When Helping Hurts

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A reflection on a cold day from a few years ago (when it was much warmer) …

Before traveling to Uganda, our team was required to read the book When Helping Hurts (Corbett and Fikkert).  This was one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read, and I strongly encourage all interested in short-term missions (or local compassion ministries in the United States, for that matter) to read it and prayerfully think how the church can make an impact in its community.

During one weekend in Uganda, we had the opportunity to put this knowledge into practice.  On our day off (Saturday), we traveled to Jinja (i.e., the mouth of the Nile) for some much-needed R&R.  Jinja is a much poorer area than where we had been previously, and while we were out and about, we were frequently asked for handouts.  All of had been prepared for this however, and so all of us declined.

Why did we decline to help?  Is that selfish and greedy of us Americans?  (The Ugandans who were asking us for money certainly thought so).  Yet that wasn’t the viewpoint of some of the Ugandans from ARCC who went with us.  Joseline, Director of Student Life, pointed out that when a white person gives a handout to a Ugandan, a power structure develops, with the white man on top.  Additionally, the handout creates a dependency.

Take a look at the textile industry in Kenya.  Kenya once had a strong textile industry (remarkable how similar that is to the start of the US and the UK at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution), but American charities (trying to help!) have ruined the industry, which is now in shambles with a bleak future.  When we ship over our old t-shirts (or misprint t-shirts, or Iowa Hawkeye National Championship t-shirts…), the Kenyans receive these shirts for free or at low cost.  Now the former clothing sellers have to compete with these low prices (which they can’t), go out of business, and start demanding their own handouts.

“Whoa.  I had no idea.”

That’s the problem.  We have no idea how often our ‘helping’ really ends up hurting.  Does this mean that we should stop finding ways to help?  Absolutely not.  We just need to figure out how to help well.


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