This week I started reading When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I’ll admit that I opened the book with a bit of skepticism after reading the title. “I’ve heard this before” I thought, “this is going to be another pessimist claiming that aid work often does more harm than good.” I acknowledge that some forms of aid are more efficient or successful in poverty alleviation, but being an optimist, I like to believe that all forms of aid help in some way or another. As long as people are giving, that’s all that counts, right? Yet the more I become involved with non-profits and international aid organizations and the more I study economics, the more I see how negative consequences can outweigh the immediate benefits if one is not careful. For example, feeding a whole village for a month may fill the children’s empty stomachs, but in the end it could put the local farmers out of jobs as they cannot compete with free food. So when the end of the month arrives, the people are left with less food than before… and the cycle of poverty continues.
In the End of Poverty, economist Jeffrey Sachs writes about approaching aid from a “clinical” perspective (74). He explains that each case of poverty is distinct and one must diagnose and treat the problem based on the specific region and its unique issues. Fikkert builds upon this idea of individualized aid, further explaining that if “we only treat the symptoms or if we misdiagnose the underlying problem, we will not improve their situation and we might actually make their lives worse” (54). Many people, like myself, are passionate about helping the poor, but even the best of intentions don’t guarantee the best results when it comes to alleviating world poverty.
So what exactly is poverty? My initial reaction is to give the typical, textbook answer, “Poverty is a lack of material possessions and basic necessities such as food, water and shelter. To be poor is to have little money to buy those things.” However, over time I have learned that the answer to that question is much more complex and variable. According to Fikkert, those who have grown up in privileged, North American countries view poverty very differently from those who live in third world countries (53). Whereas Americans generally perceive poverty as purely a lack of material possessions, as I had, those who are actually lacking material possessions also acknowledge the physiological aspect of poverty—the shame, feelings of inferiority, helplessness and the dehumanization that often occur. Poverty can take many shapes and forms. It can present itself as a lack of opportunity, knowledge, political voice, self-esteem, health care, material goods and many other things. The Bible seems to concur with this idea as it alludes to many different forms of poverty. It not only addresses the material aspect of poverty by calling Christians to “share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked to clothe him…” but also acknowledges the internal struggles of the poor, “… seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the fatherless, plead the cause of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17, 58:7).
Our definition of poverty is vital because it affects the way we try to tackle poverty. For example, if one views poverty as the absence of material possessions, then that person will attempt to fill that void by supplying materials goods. Likewise, if one views poverty as oppression by powerful people, one will seek out social justice. If one perceives poverty as a spiritual emptiness, one might assuage that by introducing the Gospel. One could also believe that poverty is a result of laziness on the part of the people, and so he or she may do nothing at all. Definitions are important because they determine our perceptions of the poor themselves and dictate our future actions. This is why Fikkert writes “we must be careful lest we impose our own cultural assumptions into contexts that we do not understand very well” (108). To be really effective and make the right “diagnosis”, one must understand the culture and its individual needs. I think it was for these reasons that the CFC literacy program was translated and will be taught by local Nicaraguans who understand the mentality, culture and socioeconomic positions of the people. Only Nicaraguans truly understand what poverty is like in Nicaragua and how to best empower the people (though I think that we can still offer help in many ways).
Therefore, despite all my research and interviews, I will never fully comprehend what these Nicaraguans have experienced. I do not know what it is like to be poor—to wonder when my next meal will be, to struggle to find a job, to worry about tropical diseases like malaria afflicting my family. But in other ways, I know what it is like to be poor. I know what it feels like to be yearning for something better—to see injustice and brokenness around me, in my life and in the U.S., and to recognize that “this is not how things are supposed to be.” I see abuse, hurt, loneliness, spiritual emptiness, selfishness and other manifestations of brokenness and relational poverty. According to the Bible, every human being is poor in one way or another. Due to the Fall, our relationships with each other, with God, with ourselves and with creation are broken. We do not experience life and relationships in the way that God originally intended. Fikkert writes that “the Fall really happened, and it is wreaking havoc in all of our lives. We are all broken, just in different ways… and until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good” (64). This is not to downplay the dire situation of the material poor, but to help us realize we are all in need of saving, in more than one way. I believe that the one and only “cure” for all of these ailments which we possess, is Jesus; He is the ultimate doctor, healer and economist who will never make a misdiagnosis for He knows our individual needs. Christianity teaches that His kingdom promises a restoration of the world and its people from “every tribe, tongue, people and nation” (Revelation 14:6).