Review and Get a Free Copy of When Helping Hurts

when helping hurtsToday we’re reviewing, discussing, and giving away a copy of When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Keep reading to learn how you can win a free copy.

Billions of dollars are spent every year by governments, non-profits, churches, and individuals in efforts to try to alleviate poverty both in the industrial world and in 3rd world countries. While these efforts may be well-intentioned, many of them not only fail to help poor people but actually do harm to both the “materially poor” and the “materially non-poor.”

After many years of working directly with poor communities and consulting with non-profits Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert wrote When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself to help individuals and organizations better understand poverty and how to address it in ways that work.

The Problem

Corbett and Fikkert sum up the problem with many western poverty initiatives with this equation:

Material definition of poverty + God-complexes of Materially Non-poor + Feelings of Inferiority of Materially Poor = Harm to Both Materially Poor and Non-poor.

One part of the problem is that Americans tend to think of the poor purely in terms of lack of resources, when in reality poverty is more complex than that. Often the poor feel inferior, have an inaccurate worldview, have systems working against them, lack education, or don’t have access to capital. Additionally, we Americans also tend to have a God complex and think of ourselves as superior. We think we are smarter, harder workers, have a better worldview, and so we have a tendency to come in throw around a lot of money and impose a solution on people which usually fails.

The Solution

One of the most important learning points in the book is that it’s important to assess a situation and determine if it calls for relief, rehabilitation, or development. Most western poverty efforts provide relief – giving out food, water, clothes, shelter. And there are certainly situations where relief is appropriate. But upon closer examination, the vast majority of poor people are not in emergency situations. Their situation doesn’t call for relief. Inappropriate relief often creates all kinds of problems both for the people receiving the relief and the surrounding community. It can undermine prices, families, churches, communities, and work ethic.

The goal of poverty alleviation should be to not just to raise people out of material poverty, but to empower them to live sustainable lives working, saving, problem-solving, and helping others. Corbett and Fikkert make the case that for that to happen, we need to start with what’s right with a poor person or community (asset-based community development) and work with the people in that community to develop processes that will work with their culture and strengths.

Personal Thoughts

One of the ways I know a book is great if I walk away from it saying, “That was so obvious! Why didn’t I think of that!?” And that’s what I come away from When Helping Hurts saying.

It resonates with every experience I’ve had with poverty. The nagging feeling of “Is this doing any good?” I’ve had when serving free food to the same people month after month. The awkward feeling of humiliation I sensed in the poor Kenyan villagers last summer when they lined up to get bags of dehydrated food from the rich white folks. The joy I’ve seen in the eyes of parents who after years of unemployment and low self-esteem are proud to be working and providing for their families.

I feel like I’ve been looking at poverty with my 20/200 vision not realizing how blurry it was, the eye doctor has just handed me my first pair of glasses, and wow I can see for the first time.

If you care about the materially poor, if you lead a church, if you serve poor people in any capacity, if you’re considering going on a short-term missions trip, I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.


  1. Have you ever observed or been a part of a poverty alleviation effort that failed to assess whether the situation called for relief rehabilitation, or development? What happened?
  2. Have you ever sensed a “god-complex” in yourself when serving poor people? Helping people because you want to make a difference or because you are richer, smarter, better skilled, or more disciplined, rather than because you genuinely wanted to help them become self-sufficient?
  3. Where are you seeing poverty alleviation efforts that are really working?

Get a Free Book

If you’d like a free copy of When Helping Hurts, all you have to do is

  1. Retweet this post or share it on Facebook, and
  2. Post a meaningful comment to this post that contributes to the conversation (include your Facebook or Twitter usename in your comment so I can connect your comment to your share/tweet).

One person will be randomly selected the afternoon of Thursday 11/4 to receive a free copy.

15 Responses to “Review and Get a Free Copy of When Helping Hurts”

  1. This sounds like an excellent book, and highly apropos to a seminary project I’m working on related to social justice and the church. The thesis of the book reminds me of an article I just read from the Lausanne Global Conversation by Bauman, Wellman and Laughlin, “The Wealth of the Poor”. Thanks for the heads-up on a must-read!

    Twitter: marblefamily

    • Would love to hear more about your seminary project. And could you post a link to the article you mentioned?

      • Here’s the link to the article:
        The authors’ thesis is that we must understand wealth (and poverty) in its biblical fullness in order to engage the potential of the “materially poor”. And biblically speaking, we are all poor and all wealthy. It’s a fascinating and holistic perspective.

        As far as my seminary project? It’s “in the works” and will be completed in December. Right now I’m just reading materials (Being Consumed, Nation of Rebels, etc) and pulling ideas together. I’m intrigued and burdened by the ideas that too often we “consume mission” rather than “do mission” in today’s churches. Trying to get at the “why” of that, and move beyond into practicality of changing perspectives and reactions to make a bigger impact in the pressing needs of the world. It’s not only a seminary project for me – but a personal passion of mine…Thanks for the interest!

        • Thanks Kristen!

          >>Biblically speaking, we are all poor and all wealthy. It’s a fascinating and holistic perspective.

          Absoutely! That’s one of main points in When Helping Hurts as well.

  2. What we need to deal with is what creates poverty. MLK’s best quote (in my opinion) was “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.” In the same speech, he goes on to say “The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

    Food and relief are necessary, but they cannot get someone out of poverty – they can only sustain them while the real issue is not yet addressed. They’re basically triage. Like anything else, you need to build relationships with people, coming along side of them, getting to know them, and understand them. Only then will you know who they are and only then will you be able to help each other.

    • To clarify –

      We’re too willing to separate ourselves from each other through cultural, socioeconomic or national divisions. We can’t forget that we are one family, one people, called by God into unity. If we each are to have unity with God, then we must then also have unity with each other – this is its definition. Our neighbors, strangers, and foreigners, they are all in God’s family. If the man standing in the median asking for food or money were your biological brother, would you simply hand him a dollar? Why is the man who is in the median treated any differently than you would treat your brother? Because we have grown too accustomed to our lack of unity.

      • Very true, Ben! Until we know the people needing help, we can’t know effective solutions.

      • Absolutely, Ben. To really help people who are materially poor means getting close to them – physically, relationally, emotionally – to understand and help with the underlying issues and that can be messy and uncomfortable.

  3. Paul, Sounds like a great book – great review/article! Yes, I’d love to win a free copy 🙂 I’ve worked with multiple agencies/non-profits that try to address poverty here in the US and have followed the efforts in Kenya and Haiti. Some of the books I’ve read and conferences I’ve attended talk about the differences in navigating “systems” that those in poverty have versus those in the middle or upper class. I think we so often go to help and we project our expectations and visions of success onto others – then we get frustrated and disappointed when that doesn’t happen. When my husband and others served in Haiti he talked about learning so much about being able to adjust plans quickly based on need.
    One great book I read for a class a few years ago was “The Working Poor.” It talks about those living in poverty or close to it here in the US and how the best-intentioned systems can fail:

    I worked for a great child abuse prevention program a few years ago: Healthy Families. One of the simplest solutions they provided for single moms was a contract for subsidized child care. Most moms used the free or nearly free child care for 12-18 months to get additional schooling and get established in a job, then they began paying for their own child care and were on their own and self-sufficient. I think most families want to be independent.

    • Thanks Laura! Yeah, the book talks about the perils of wealthy outsiders imposing their poverty alleviation plans on the materially poor. Bad idea.

      And work is such a huge factor in helping the materially poor. It’s not just a financial issue, but also an emotional and spiritual issue. God created each of us for a purpose. He gave every person gifts and talents to us to his glory and for the benefit of others. Making it possible for materially poor people to work is essentially empowering them to live out God’s call on their life.

  4. Paul – This looks like a fantastic book and I’d love to read it when I get a chance. I have always been really interested in social action and service. I’m a self-professed mission trip junkie, but can totally see how we can often get it wrong. It’s a tough thing to handle/balance though for those of us who can only manage week long trips somewhere at a time. I guess we must rely on the organization to be responsible in the way they manage entire projects. I definitely have more faith in Christian organizations doing relief work (like World Vision, Blood Water Mission, etc) than I do in many government organizations or the Red Cross.

    Anyway, thank you for some great food for thought. I’d love to check out this book.

    Twitter: kabarnes

  5. Sorry for the delay in announcing the winner of the book…

    Congrats Kristen Marble, aka @marblefamily, you’ve won a copy of When Helping Hurts! Please DM your address to me and I’ll have it sent to you.

    Everyone else – you can buy a copy of the book on Amazon here –

    Thanks everyone for your comments, tweets, and shares. Let’s keep the conversation going.

    It’s great to see several of my friends from Cypress Meadows Community Church and the local Clearwater area discussing these issues. If you’d borrow my copy of the book and/or discuss it over coffee or lunch, let me know.


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