Monday, November 9, 2015

When Helping Doesn't Hurt

Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc.
                           When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty
                              Without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself, by
                              Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Children in the village of Plan Ranchito
I recently read online that Brian Fikkert, one of the co-authors of the book When Helping Hurts, was a keynote speaker at a conference at the Foothills Alliance Church in Calgary. Thinking that I’d like to know what kind of message was being shared with the good people of southern Alberta, I decided to purchase the book (via Amazon Kindle) and see what it might say.
Rosario and Elena carrying their firewood in Cerro Pelón
My impression: Wow! Corbett and Fikkert articulated many of the ideas that my friends and I often talk about. I congratulate them on the wisdom they share and on the courage it must take to try to “break through” some of the (mistaken) assumptions of many well-meaning North Americans.
An altar for deceased family members in a house in Tototepec - Day of the Dead 2015
That doesn’t mean that I agree totally with everything they write. For example, my approach to other people’s religion is more along the lines of the prophet Micah’s “act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8), while the authors of When Helping Hurts note that “the profound reconciliation of the key relationships that comprise poverty alleviation cannot be done without people accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” I don’t think I’m being wishy-washy about my commitment to the gospel or to “poverty alleviation” by allowing a little more freedom in one’s worldview or choice of religion.
Some of my main advisers on how to best live compassion among the poor
But other than for that personal “doubt” on my part, the book is filled with important insights—ideas about collaborating with local organizations familiar with the challenges and culture; ideas about power (I like their line that “people who have power seldom think about that power, while people who do not have it are very aware that they do not”); ideas about the importance of distinguishing between relief and development (I like their line “How do you spell ‘effective relief’? S-e-l-d-o-m, I-m-m-e-d-i-a-t-e, and T-e-m-p-o-r-a-r-y”); ideas about the importance of “living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation”; ideas about the recognition that “every human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship”; ideas about questioning oneself in terms of whether one’s efforts to alleviate poverty are “about people and processes or about projects and products”; ideas about short-term mission trips (the authors suggest that they should be “about being and learning as much as about doing”); ideas about looking “for ways to give money that builds up local organizations and that truly empowers the poor”; ideas about avoiding paternalism; ideas about how “our perspective should be less about how we are going to fix the materially poor and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us”; ideas about how the best efforts to alleviate poverty “tend to happen in highly relational, process-focused ministries more than in impersonal, product-focused ministries.”
Indigenous students doing homework in the library of the Champagnat High School of the Mountain,
one of Mission Mexico's major educational projects in the mountains of Mexico
I could say more good things about the book, but I think I’ve stated enough to let the reader know that I think that this is a great book—an important book. And I like to think that Mission Mexico attempts to be faithful to the many pieces of “advice” that are shared in this book. Thank you, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.
Griselda and Israela walking to village cemetery on the Day of the Dead
To end this note, I would like to encourage the reader (if you have four and a half minutes) to take a look at the images in a video that is available on YouTube at In my blog on September 21, I mentioned three friends from Mexico City (Beatriz, Claudia, and Agustin) who were visiting the mountains. They participate in a non-profit organization called (in English) Alternatives for a Life in Solidarity for Development and Peace. Beatriz posted a short video of many of the people (especially children) she met during that trip. Mission Mexico plays a role in producing many of the smiles you will see in this video. Please take a look and enjoy! Hasta pronto.
A great way to enjoy a morning coffee in Xochitepec, as friends drop by
on to their way to school for the day

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