“I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.” – the Hippocratic Oath
A couple of years ago a book called When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself gained a good deal of traction among Christian do-gooders. It was a bit surprising, at least to me, that a book about unhelpful — and yes, harmful — charity would catch on like that. After all, it’s not about someone who died, went to either heaven or hell, and then came back to tell about it. It’s not about sex. It’s not about the prosperity gospel. And it’s not an Amish romance novel. For all of those reasons, it was surprising to me that it gained the attention it did. Or maybe it just gained traction in my circles, which may not be all that representative of broader Christian culture. But regardless, I’ve seen copies of the book on a somewhat surprising number of bookshelves and coffee tables, and it’s come up in a variety of conversations.
I think the book’s authors, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert from The Chalmers Center, have struck a nerve with so many because as more and more Christians volunteer, donate to, or partner with local and global ministries or participate in short-term mission trips, there are all sorts of unanswered questions about the merits of all of it. I’m guessing you generally know what I mean. I think these questions are good to be asking, and I’m glad experts in the field of development are beginning to provide some good, helpful answers. WHH is a book I often recommend to friends who are church leaders or anyone else seeking to understand how to be both compassionate and wise, whether individually or as a ministry.
I recently read another book along very similar lines. It’s Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by urban ministry guru Bob Lupton, who has been working in inner city Atlanta and elsewhere for decades. I first became acquainted with Lupton through a fantastic (and just recently re-released) little book of his we read in grad school called Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America.
Toxic Charity is vintage Lupton and not a mere WHH spinoff (as the subtitle may understandably lead some to believe), but the two do have a great deal of similarities. And while I’m a big fan of WHH, this new one might become what I start recommending as the preferred introduction to the common pitfalls of ministry to the poor, as well as some of the best practices. Comparing my fresh impressions of TC with my admittedly less-than-fresh recollections of WHH, here’s why I’m leaning towards making TC my go-to recommendation (if I had to choose just one, something I’d prefer not to have to do).
- It’s more accessible. WHH isn’t all that inaccessible by any means, but it certainly packs a lot into its 230 pages, and while it’s all good stuff that I’d love everyone to read, I think more people who are looking for an introduction to these issues would track with the stories and clear principles of TC (which checks in at around 190 pages), but may lose heart with the density (hmm… richness?) of WHH.
- It’s more positive. Of course, TC’s title sounds fairly alarmist, but trust me, it’s not all critique. Whereas WHH is thorough in its warnings and critiques, TC seems to include a better balance of what works and what doesn’t, told through personal stories. Both books make clear that when it comes to charity and development, “good intentions are not enough” (as a leading aid blog puts it). But I’d hate to see people with good intentions be turned away entirely by overly zealous critics of what doesn’t work. I think Lupton does a fairly good job of affirming the compassionate impulse and redirecting it in positive ways, rather than just stopping with decrying what’s toxic.
- It’s more applicable. After reading WHH, one may very well conclude that in order to help the poor without hurting them, one ought to simply support microfinance organizations. And that’s well and good. But there’s a lot more to alleviating poverty than simply providing small loans to microentrepreneurs, as important as I think such work is. TC is applicable to those engaged in any variety of charities and development organizations, both within the US and beyond, and I doubt if anyone would finish TC without a good idea of how to get started.
Once again, I’d love everyone to read both books, and to value the unique contributions both books make to a better understanding of what makes charity toxic, and what to do to ensure that in our efforts to do good, we do no harm.
If you’re not sure you’ll read either book in full, I want to at least have you consider Lupton’s proposed “Oath for Compassionate Service” — modeled on the Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession. If you have a hand in leading any sort of ministry to poor people, or ever participate in such ministries, these are great principles to keep in mind as you do so. If you discover dissonance between these principles and the realities you experience, that may just be the impetus you need to pick up and read both When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity.
Here is the six-part oath:
- Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves
- Limit one-way giving to emergency situations
- Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements
- Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served
- Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said — unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service
- Above all, do no harm
If you’ve had experiences related to harmful charity, or better, experience with creative alternatives, I’d love for you to share them in the comments. And if you’ve read either Toxic Charity or When Helping Hurts, what are your thoughts on how I characterize them? Anything you’d want to clarify or add? Any other books or resources on this topic you’d recommend?