When Helping Hurts Review

Book Review: 

If I had read this book before releasing my top twenty list for 2012, it would have been near the top without a doubt. It’s one of the few books that after reading will shift your entire worldview. When Helping Hurts explores the way in which we should help those who are poor. But Corbett and Fikkert also explore the way which our current methods not only don’t work but actually hurt those we are seeking to help. That’s the crux.

In Part 1, they lay down foundational concepts for helping without hurting. This foundation is not only practical but also theological. Corbett & Fikkert say, “The task of God’s people is rooted in Christ’s mission” (p. 37). They argue churches must prepare their congregations for understanding world views and interpreting cultures. They ask, “If Christ is Lord of all, how do we do farming, business, government, family, art, etc., to the glory of God” (p. 45). They also examine how “people affect systems, [and] systems affect people” (p. 56). In my circles, this is frequently not understood or neglected--especially by a lot of white middle-class Christians. We see that people are evil but we fail to see how systems are and can impact people. We also fail to understand that “We are not bringing Christ to poor communities. He has been active in these communities since the creation of the world” (p. 57).

In Part 2, they move on towards a general principle for helping without hurting. They assert that not all poverty is created equal. They examine the type of help needed which undergirds the not hurting emphasis. Different situations and different people call for relief, rehabilitation, or development (p. 99). If you read on, what they tell us and what my own experience confirms is that a lot of the traditional western help for poor is relief (p. 101) when relief isn’t what’s needed (see seldom, immediate, and temporary on p. 105). This creates harm, removes human dignity, and establishes dependency. Their steps for determining if relief is need are invaluable (pp. 101-104). There’s also a strong emphasis on using the assets already available in all these communities (back to Christ already at work). They say, “Jesus Christ created, sustains, and is redeeming assets in poor communities. As the body of Christ, the church should seek to do the same” (p. 123).

In Part 3 & 4, they get down to the nitty gritty. They’re looking at practical strategies and getting started. It’s all methodology. I’ll let you read the book to get the details but one important emphasis which I will mention. They urge churches to reconsider how and why they are doing short term mission trips (STM). After establishing the foundations and guidelines for not harming, they encourage churches to examine their own mission trips to ensure these trips are actually helping the communities the churches are “serving.” Looking back at most of the church I’ve attended almost all of the STM did harm and didn’t create lasting value for the communities. That’s not to say there was no good done. Through all of this practical advice, Corbett and Fikkert don’t lose sight of the gospel. This isn’t social gospel. Or deeds without words (“But loans alone cannot reconcile people to God” p. 191). This book contains a robust application of the gospel and works it out in an extremely helpful format.

I would recommend this book to everyone. Not overstating. Everyone. I can’t thinking of single person who couldn’t benefit from reading When Helping Hurts--especially not the people in the circles I run. Conservatives. Liberals. Christians. Even non-Christians. This is a message we need to hear. It would help improve our welfare problems here in America and drastically change the way we offer international assistance to the Majority World. Buy it now; don’t delay.