Unhelpful Help

by Kyle Mangum March 10, 2020

“‘We are in the very bowels of hell,’ I thought to myself.” So said Brian Fikkert, development economist and founder and president of the Chalmers Center of Covenant College, recalling his observation of poverty so dire that surely anything—anything at all—he could do would help alleviate the suffering of the unfortunate souls so afflicted by it. Right?

Wrong, argues Fikkert in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself. In fact, despite good intentions, he made things worse. (To learn the particularly “hellish” backstory, as well as numerous other anecdotes from Fikkert’s unique experience in poverty alleviation, as a professional and laymen, you will have to read the book.) Fikkert’s book is a call to caution against, paradoxically, our noblest impulses. Even the most desperate situations need careful analysis because there can always be remedies worse than the disease. Oftentimes the obvious or immediate solution is the one that exacerbates the situation.

Poorly executed “helping” can hurt both the helper and helped in a variety of ways. Misguided assistance can offend, belittle, and deride the recipient; it can distort incentives, create cycles of dependency, and rob them of long-run recovery. For the helper, it can foster frustration, smugness, or a sense of superiority, all of which is compounded when the poor “fail” to use effectively the “help” offered by the non-poor. Between the two parties, bad helping causes alienation, misunderstanding, and mutual distrust. In the aggregate, it causes resource misallocation, which can crowd out or even reverse better forms of alleviation.

What then is bad helping? Like any good two-armed economist, Fikkert’s answer is: “It depends.” Most of the book is devoted to explaining the nuances of different forms of poverty and how the appropriate response will vary with the situation. He also provides some general principles for avoiding pitfalls and executing effective, long-lasting mercy ministry.

First, the book argues that it is key to have the right mindset, recognizing true needs and not just the superficial ones. Most importantly, Fikkert emphasizes that poverty is not a problem to be fixed as if it were a leaky faucet; rather, the materially poor are people to love as image bearers of God. The practical principles will follow when the perspective is properly set. The outset of the book is devoted to developing such a perspective.

When helping hurts, the underlying cause of the problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and causes of poverty. To be poor is not simply to lack material resources, but to have an inability to control one’s circumstances. It is not just to have a low level of consumption but also a lack of insurance capacity against negative shocks. That is, minor setbacks become devastating, sending the poor on a downward spiral that no amount of bootstrap-grabbing can overcome. The accumulating effects are not only physical. Fikkert notes that when the financially secure define poverty, they speak in terms of unmet material needs—having too little to eat or not being able to pay a bill. But when the poor describe poverty, they speak in terms of vulnerability, exhaustion, and hopelessness. Persistent poverty can lead to a diminished sense of self worth or a nihilist outlook—I  will always suffer, thinks the poor person, so nothing I do matters.

The most important thing to recognize, therefore, is that poverty is another symptom of the fall of man. It is evidence of the broken relationships of man with God, man with creation, and men with each other; thorns curse the ground for all of us. As another manifestation of the fall, poverty results from both broken people and broken systems. This is a point Fikkert is deliberate to emphasize, as some (mostly the more socially and politically conservative) tend to attribute poverty to personal failings, and others (mostly the more socially and politically liberal) tend to attribute poverty to oppressive structures. Both are in effect in most situations because both are broken.

If the cursed ground is the root of the problem, poverty is a much harder problem to solve, and sparing one’s change will certainly not provide the answer. The good news is that Christ came to redeem all creation: the material and spiritual things, the people and the systems. By extension, Christians are called to alleviate poverty not merely out of sympathy but as a part of our participation in Christ’s redemption of the fallen world. The showing of mercy is not a substitute for or complement to evangelism—it is a thread in the cord of redemption, the entwining of physical and spiritual restoration.

With the proper mindset, one is better equipped to help without hurting. The essential guidance, which follows from framing the problem of poverty as a result of the fall, is an emphasis on process over product. The urge to immediately satisfy material needs—to “fix” the problems—while ignoring the person experiencing them is what drives many mistaken attempts at alleviation. Instead, we should be creating institutions and circumstances that will heal the broken relationships of all forms.

The most enlightening chapter of the book makes distinction between three types of help: relief, rehabilitation, and development. An analogy for these types could be the role of paramedics, physicians, and physical therapists in the field of medicine. Relief is appropriate when a short-term but dire circumstance comes upon the poor, such as a natural disaster, job loss, or a personal health emergency. This would be the paramedic step—immediate treatment for acute ailments, rescuing the patient until more sustained treatments can be applied. Rehabilitation is appropriate when the effects of a particular setback need time to be ameliorated, such as rebuilding a structure after a disaster or searching for a new job. This would be the doctoring phase of treatment—a surgery or medication to combat a particular problem in order to restore the patient to pre-crisis status. Development is appropriate when persistent circumstances inhibit the poor from attaining self-sufficiency. This would be the physical therapy stage of treatment—training and strengthening the patient so that he can abide in a healthy state.

All of these stages will confront the poor at some point, and there is nothing inherently good or bad about any one form of help. However, many failures in helping result from applying the wrong type of help given the actual need. In practice, this often means providing relief when recovery or development is actually in order, typically because relief is easier to motivate and provide without requiring a long-term commitment from the helper. Development is the most difficult form, and yet is most commonly needed.

The distinctions pivot the book from an abstract rumination of the nature of poverty to concrete lessons for executing effective poverty alleviation. The balance of the book contains a wealth of advice for recognizing and applying appropriate forms of help. (The practical guidance sections were expanded between the first and section editions.) This includes advice on how to set up institutions to provide development at all times but also enable them to provide relief and recovery when warranted. Fikkert offers churches guidance for conducting local ministries, sending and funding foreign missions (long and short term), and donating wisely.

In making conceptual distinctions and offering practical advice, the book contains some tacit lessons in economic principles. Fikkert admonishes prospective helpers to think about the constraints of the poor. The lack of material consumption is an effect, not a cause; the helper has to identify in a given situation what the underlying cause may be. In doing so, the helper should identify the assets and skills of the poor (and certainly should not assume there are none). Then, in crafting responses to relax the identified constraints, the helper should think about how incentives might be altered. For example, would the help penalize virtuous hard work or truth telling? If so, another response is in order. Finally, the helper should consider the dynamic created by the response. Can (and should) the help be sustained and offered again? How will the help offered today alter constraints and incentives tomorrow? Will it increase self-sufficiency in the recipient, or will it hamstring them from improving their own lot in the future?

A possible critique of the book is that it endorses a form of paternalism. To be fair, Fikkert is careful to state that paternalism is one of the most dangerous threats to effective help—whether from a haughtiness in which the non-poor think they are better because they are smarter, more disciplined, more moral, etc., or from a savior mentality in which the non-poor believe they rescue the poor from destitution with swift, decisive action. Fikkert notes that the poor understand their circumstances better than their prospective helpers, and he emphasizes that alleviation (especially development) necessarily takes time. He also argues that often the funding source of the help is not the best agent to administer it, especially in international contexts with substantial barriers of culture, language, and law. However, with caveats duly noted, some readers will see paternalism nonetheless in the very argument that help can hurt the poor, as it suggests that what the poor ask for is not what is best for them, and therefore they do not even rightly know what they need. Poverty is a delicate issue, and as such, there is something of a balancing act in responding to it—the poor need help but not validation from the helpers. Ultimately, Fikkert’s best advice is to approach any alleviation effort with a heavy dose of humility—both parties are sinners in broken relationships with God, nature, and each other.

The book is a call for caution and careful consideration, but it is certainly not a call to do nothing. The fact that helping can hurt is an admonishment to proceed thoughtfully and humbly, but clearly it would pain Fikkert if the reader used such caution as a cover for inaction. Indeed, if Christ is redeeming all creation and calls us to participate in his kingdom work, then doing nothing is a sin of omission. In mercy showing, as in all things, God commands not results, but obedience.


The views expressed in the book and by the reviewer are not necessarily those of Tenth.  We do believe, however, that they are a useful stimulus to our thinking about these important issues.

Brian Fikkert is the featured speaker at the Mercy Conference later this month. Learn more and register.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Kyle Mangum. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org