“When Helping Hurts” … Hurts

Plenty of people have read the book When Helping Hurts. Has the book helped or hurt the global poor?


Have you read the book “When Helping Hurts?”

I read it, I think the book is hugely important and influential.

Here is the big idea. The authors tell us that the world has a poverty issue. But it is bigger than you think.  We are all poor.

The Global North has a spiritual poverty. While people living in the Global South have an economic poverty.

How do we fix the problem?

It is only through an exchange. A real interaction. Moving into healthy relationship where we both grow beyond our own blinding and binding systems of poverty.

I agree we must do this in relationship!


It is a great premise, but When Helping Hurts has a flaw.

Too many people who have read “When Helping Hurts” have agreed that this is true. We all share versions of poverty. Some of us are financially poor, others have a poverty of relationship.

Here is the problem. The word poverty gets applied to both of us.

To call out our culture as “spiritually poor” confuses the meaning of the word. Using the word poverty for all of us suggests an equivalence between:

Are we all poor?

If we are – then we all ‘get’ poverty –  Right?


NO, we are not all poor at the same level.

I don’t feel particularly rich, and given permission, it is easy for me to assume the word poverty for myself. But using the word ‘poverty’ to describe a frustration in our church growth strategy can re-victimize the real (economic) poor.

Let’s not kid ourselves –  there is real poverty out there. Global Poverty is horrible, systemic and grinding.

If we are not careful, we can find all kinds of reasons to ignore global poverty because ‘we get it too’ … after all. I’m also poor.

That means (ironically) for some people “When Helping Hurts” … has hurt


Does calling ourselves poor helps you ignore the real poor?



I continue to recommend the book quite frequently, I tell everyone I know that is involved in faith-based mission to give it a read. There is some GREAT advice on how to begin working with the materially poor. If you haven’t already checked it out, you should!


Click here to get a copy of “When Helping Hurts”.


October 24, 2017

4 responses on ""When Helping Hurts" ... Hurts"

  1. We actually are using the Short Term Mission version of the book as our training before sending out an STO team. We had a couple drop off the team after going through a few of the units where they questioned whether we should be doing short term mission and that they decided to get involved locally. Which is great because you like to see people getting involved locally after returning from a short term outreach. But this couple figured it out early. Having said all that though they had both been on several other STO trips but had not gone through this book first.
    I believe we will continue to use the book for training, but this was just one example of an unintended consequence.

  2. Great point, Mark. I thought the book’s main contribution was that how we define poverty tends to dictate how we try to alleviate it. If we feel people don’t have enough belongings, we will bring soccer balls and toothbrushes. If we feel they need education, we’ll build schools and train teachers. If we feel health is the greatest issue, we may try to instate better sanitation, etc. All of these efforts are well-intentioned, but they tend to be decided and led by ‘us’ not ‘them.’ I like his research that showed many of the people we deem ‘poor’ don’t want things, they want a voice. They don’t want a flush toilet – they want a say in politics and other realms. They don’t necessarily need more appliances, they crave respect, community and belonging. Requires a huge paradigm shift on the part of the ‘guest’ or visitor to the host culture! So hard to do development well.

    • thats definitely true Kara, the book does help in poverty definitions, and that is why I continue to recommend it to everyone.

      I guess I was reacting to the response I hear from some people that sounds something like … ‘poverty happens … nothing we can do about it anyways, and we have problems of our own here”. That leads to complacency, (the opposite intentions of the book) and I wanted to push back a bit.

      thanks for your great thoughts!

Leave a Message

2016, 2017 © Mark Crocker. All rights reserved.