Book Plunge: When Helping Hurts

What do I think of Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett’s book published by Moody? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

This is a book I read recently, but it is still fresh in my mind, and it’s the kind of book everyone interested in helping the poor needs to read. You might think I say, “All leftists need to read this book.” After all, I disagree with their policies economically, but you would be wrong partially. I do think all on the left need to, but so do all conservatives.

The authors make no bones about their being Christians, but I think even a non-Christian could agree with many practical aspects of this. The authors do go after many of the practices that we do today that we do in the name of helping the poor, but in fact, they really don’t help the poor.

Consider a simple solution we think we have. Just give them money. The problem is we have been doing this for decades and not only does it not help, sometimes, it also makes it worse. How so? Imagine this scenario that is not fake but really described in the book. A tribe of people regular give some of their best to the local deity that they think grants them blessings. What happens when they receive more money suddenly? Well, guess where the major portion of that goes to.

I can speak of this from experience as well. When I was married and we had to live on food stamps, I hated it. I would much rather have been in a situation where I was able to provide for myself rather than just have money thrown at me.

That leads to another problem this approach has. This gets people in the state of mind of being in a state of dependence and usually, it’s the rich western white male who has to come in and save the day. Part of the way of helping the poor is to enable them to realize they have the capacity to help themselves.

That also means listening to them. The story is told of a group that went to build a house for a pastor of a church. They didn’t listen and they put the bathroom in the center area of the house. The pastor is not sure he wants to live in his house. Why? Because in his culture, that is a shameful position for the bathroom to be in. Now you might think the pastor needs to just grow up or something like that, but that is also demeaning to that culture.

Ultimately, the solution is to help the poor but at the same time, help them to be a part of the solution insofar as that is possible. People are more willing to work at something if they have a reason to be invested in it. It is through this means that we can best help to alleviate the burden of poverty on people.

That also means listening to them. Just because you have a business degree from Harvard and an economics degree from Yale doesn’t mean you know the culture and way of life of the people you are talking to better than they do. What do they want? What drives them? What motivates them? These things need to be known.

Some of you may be wondering also about my asking people to donate while doing this. Is that contradictory? No. I’m not asking for handouts with donations, but more people saying they believe in the work that I am doing. The more I get, the more it frees me to be doing that work full-time.

It’s also important to note that all of this works because the problem people have is not just material. It is spiritual and relational. People need to be in better relation with themselves, with their neighbors, and with God. When we treat their problems as purely material and thus, more money is the fix, we neglect the multi-faceted reality of who these people are. We can sadly enable a culture of dependence which will make them worse.

If you care about the poor, get this book. If you’re not a Christian even, consider it and see if maybe a purely materialistic approach might not work. Could it be there is more to humanity than just the material?

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

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