Are we helping or hurting?

Written by on October 16, 2010 in Helping Without Hurting, Notes By The Way with 0 Comments

I’ve been reading When Helping Hurts, a book about how many international aid and development efforts end up harming the recipients.

This isn’t a new idea, but I think this is the first book to address the issue from a Christian perspective. Christians play a huge role in relief and development work around the world and in their home countries, mostly with the best of intentions, but the sad truth exposed in this book is that many of their efforts have more negative effects than positive ones. The positive message is that we can do better and be part of genuine development and change; but it’s not going to be quick or easy.

[Update: To be clear, negative effects are an issue across the board, not just in Christian aid efforts.]

I had a conversation once with someone who asked why I would criticize well-meaning people. My short answer: Because they hurt other people. I think people who really have good intentions want to know this and change course.

But how can this be? How can professional agencies created to help people in need become complicit in their suffering and injustice? How can a caring student in Texas start a project for AIDS orphans in Africa (or for poor immigrants in her local community) that does more harm than good? Read the book to find out.

Here is one way to understand the problem (that I read about here): Who are the clients of international relief and development agencies? Who do they have to please? Who are they accountable to? Donors!

The donors are the de facto clients. But in almost all cases, the donors are too far away to see the results themselves, so they get stories and pictures carefully prepared by the agencies they support (paid for with the money they gave).  Now if the donors are happy, it really doesn’t make a difference in economic terms whether aid recipients benefit or not.

Of course, it would make sense to have aid recipients participate in solving their own problems, put them in positions of authority, and let them hold aid organizations accountable. It would also make sense to have relationships in local communities and learn about their capacities and how to support them before showing up with pre-packaged solutions–what this book calls “McDevelopment.”  These simple steps would change international aid from the inside out, both in its organizational or grassroots forms.

But these steps are inconvenient. Building relationships takes time and it’s messy. Changes in the aid industry would probably cost jobs and alter careers. Using money to fund projects according to formulas is easy, fast, and safe.

Imagine with me, MegaAid Organization has to spend their budget this year. Time is running out, and they need proposals they can fund and launch quickly. Not to mention, Angelina Jolie is scheduled to do an appearance in two weeks, and they need a fresh project to show. Alternatively, Joe and his friends want to help the poor somewhere. They can a) go build a house for poor people in Mexico, b) collect used sneakers to ship to Africa, or c) go to Haiti for two weeks as volunteers. They are giving up their vacations for this and want to really make a difference.

In both of the cases above, what is the role of the poor in the process? Where is their voice in the planning? Who asks them what they want? In order to change anything in a lasting way, the poor must take charge of their own solutions at some point, but when? But often they are treated as passive recipients, and the system works better if they stay that way.

These questions cut to the heart of what I’m doing here. I am in Cambodia to make a difference, but I know real change must emerge from Cambodians themselves. Will I learn the language so I can build good relationships? Will I trust Cambodian leaders and make genuine partners? Will I refuse to take roles that would validate my own ego, status, and career so Cambodians can take those roles and shine instead? Will I accept that lasting changes happen slowly and resist speeding up (and ruining) the process?

The truth is that people with power almost never give it up. We always see ways to maintain control, even without making it obvious. At the end of the day, most of us help ourselves first (our egos, families, and futures), and then we help the other guy.

Acting differently, whether as individuals or organizations, really does require costly changes from the inside out.

Again, the book is When Helping Hurts. It’s a Christian perspective that draws from the Bible and Jesus’ teaching about justice and the Kingdom of God. If you’re a Christian, I strongly recommend it.

If you’re not a Christian, I sympathize with any cynicism you may have about Christian justice and compassion. You’d be surprised how many followers of Jesus, who may or may not identify with the religion, would agree. Many followers of Jesus understand that justice and faith and love go hand in hand or don’t go anywhere at all; and many are working on the hard, practical questions of how to live this out, not just in words or programs but in reality.

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About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .

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