* Michelle Thoughts, When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts: How to be Positively Helpful (Part 2)

(A continuation in a series from When Helping Hurts. Click on the “When Helping Hurts” link under Categories in the side bar to see related posts.)

Too often our attitude in service “initiates the very dynamic that we need to avoid, a dynamic that confirms the feelings that we are superior, that they are inferior, and that they need us to fix them” (pg. 126). I would say that our first thought and most common question when we are going into a community to help is: ‘What are the greatest needs?’ While this question makes a lot of sense, in a way it is essentially asking those we are hoping to serve: ‘What is wrong with you?’ What if we turned that question around and asked ‘What is right with you?’ instead? I’ve grown to appreciate this approach, which is demonstrated by community development experts who practice Asset Based Community Developed (ABCD).

Especially for those of us who profess that every human being is made in God’s image and is blessed with their own gifts and talents, ABCD reaffirms the dignity of the materially poor. It “recognizes that poverty is rooted in the brokenness of the foundational relationships and [can be overcome by] restoring both low-income people and ourselves to living in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation” (pg. 127). Notice how the questions asked by Asset-Based Community Development could make someone feel more confident, respected, and hopeful:

* Michelle Thoughts, Other Travels, When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts: Hung Up on Material

Dominican Republic ’05

Alright, today I’m talking about a topic that I hadn’t really considered in this particular way  until I started my “independent study” so I want to give lots of credit to the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself and the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College.

I remember when we were preparing for our Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic- my first ever intentional trip to a developing country- and one of the college leaders of our church said, “You know, we’re not going on this trip to build the Dominicans new garages so they can keep more stuff in storage.” His point was that we’re not supposed to be making people from developing countries look more like those of us in the Western world. Of course, we’re not going to build a poor person a garage, I thought. But maybe we’ll build them a better house. Now, I’m not sure that’s the best idea either. I don’t think I realized how deeply the American culture of materialism affected my views about poverty.

According to the book When Helping Hurts, having a materialistic view of poverty leads us to come up with materialistic solutions. They asked people “What is Poverty?,” and found that those who are poor have different answers than those  who are not. “While poor people mention having a lack of material things,… 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.”(pg. 53). The distinction affects whether we are just treating symptoms or getting at the root causes and whether we are accurately diagnosing those root causes and prescribing the appropriate solutions.

From When Helping Hurts Webinar downloads (Haiti: Doing Asset-Based Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development)

Here’s an alternative definition of poverty: “Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable,” according to Bryant Miller in Walking with the Poor, pg. 86. The poor describe their poverty in psychological and social terms, in relational terms, not merely materialistic. Poverty is not just about what we do or do not have. Here’s where faith is at the center of the picture again. The When Helping Hurts book suggests that to be all that God created us to be, we need well-functioning relationships with:

Haiti Foundation of Hope ’09
  • God
  • self
  • others
  • creation

Broken or dysfunctional relationships in one or a combination of these categories constitutes poverty. Therefore, true poverty alleviation is holistic and will work at restoring relationships with God (spiritual intimacy), self (humility, self-esteem), others (community), and creation (stewardship).

There is also the sense that in some of these relationships, someone we consider “poor” is likely much richer than we are- in relation to God or to others, for example. Too often we North Americans tend to serve with a “God Complex.” I don’t like to think that I’m better than someone or that I know everything there is to know, but I am motivated to help the poor in part because I want to feel worthwhile, accomplished, significant- isn’t that trying to be like God? The God Complex is considered a “poverty of being,” or an unhealthy relationship to yourself. “One of the many problems in many poverty alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich- their god-complexes- and the poverty of being of the economically poor- their feelings of inferiority and shame” (pg. 65).

Instead of making sure poor people have more material things, true poverty alleviation will empower people to earn sufficient material things on their own. “The goal is to restore people to a full expression of humanness… to see people restored to being what God created them to be: people who understand that they are created in the image of God with the gifts, abilities, and capacity to make decisions and to effect change in the world around them; and people who steward their lives, communities, resources, and relationships in order to bring glory to God” (pg. 78, 81). What this means in practical terms for poverty relief will be the topic of upcoming posts.

* Michelle Thoughts, Other Travels, When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts: Context is Critical

The photos above were taken in Haiti before the earthquake by members of the Haiti Foundation of Hope Vision Team in June 2009

“The U.S. people don’t know us enough. The first thing that Haitians need from the American people is for them to know our history better.”

Roseanne Auguste, community health worker with the Association for the Promotion of Integrated Family Health from What Haitians Want from Americans (And What They Don’t) compiled by Beverly Bell

This quote by a Haitian woman summarizes, for Haiti, was is true in any situation where we are trying to serve people and improve their situation. How many times have we tried to “help” someone before we truly get to know them? Imagine trying to explain a problem to someone, only to have them jump in and tell you a solution that you know would never really work? Their intentions are good but they just don’t know you or the situation well enough. Imagine trying to describe your symptoms to a doctor, only to have them diagnose you with a simple ailment before going in depth into your complex medical history. By not understanding the full context, the doctor may gloss over critical symptoms in your past or other related illnesses that, when taken all together, would cause the doctor to prescribe a completely different remedy. I believe that in many cases, if we understood the context or the background of the people we want to help, we’d find ourselves helping in very different and more effective, responsible, positive (i.e. helpful) ways.

What do I mean by “context?” When we want to create a solution to a problem like alleviating poverty, we have to look at the root causes. The story commonly used to illustrate this point is this: Imagine you are standing by a river and all of the sudden you notice a baby comes floating down the river in front of you. Obviously, you should go in and try to save the baby from drowning. But then you notice another baby coming floating down the river, and another, and another. You realize that it is not enough to keep saving these babies from drowning, someone must go up the river and find out who or what is causing all the babies to be thrown into the river. (Side note: the students I worked with last year depicted this in a skit and deemed the cause to be the “Evil Baby Baron,” complete with an old-fashioned mobster mustache. Anyway…) It’s important to understand that there are many complex factors that cause poverty in order to start diagnosing solutions. To better understand the causes of poverty that pervade our world, I highly recommend Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (see chapters 7 and 8).

A peoples’ history, politics, and policies also make up their context and affect poverty in unique ways. I first saw this most fully during an immersion trip to Nicaragua (see video post here) with Witness for Peace and was then inspired to learn more about the background story in Haiti. I always thought history was kind of boring and to this day have trouble getting historical dates and names to stick in my mind. However, it became much more interesting once I discovered how the history of a country like Haiti explains much of why it is in such a sad state today and also helps inform ways to make improvements. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the state of Haiti today is because Haitians have just never managed to get their act together and that they’ve been tragically unlucky to be hit by a series of hurricanes and earthquakes. But if you search deeper, you’ll find much more. For example, Haitians actually defeated Napoleon’s troops to become the first independent, black republic in the world. Despite this great accomplishment, Haiti was consistently bullied by various countries of the Western world, including being forced to pay retribution to France for “lost property” (i.e. slaves) and, more recently, having a popularly elected president forced out of office by none other than the U.S. government. The lack of success in Haiti is not for lack of effort or capability. Western countries have throughout history interfered in Haitian affairs in countless, harmful ways. (More on this in another post.)

There is also the cultural context that must be understood. One of my favorite classes I’ve ever taken was Cross-Cultural Communication where we learned how we all hold unspoken cultural norms, or rules, that we are often unaware of but that help us interpret our interactions with others. Each culture has their own particular version of what is polite and what is rude, what behaviors communicate friendship, what is acceptable to do in certain circumstances and what is just not done. Some cultures require an elaborate series of greetings and questions before engaging in a discussion with someone. Not doing so would come off as disrespectful. In some cultures it is better to act agreeably and then not follow through than to tell another person directly that something can’t or shouldn’t be done. For them, “saving face” always takes priority. Other cultures have taboos about which hand you use to eat, whether you cover your mouth when you yawn, or whether you should open a gift in front of the person who gave it. When taking that Cross-Cultural course, I came to realize that when it comes to cultural differences, oftentimes you don’t know what you don’t know. All the more reason to educate yourself as much as possible. Before going into a community to help, it’s important to understand these cultural norms in order to work effectively with people and also not offend them! Additionally, cultural differences can mean that solutions to problems may need to be adapted- or may not transfer at all- from one culture to the next. One community may hold different values or practice customs that would prevent a program from being as successful as it might be somewhere else.

Failing to understand the context where you are serving can be not only disrespectful, but your service can end up causing more harm than good. For mission trips abroad, this means doing your research on the history, current events, political ideologies, and cultural customs you will be encountering. It means listening to the opinions and wisdom of local people and approaching the community with humility. Our Cross-Cultural Communication class described it as “inhaling more than you exhale.” Be mindful that you “don’t know what you don’t know” and you must do a lot of learning before you can do any teaching. While you may have a certain kind of expertise you bring to your service, you must also recognize that the people who belong to the community have their own expertise built on years and years of experience in that place. (Also remember that the same people will be there for years and years to come, and you may not, so they must be integral to your service if it’s to be sustainable.)

A reminder: Please provide feedback, questions, and suggestions for this post. Thanks!

Other “When Helping Hurts” series posts:  Intro: CaringIntro: God and Poverty, Context Is Critical, Hung Up On MaterialWhat To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1)How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)

* Michelle Thoughts

Haiti Hopeless or Healing

One of the greatest tragedies in my socially conscious lifetime was the earthquake in Haiti this year. What a greater tragedy it would be to forget…

The Bazilme family, whom we shared a week with in Haiti last June (Pastor Delamy Bazilme is the in-country leader of Haiti Foundation of Hope), were recently in the Northwest. Hearing Pastor Delamy speak about the current situation brought both hope and helplessness. We can only thank God that he and his family are still alive, having been in Port-au-Prince the day of the quake. He has been working non-stop since the disaster, hardly sleeping, until their trip the States a couple weeks ago. Just over a year ago, I had heard him speak about the challenges in Haiti before ever setting foot there, but this time it was different. To hear him say the situation is simply “miserable,” I could sense in his voice and behind his jolly and gracious spirit, that he is worn and tired. I pray for his strength, endurance, and encouragement through this uphill battle, Pastor Delamy, the power house and the hope for so many people.

In an effort to stay in tune with the situation in Haiti, Jedd and I attended a talk at the Mercy Corps Action Center by a member of the International Crisis Group, an organizational that analyzes the factors driving conflict and makes recommendations for policy and reconstruction. He repeated something which was shared with us on the Nicaragua Immersion as well, which was that Bill Clinton actually took the blame for exacerbating the degree of devastation in Haiti.

In his presidency, Clinton pressured countries like Haiti to dramatically lower their tariffs on imported U.S. rice, leaving them unable to supply their own staple crop and diminishing their investments in agriculture. Now the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, he says: “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. … I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.” We saw similar effects of American trade policies, which hinder self-sustaining agricultural production, in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, Haiti has become a prime example of just how detrimental our self-serving trade policies can get. It’s refreshing to hear Clinton apologize. I only hope he’ll be effective and thoughtful in helping turn this around. A major part of the Crisis Group’s reconstruction advice includes investment in agriculture, as well as expanding credit to small businesses and farmers and decentralizing the country’s economic center into eight regional development centers. According to the Group, the “Emergency” period in Haiti will last about three years (can you imagine a three year emergency?) and the First Phase of reconstruction will take a full decade. Policy decisions needed to move forward with a resettlement plan have yet to be made, and the country is waiting on U.S. Congress to approve desperately needed assistance funding for democratic elections in 2011 (a requirement to satisfy U.N. benchmarks).

In reflecting on the miserable catastrophe in Haiti, the ridiculous oil spill, the never-ending wars, the broken public school systems, and on and on with all that is deeply wrong with humanity, I have been very humbled. I’ve realized that I cannot solve the world’s problems and neither can anyone else. I’ve seen how complex, deeply rooted, and numerous our problems are. All that remains is trust in God. Not that I’ve given up or even become pessimistic really. But I’ve submitted to the reality that we as human beings are in over our heads, and our only hope is our Creator. A Creator, who- fortunately for us- is powerful and loving and has made great promises for justice, restoration, and a kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven. He has asked us to be His hands and feet and to do small things with great love, trusting in His plan.

* Jedd Thoughts

Hope for Haiti

I’m in shock. My heart is crushed, and I am deeply saddened.

It’s been about 7 months since our journey to the Haiti we once knew, now forever changed, a Haiti in desperate need of help and hope. You might recall posts from our recent trip about the land, our pictures, our love for the people.

First of all, many thanks to you for your prayers, thoughts, and financial support to organizations like the Red Cross, Mercy Corps, One Days Wages, and of course, our dear friends at Haiti Foundation of Hope. Please continue to pray for the people of Haiti, for the relief work, for those missing loved ones, for the aid workers preparing to travel, and for humility and a way to connect on a humanistic level to those affected by this disaster. There have been many tragedies in our world, yet this one feels so different to me as we think of our friends and the people there, the magnitude of the situation, barely being able to imagine what it’s like down there.

It pains and angers me to read comments that people believe that Haitians somehow deserved this (Read this CNN article about Pat Robertson), that the damage could have been prevented, that we should focus on putting blame on someone or God for the situation. Thankfully, there have been a lot of amazing reflection about this issue (like Donald Miller’s Response) and I am reminded that I do not help the issue by getting angry at others and trying to debate, but instead, I am called to support the relief efforts in anyway possible.

We must use our energy and resource to act and respond to help. I can’t even fathom how people have the audacity to cast away human suffering and need and focus on issues that distract from the true need at hand. I know there are some who can relate to this kind of suffering and tragedy, but for the most of us, we don’t and could never comprehend something to this magnitude.

Imagine sleeping in a building with no steel rebar in it for reinforcement, let alone on something that is kind of mattress. Imagine being one of thousands of homes that are built next to each other, on top of each other. Access to clean water, food, and medical care is scarce. Human waste and trash is hard to remove and transportation to and from your home is either walking or making your way in cramped trucks on rocky pathways that are meant to be roads. There is no stable economy, your country has been hit with several natural disasters, natural resources have been depleted from human action as well as mother nature, and you are too poor to be able to afford to leave and try to make a better life for yourself.

Now sadly, this was just day to day life for the average Haitian. Reality now, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake has just leveled and ravaged this country. All I can think of is, “Why of all places, Haiti?”, especially an earthquake. I read a report about the last major California earthquake and how it caused $20 billion worth of damage and over 80 people were killed. From the reports coming in through the media, tens of thousands have died in the Haitian earthquake and worst yet, aid such as clean water, food, and medicine can’t even make its way on to the island with damaged ports and blocked roads meaning that millions could suffer.

It’s been hard these past couple of days to not feel so saddened, to not feel for so many who have lost loved ones and in many ways the life they’ve known. Yet even in the midst of this chaos, I choose to believe that there is hope for Haiti, I know there is hope for Haiti. If there is a group of people who can endure through hardships, a group of people who know how to survive, and a group of people who will teach us all important lessons about life, it will be the people of Haiti. For many years that have not received the aid and respect they deserve. I hope that in these next couple days, months, and years, we will find a way to come together to work side by side with them to help rebuild their nation and their lives. There is still hope for Haiti.

Here are some pictures I took to get a sense of the buildings that once were, that probably do not exist anymore.

* Michelle Thoughts, Other Travels, Videos

Haiti Recap Video

Here’s a quick video montage I put together of our trip with Haiti Foundation of Hope in June 2009.  I wanted to show everyone a little piece of each aspect of the Foundation we saw without getting too in depth or lengthy.  It’s about 6 and a half minutes.  Jedd graciously obliged me by doing some narrating. Enjoy!

Related posts:
The People of Haiti
The Land of Haiti

Other Travels

The Land of Haiti

Hey Everyone. So many of you have been asking us questions about our experience in Haiti (what did you do, what was it like, was it safe, etc…) Hland8 and we are going to try our best to answer and share as much about it as possible. It’s hard to truly capture everything that we experienced in a blog, but definitely feel its necessary to try (one of us could actually talk forever but thankfully, his better half keeps him grounded, or at least tries to). In these series of posts, we hope to share with you about the people (Tuesday), the land, the amazing services taking place everyday supported by local leaders and the Haiti Foundation of Hope, and of course, our thoughts and feelings about everything. But we might miss something  and we’d love to hear from you, especially if you have any questions or things you want to know about Haiti and our experience. Please leave a comment or email us. We want to help you know more about this special place. Back to the land….


I realized with the “people” post I did a lot of talking and in sharing about the land, I plan to let most of the pictures speak for themselves. The main thing to think about when you look at each one is the relationship between humans and the land. I’ve never been a true advocate for environmental issues and even remained a bit skeptical of the “green” movement and other issues raised. My friend Mike Abbate shares in his book (Gardening Eden) multiple examples of human impact on their local environment. How greed (both from foreign and local businessmen), and unsupervised monitoring and regulation of human activity caused devastating affects, not only to the land and the animals, but more specifically, to the people who called the land home. Haiti is such an example were deforestation obliterated, and literally washed away the land. In simpler terms, humans have cut or burned the trees to make charcoal (notice the coal part) for energy (fires and what not) without any reforestation plan.

Because of the geographical placement of the island (the Caribbean), rains are frequent (thunderstorms and annual hurricanes) which are normally good, but there are no trees (some),

Haiti from air
Notice there are hardly any trees, green from the rains, still no trees

which means the ground is saturated and flooding occurs. Floods lead to accelerated erosion of the land, especially top soil good for farming. There are some good seasons (we witnessed re-growth of plants and farms) but know one knows when the next major flood might wash out everything. The government doesn’t do enough to protect the trees. There are no incentives or alternative programs for people to get energy another way.  There is little in terms of education to teach people the importance of trees. Pastor Delamy shared with us a Haitian proverb, “Sometimes prevention is better than healing”. Proactive measures such as education are important and effective means to fight this battle in Haiti (and in the world). If not, life and land will continually wash away.

Once a road, now a river for constant floods until they can repair it permanently
Once a road, now a river for constant floods until they can repair it permanently
Water flows from the mountains but most are polluted from trash
Water flows from the mountains but most are polluted from trash
and here's why they are polluted. Notice the dump truck in the upper left corner
and here’s why they are polluted. Notice the dump truck in the upper left corner
Fields of Rice (only in one area of the country from what it looked like)
Fields of Rice (only in one area of the country from what it looked like)
See how close everything is built next to each other? Taken from the air by Janan
See how close everything is built next to each other? Taken from the air by Janan

NOTE:  I realized after looking over this post, you might think Haiti is not beautiful. That’s NOT true. These are just the major things that really stood out to me. I also didn’t want to duplicate using pictures I posted before. Haiti IS beautiful and I think that’s what makes these pictures important to me: if nothing is done, the beauty of this land and others will be swept away…

Related posts:
The People of Haiti
Haiti Recap Video

Other Travels

The People of Haiti


When I think about the people of Haiti, I am reminded of their beauty both in spirit and in appearance. They are striking and hauntingly beautiful, particularly when they smile which is not their typical first glance impression. Most Haitians at first glance seem unapproachable and a bit irritable. It’s not that they look mean, just not inviting. However, after saying hello or making eye contact, this facade or assumption I had of their personality, quickly gave way to their true nature of warmth and joy. HPeople20

They are very strong and physically fit people, being very active in their day to day routines and walking as their main form of transportation. However, the most distinctive and beautiful thing about Haitians in regards to their appearance is their eyes. HPeople17Haitians have very large, engaging eyes and a lot is said through them. I often found myself drawn to the way they would look at us with such curiosity as I looked back with wonder. I wondered what many of them thought about us being there. Whether or not the sight of us, our clothes, our actions, or words that we used seem strange or even silly.

I was very surprised that most of the people we met in Terre Blanche had such an intentional desire to get to know us on a personal level. They wanted to build relationships with us, wanted to know about who we where and why we felt God had brought us there. We loved that they felt very comfortable with us asking questions to them about their lives and knew they wanted us to know more about them.

In Terre Blanche, as we walked around the village, people would come out of their thatched roof homes to greet us with joy, and children in groups of 10 or more would follow us asking us to take photos of them. Sadly, not of all Haiti is like this and it’s a true testimony of the miracles and wonders God is doing to instill hope in the people of this village and in many other parts of Haiti (where the people of Haiti are in partnership with aid workers).

Overall, life in Haiti is difficult. I’ve often complained here in the US about not having enough money to buy something that I want, or worried about what I don’t have, but the truth is, compared to majority of the people there, I am a very rich man and was humbled at what I witnessed.



The types of conditions that Haitians live in seem unfair, especially for how hard they work to survive on a day to day basis. It is extremely difficult to get access to clean water, most of the once fertile land (more about the land another day) has been washed away by floods (and continue to be damaged by floods), roads and buildings have been and are continuously devastated by storms, and the government is inadequately equipped or adept to deal with the massive needs of the people. Many do not have a lot of clothes or food, and then if something medically goes wrong, getting proper health care becomes a major issue (thank God for the clinic). But even facing all of this, I was inspired by their spirit and the countless stories of love and sacrifice they had for each other.


Before we went to Haiti, Pastor Delamy thanked us for the hope we would bring to Terre Blanche and the people of Haiti. Yet, when I was there, I learned about family members walking miles barefoot in 90 degree weather to bring love ones to the clinic, proud parents who try hard to feed their children and can’t, a woman around 80 years of age who walks 9 miles a day to conduct her business (and succeeds), and Haitian leaders who give everything of themselves (even facing dangerous situations) in the hopes that they can make a difference in the lives of their people.

If anything, I came away with hope from the people of Haiti, that even in the poorest country, life on a very rich scale takes place, where miracles abound, and a strong sense of God’s presence rests among the people. I guess a part of me is envious because their faith and trust in God seemed so real, being that their needs are great, whereas often times my prayers and requests to God of what I need seem so trifle.

Pastor Delamy thanked us at the end of our trip for loving his people, who he loves and thinks of as his children, and it reminded me how God as father loves us as children. Can I learn to trust and believe that God will provide for all my needs and quiet my worries and remember the hope and faith that the beautiful people of Terre Blanche have in Him?







Related posts:
The Land of Haiti
Haiti Recap Video
Learn more about Haiti Foundation of Hope