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Review of Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts

Author: Monty L. Lynn
Published: February 2011

MD 2.1

Article Type: Review Article

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself. Chicago: Moody, 2009. 230 pp. $14.99.

Good intentions are seldom sufficient to insure effective development: indeed, considerable harm has been done in the name of helping. Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert attempt to bolster good intentions with a theology of poverty and development and a handful of contemporary development principles in their primer, When Helping Hurts. An excellent introduction to Christian humanitarian development—accessible and mainstream in its development views—it brings development into holistic Christian mission and aligns it with contemporary development thought. The book is well-suited as an introduction to mission support groups—missions committees, non-profit boards, short-term mission teams, church leaders and members—who are exploring humanitarian activities in missions and ministry.

Under Brian Fikkert’s leadership, the Chalmers Center at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) has garnered a reputation for Christian-based education and training in micro-level development. When Helping Hurts is the second book of national note to come from its faculty, the first being Christian Microenterprise Development (David Bussau and Russell Mask, Paternoster, 2003).

When Helping Hurts is divided into three parts, with each part containing three chapters. Part one provides a theological glance at poverty which largely adopts Bryant Myers’s (Walking with the Poor, Orbis, 1999) framework reflecting a motif of restoring broken relationships with God, self, others, and creation. Starting from a biblical framework avoids an exclusive or competing view of spiritual versus material brokenness, and includes both as subject to the redemptive work of Christ. A biblical framework also draws attention to the criticality of surfacing perceptions about the causes of poverty that shape development policy and practice as well as helpers’ self-perceptions, including “god-complexes.” The authors offer a brief historical context of Evangelicals being repelled by early twentieth-century social Christianity. (Humanitarian engagements among conservative branches of the Stone-Campbell movement appear to follow a similar trajectory, but for somewhat different reasons.)

The second part of the book addresses basic development principles. The authors begin by differentiating among relief, rehabilitation, and development and outlining the appropriate role for each. This issue is important since sustainable impact and delivery are critical considerations in effective ministry organizing; too often, Christian humanitarian practice has applied short-term responses to long-term issues. The authors proceed to introduce an asset-based approach to development (How can we build upon assets?) in contrast to the common needs-based approach (How can we remedy deficits?). They also introduce the notion of co-participant roles in contrast to paternalistic roles. These perspectives are widely endorsed in development practice and deserve additional careful unpacking and application.

The third part of the book attempts to apply the theological and development insights offered thus far to short-term, domestic, and international missions and humanitarian efforts. The authors are largely critical of short-term missions, although they offer a few suggestions to minimize their harm. They provide examples of community development (including job preparedness, financial literacy programs, and individual development accounts) and introduce microfinance and business as mission. These topics require considerable additional development before they would be actionable. The authors recognize the complexity of development contexts and responses which prevent such an introductory work from exposing the reader to the kaleidoscope of unique contexts and participants.

When Helping Hurts is an introduction. As such, it offers brief examples but no in-depth case studies or first steps toward development planning. Christian ministries and individuals engaging in poverty alleviation is the focus; the reform of national or international policy, institutions, or development efforts on a macro scale is left unexplored. A website supports the book (, offering a study guide and inviting visitors to consider training courses from the Chalmers Center.

When Helping Hurts is an initial corrective to spiritual-material dualism, paternalism and dependence, material definitions of poverty, and generic development strategies. It offers caveats on short-term relief and missions and offers rudimentary principles for those unfamiliar with development studies. The volume hints that considerable development and theological resources exist on this topic and that both are worthwhile to explore when engaging in humanitarian ventures. Equipping should not stop with this book, but it is an excellent place to begin.

Monty L. Lynn


College of Business Administration

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas, USA

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