Nicaragua ’10

My last post on this topic focused on the North American tendency to define poverty and the alleviation of poverty in materialistic terms when, in actuality, poverty encompasses much more. From a faith perspective, poverty is not being able to be all that God has intended us to be- glorifying Him through right relationship with God, ourselves, others, and creation. Having enough material things is just a small part of that equation.

Am I saying that giving material donations is bad? It is only appropriate in certain situations, and too often we North Americans over-emphasize materialism in trying to relieve poverty. In some cases, building someone a house, serving someone free food, or gifting money can do more (unintended) harm in the long run. Because poverty alleviation is not just about having enough, doing the “right thing” at the wrong time will negatively affect those core relationships the poor have with themselves, God, others, and creation. Are the poor better connected to their community, better stewards of their resources, or feeling capable and empowered if they have to stand by and watch Americans build them a house? To better understand what to do and when, the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself describes three phases of poverty alleviation that take the poor further down the path to “being the productive steward they were created to be. … One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make- by far- is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention” (pg. 105).

Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development

Haiti ’09

Relief: Emergency, temporary aid to reduce immediate suffering resulting from a natural or man-made crisis. Often materialistic and often over-diagnosed. Relief “stops the bleeding” for someone who cannot help themselves at the time.
Rehabilitation: Restoration to pre-crisis state and minimizing future vulnerabilities. Immediately after the “bleeding stops,” outside help works with victims in their own recovery.
Development: Process of ongoing change moving people closer to being in right relationship with themselves, others, God, and nature. Restoring individual identity and vocation, household, community institutions, and societal laws. Empowering local people. (pg. 104-5)

Who should be receiving relief and material aid? The book provides several guidelines for when it is appropriate to provide relief:

1) There are serious, negative consequences if you fail to provide immediate help. There is no time for the person or community to take action on their own behalf.

2) The person or community is in crisis through no fault of their own. (Our role is not to punish someone for their mistakes but to allow people to learn from them when necessary.)

3) The person or community has no way to help themselves (otherwise, their capacity to steward their own resources and abilities will be undermined by your help). (pg. 106)

People who require relief efforts are: “the severely disabled; some of the elderly; very young, orphaned children; the mentally ill homeless population; and victims of a natural disaster.” For everyone else for whom the “bleeding has stopped, and they are not destitute… rehabilitation or development- not relief- is the appropriate way of helping such people” (pg. 109).

Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College

Other “When Helping Hurts” series posts:  Intro: CaringIntro: God and PovertyContext Is CriticalHung Up On Material, What To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1)How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)