asia and Latin America) describe their poverty more broadly, using psychological and social categories such as humiliation, shame, inferiority, vulnerability, hopelessness, powerlessness and entrapment.
What happens when these different conceptions of poverty collide? Imagine being Joseph, a man in the Ethiopian village that CFC’s team visited. You work long hours, but you are unable to provide adequate food and clothing for your family. What’s wrong with me? you often wonder. And now some Americans are in your village, handing out clothing to your kids that you could not provide for them yourself. Embarrassed and humiliated in front of your own children, you withdraw from the scene along with many other men from the community.
That evening one of CFC’s team member’s states, “What a shame it is that these women and children don’t have husbands and fathers who truly care for their families.”
Poverty is not fundamentally due to a lack of material things. Indeed, CFC provided material things to the Ethiopians but only made matters worse. We need a sound diagnosis of the problem of poverty if we are to help without hurting.
A Biblical Framework for Thinking About Poverty
As three in one, God is inherently a relational being. Because humans are created in God’s image, we are inherently relational beings as well. God established four foundational relationships for each person: a relationship with God, with self, with other people and with the rest of creation. These relationships are the building blocks for all of life. When they are functioning properly, humans experience the fullness of life that God intended: marriages are intimate; families are nurturing; work is fulfilling and productive; and people glorify God in all that they do.
Unfortunately, Adam’s sin brought damage to all four relationships, resulting in a host of problems for all of us. For some people these broken relationships result in material poverty. For example:
• Broken relationship with self: People with a strong sense of inferiority are often too fearful to take the risks associated with entrepreneurship.
• Broken relationship with others: Failing to love their fellow human beings, rich countries have pursued unjust trade policies that have severely reduced the wages for workers in the majority world.
• Broken relationship with the rest of creation: Adhering to a belief that the world is controlled by unpredictable spirits, many people in the majority world don’t believe they are able to have dominion over creation. This belief can result in an unwillingness to adopt improved agricultural techniques, since there is no predictable benefit from doing so.
• Broken relationship with God: Some people in the majority world spend a small fortune trying to appease ancestral spirits, thereby reducing the amount of money they can spend on basic necessities for their families.
Human beings are fundamentally relational, and material poverty—like all problems—is rooted in broken relationships. In most situations, you can’t restore these relationships by simply handing out clothing. A different approach is needed.
Applying a Reconciling Approach
The goal of reconciling relationships profoundly shapes the way in which North American churches should approach poverty alleviation. Here are a few tips:
1. Don’t provide relief inappropriately. Relief is a temporary handout in response to a crisis. Relief is only necessary when people are completely incapable of helping themselves and need someone to stop the bleeding. For example, medical attention in the initial hours after a tsunami would be an appropriate application of relief. However, the overwhelming majority of poverty in the world isn’t due to an immediate crisis, but rather to long-term, chronic issues. In such contexts, handouts—such as CFC’s clothing distribution—tend to undermine people’s dignity and stewardship, thereby exacerbating the very problems they were trying to solve.
2. Avoid paternalism like the plague. Do not habitually do things for people that they can do for themselves. For many of us who live in North America, our broken relationship with self is characterized by pride. We assume that we know more and that we can do it better. We rush in and take charge, and in the process we can undermine the capacity of local people to exercise their own gifts and to be stewards of their own communities.
CFC’s VBS made this mistake. The Ethiopian church was materially poor, but they had vast spiritual resources. They had been successfully conducting Bible studies with the children in their community for many years. But after CFC’s team left, the children were no longer interested in these Bible studies. Why? The children explained that the Ethiopian church’s Bible study materials were not as flashy as CFC’s puppets and that the Ethiopian church’s staff was not as dynamic as the people on CFC’s mission team. CFC’s paternalism undermined the Ethiopian church’s long-term, highly relational ministry—the type of ministry that is absolutely fundamental for bringing about the reconciliation that is the very essence of poverty alleviation.
3. Focus on assets rather than needs. Most ministry efforts begin by asking local people what their needs are. When people feel a deep sense of inferiority and shame, it’s difficult to imagine a more harmful approach than having outsiders ask questions that communicate, either explicitly or implicitly, “What is wrong with you? How can I fix you?” In addition to confirming people’s humiliation, the nature of these questions creates a presumption that solutions and resources will come from the outsiders, which undermines the entire goal of restoring the local people to their God-ordained place as stewards over their own communities.
In contrast, an asset-based approach starts out by asking such questions as: What gifts and abilities do you have? What resources—physical, social and spiritual—has God placed within this community? What can you do to use your gifts and resources to solve problems and create bounty?
In a situation in which people are feeling inferior, simply asking these questions starts the process of restoring people’s sense of dignity. Furthermore, these questions communicate that solutions and resources will come from the local people themselves, which is consistent with the goal of helping them to be better stewards over their own communities.
CFC’s failure to use an asset-based approach resulted in damage to the local economy. If CFC had asked about local assets, it would have discovered several small clothing businesses trying to eke out a profit in this village. When CFC dumped its clothing donations into this setting, it undermined these businesses’ markets and forced them to close, increasing the very material poverty that CFC was trying to alleviate.
4. Focus on people and processes, not on programs and products. How the house gets built is more important than the finished product. The process must affirm the dignity and gifts of poor people and local organizations.
Some helpful questions to ask are: Did the process communicate that the poor people had gifts and abilities, or did it communicate that they needed us to save them? Did we do the project with poor people or to them? Were the poor people full participants in the project, including its selection, design, execution and evaluation? Or did we make all the decisions, implicitly communicating that poor people are inferior to us?
5. Support interventions that can bring lasting change. It is unrealistic to think we can spend a week somewhere and bring about positive and lasting change to people’s lives. The good news is that there are a number of interventions (e.g., microenterprise development) that can be consistent with a long-term, reconciling framework. Do research to find out more about how your church can be involved appropriately. In particular, consider ways to strengthen the efforts of grass-roots churches and ministries.
Trouble Lies Ahead
Pastor Harrison was beaming, but trouble was just around the corner. CFC’s approach had hurt the Ethiopian church and its community. Several years later, Kevin would again stand in front of CFC’s congregation and say: “I must confess that I am quite disappointed in the Ethiopians. We’ve given them our time and money, but they always seem to have their hands out wanting more. The men are mostly passive and disinterested; the Ethiopian church isn’t reaching out to its community; and nobody is being productive. I think we should stop helping the Ethiopians until they demonstrate more responsibility.”
As Kevin spoke, pride reared its ugly head in the hearts of the congregation. This was not a new problem, for like many North American churches, the members of CFC unknowingly had some assumptions that they were superior to the Ethiopians. You see, the flip side of the Ethiopians’ sense of inferiority was CFC’s sense of superiority. Unfortunately, the mission trips only exacerbated this brokenness for each of them. Until CFC embraces the message of the gospel—that both the materially rich and the materially poor are fundamentally broken and need the healing of Jesus Christ—the poverty of both parties will continue to increase, one bundle of clothing at a time.
Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert work for the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., where they serve as professors in the Department of Economics and Community Development. They are also co-authors of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself. For more information, visit whenhelpinghurts.org.