BOOK REVIEW: When Helping Hurts


What’s the difference between relief, rehabilitation and development? When is one approach more appropriate than another?

This book is an ideal introduction for any student, church leader or mission rep exploring the topic of poverty alleviation and transformational development.

First things first

The opening chapters lay a biblical foundation on what poverty is and why material poverty is only part of the issue.

It also emphasises the important ways churches, ministries and individual Christians can partner with Christ the Creator, Redeemer and Reconciler of all things (Colossians 1).


Broken people, broken systems

Throughout the book, the authors speak from a place of humility – claiming that we are all broken and experience poverty in some measure whether that is material, relational or spiritual. Repentance from arrogance or a ‘god-complex’ is a critical first step for any person seeking to make a meaningful difference in the world.

Corbett and Fikkert highlight how problems are often a combination of individual choices taken by broken people and broken systems which restrict the ability for communities to steward their resources effectively. Tackling both elements is key to breaking the cycle of poverty.When-Helping-Hurts-quote2-smaller

Examples of success and failure

The authors expose how the dominant western world’s one-sided approach to poverty can lead to short-term fixes. Loans from the world bank alone will not tackle issues of shame, racial injustice or gender disempowerment for example. Corbett and Fikkert share honest examples of when they have been well-meaning but acted too quickly in their many years of relief and development.

In contrast, case studies of projects where materially poor people were consulted in the diagnosis and equipped to take part in the remedies resulted in long-term ownership. Helpful pointers are given to the scale of involvement NGOs can play depending on whether instant emergency aid or long-term relationship building is needed.


Full title: When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor…and yourself.

Authors: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Publishers: Moody Publishers, Chicago USA 2009, 2012 (ISBN 978-08024-0998-0)

Chapters include: Why did Jesus come to Earth? What’s the problem? Are we there yet? Not all poverty is created equal, Doing short-term missions without doing long-term harm, To the ends of the earth, On your mark, get set, go!

AWM recommends

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