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When Helping Hurts, Part 1

SOMETIMES OUR HELP TO THE POOR actually hurts them. That’s the concern Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert try to address in their book, When Helping Hurts. To illustrate the point Brian tells a fascinating story of a time when his well-intentioned help also caused harm.

Brian was teaching a small business class to refuges in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. In the second week a rugged looking lady told the class that the previous week’s lessons had brought her to faith in Jesus. She had been the witch doctor among these people but now wanted to know what to do as a follower of Jesus. They helped her abandon her witchcraft and gave her the name “Grace”. For the next five weeks she did not miss a class, her face became brighter, she smiled regularly and seemed to be at peace. But then one day she was absent. A class member had heard that she was sick and so Brian went to see her.

As his guide led him deep into the slum they stepped over small streams between the shacks teeming with human sewage and trash. Entering a one-room shack they saw Grace lying on a mat on the dirt floor, writhing in agony. Grace had developed tonsillitis. Because she is poor and has HIV the local hospital refused to treat her. Desperate for relief, she paid a neighbour to cut out her tonsils with a kitchen knife. Not surprisingly infection had set in. She needed penicillin but could not afford the eight dollars. Fearing she was going to die Brian pulled the money out of his pocket and arranged for someone to go purchase it. A week later, to Brian’s amazement, Grace walked back into the class looking better than ever.

At first Brian felt great. He’d been used by God to bring a witch doctor to faith and then had saved her life. But as he thought about the whole situation he realized he’d broken several basic principles of poverty alleviation and done enormous harm in the process. For one thing, Brian had come in with the God-complex westerners often have in the face of poverty. He saved the day without concern for the relationships around Grace that might have helped her. As a witch doctor Grace had been both revered and loathed. She was having trouble fitting in with her new church family. Although no one in the church could have afforded the eight dollars they could have afforded it together. In doing so they would have bonded with Grace and had their own capacities to help each other affirmed. Instead he had re-enforced their sense of helplessness and feelings inferiority to westerners. In the weeks ahead I want to explore principles of poverty alleviation that might help us help the poor. Stay tuned!

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