In 2009, knee-deep in volunteering in the United States and abroad, I bought three newly published books on poverty. I was feeling uneasy about the way I related with the poor, and I hoped these books might help identify the problem. One volume was written by two then-obscure college professors, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Its title was provocative: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself.

By the end of the introduction, I was infuriated. The authors, economics and community development scholars based in Georgia, accuse the North American church of not doing enough to alleviate poverty. And they suggest that Christians who are doing something are probably doing more harm than good. Determined to prove them wrong, I read on.

By chapter two I was underlining compulsively. Upon finishing the book, I was a convert. I’m far from alone in the way When Helping Hurts (WHH) has transformed my relationship with the poor.

Westerners often think of “poverty” as simply a lack of material resources. But the premise of WHH, the conviction that sets it apart from other books on aid, is that, in one way or the other,every human being is poor.” The book offers theological grounds for a fuller, richer understanding of poverty, challenging Westerners to repent of well-intended but ultimately harmful practices.

Many books criticize global institutions (like the World Bank) and governments for providing ineffective assistance to developing countries. Evangelicals, especially those with conservative political leanings, tend to like these books because they cast doubt on large, bureaucratic, money-driven approaches. But WHH (like Bob Lupton’s Toxic Charity) was among the first to argue that evangelicals are not immune from causing harm despite meaning well.

‘The Book’

Before they became household names in the world of Christian charity, Corbett and Fikkert had been teaching on poverty alleviation at the Chalmers Center, the research institute Fikkert founded in 1999. In response to explosive demand, they decided to put their courses into one book, hoping to free up time for teaching and research. The authors are the first to admit their surprise at the book’s staggering popularity. They even joke about it ruining their lives.

To date, WHH has sold more than 300,000 copies and been translated into 5 languages. It has been so well received that some refer to it, simply, as The Book. “Agencies have told me that their staff on the ground internationally can tell when the team has or has not read the book by how they behave,” Peter Greer, president and CEO of Hope International, told me. “The authors [articulated] what so many of us had been experiencing: the realization that good intentions don’t automatically lead to good results.”

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Blake Mankin, of the Christian nonprofit Every Village, agrees. “I quickly came face to face with my own misguided belief that the answer to poverty is found in my ability as a person, and the church’s ability as a whole, to solve a problem,” he said. WHH is now required reading for Every Village missionaries serving in South Sudan.

Rich Stearns, the head of World Vision, told me it opened the eyes of many North American pastors. “It caused them to ask, ‘Are we giving to the right people who are doing the right things in the right way?’”

“The book is unapologetically addressed to the church,” Fikkert said. Three evangelical megachurches—Willow Creek, Saddleback, and—use the book in various ministries. Willow Creek has even designed an outreach center built upon its foundational teachings.

Those teachings can be summed up in four basic propositions:

1. Poverty is not simply a matter of material resources. People of all socioeconomic backgrounds often lack one or more of life’s essentials: spiritual intimacy, a sense of self-worth, relationships in community, and an ability to work productively and steward the fruits of that labor.

2. The solution to the underlying issues of poverty involves walking with people, as opposed to doing for them. The trick is to understand their realities, look for solutions, and partner to take action.

3. All people have resources that can be used to change their situation. Outside resources can build upon what’s already there, but those resources should never supplant one’s innate capacities.

4. Overcoming poverty requires that person’s direct involvement in the decision-making process. People own what they participate in.

The authors insist there’s nothing revolutionary in WHH. They claim only to have repackaged sound principles from the world of community development. Sometimes, people in the development world don’t speak the language of the church, so WHH makes the theological and philosophical case that secular and religious organizations can join hands for the sake of a common mission.

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The Savings-Group Strategy

Last summer, I traveled to Togo in West Africa to visit some “savings groups.” Championed in WHH, these groups combine Bible study and prayer with practical training in saving, lending, and other aspects of money management. They are started by, and meet in, local churches. (Full disclosure: I took this trip as a guest of the Chalmers Center.)

Over the past three years, WHH concepts have been used to launch about 1,200 West African savings groups comprising roughly 19,000 members. About 800 of these groups are in Togo. Pastors see them as a way to help low-income people in their congregations, or as outreach to people in their community.

Over a lunch of fufu and fish soup—with my Togolese hosts using their hands for forks (and spoons and knives), and me awkwardly dipping in as well—I asked Kwasi Ayivi, a pastor and Savings Group Lead Trainer, what Togolese pastors think about the concept. He said, “They tell me that when savings groups get installed in their church, pastoral care goes down and the giving goes up!”

I first visit a savings group that meets in a high-ceilinged, open-air thatch building with a pressed dirt floor. The poles holding up the roof are wrapped in bright ribbons. This group, all women, collects 600 West African francs (CFA) every week, the equivalent of $1. As we scooched our plastic chairs together to form a circle, I asked the members to tell me about their businesses. Listening to their responses, it felt less like church than happy hour, after the inevitable icebreaker, “So, what do you do for a living?” Answers came in rapid-fire succession: beans, shoes, cakes, plastic goods, bananas, salt, hairdressing. As the meeting went on, there were rounds of applause for accomplishments shared.

Afterward, I met with a local Muslim woman. Through a translator, I found out that she was a relatively new member, so I asked why she had joined. With a baby strapped on her back and three other children tucked close by, mother-hen style, she explained that she and her husband made wooden furniture but had recently made some poor business decisions. She had heard of the group’s good reputation. Now she and her children, and sometimes her husband, attend the church service that precedes the meeting.

The core concepts of WHH are relatively easy to understand, but putting them into practice can prove difficult. “There is enormous mystery in this type of work,” Fikkert said. “There is no silver bullet.” As I saw firsthand, Togo’s savings groups are no exception. Probably the most difficult aspect of this work is determining whether low-income individuals or communities are receptive to change.

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Unfortunately, since North American Christians have been giving things away for so long, many people in the majority world have come to rely on handouts. To get a better grasp on this problem, I met with Gregg Burgess, West Africa program director of the Chalmers Center. Burgess and his team believe that requiring the local church to pay something to receive training is essential to ensuring a genuine commitment to the savings groups. But he conceded that some compromises were necessary. “In practice, our national trainers will train churches for a very small fee and sometimes whatever they can afford.” The churches that agree to pay the small fee feel more ownership of the program.

Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) is another WHH concept that sometimes looks better in theory than in practice. (These accounts encourage saving by offering grants that equal, and sometimes exceed, the amount saved.) As a part of the Chalmers Center’s work in North America, Jerilyn Sanders, director of US training, was tasked with piloting a program that would ramp up IDA participation. “The concept of matched savings to empower a motivated person seems like a no-brainer,” said Sanders. “Who wouldn’t want to double or triple their money?”

However, Sanders soon encountered challenges that mirrored what secular providers were discovering: The people who could benefit most from IDAs are the least likely to sign up for and commit to them.

As with many grassroots ideas, an initial failure contained the seeds of a superior alternative. Sanders worked with the Chalmers Center to create a program called Faith & Finances, a basic church-based education tool. She found that it “took on a life of its own and in a way that IDAs never did.” The program has successfully built meaningful, reciprocal relationships across socioeconomic lines.

Celestin Musekura, CEO and founder of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministry, offered another point of view. He read WHH and has a good pulse on how fellow Africans are receiving the book. Musekura observed that the authors should change the title. “Christians should not be talking about helping anyone,” he said. “We should be talking about mutually giving to each other so we can grow.”

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Along this line, he advocated placing a higher priority on ensuring that leadership comes from the community where the Christian agencies work, and not from “a white man or woman living in D.C. or London.” Musekura believes that WHH has helped to shift leadership patterns in this direction, but much change is still needed.

Don't Pull Back

Despite everything WHH has accomplished in six short years, I asked Corbett and Fikkert if there is anything they regret leaving out or underemphasizing. “I wish that we had said more strongly that there is a deep economic poverty out there and that the consequences are horrendous,” Corbett said. “And I, as an average American, am the rich young ruler in Scripture, because I’m closer to LeBron James economically than I am to millions, if not billions, of people around the world. Just to make sure people realize: ‘Guys, this poverty is really real.’”

Fikkert has found that many people who read the book begin worrying that their helping causes unintended hurt—so they stop helping. Many observers speak of “When Helping Hurts paralysis.” Fikkert said, “The idea that we would want people to stop helping the poor is just goofy. The point wasn’t paralysis. The point was a pause and some redirection.”

“It goes back,” Corbett said, “to a faithfulness message of ‘a lot more is going to fail than succeed in this work,’ but don’t let that stop you.”

“We do not want to see people pull back from helping the poor,” said Fikkert. “We just want to see them do it better. Our book has a very positive message; it’s not just a warning.”

Lesa Engelthaler is a freelance writer and a senior associate with Victory Search Group’s nonprofit executive search practice in Dallas.

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When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself
Moody Publishers
288 pp., 8.99
Buy When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself from Amazon