When Helping Hurts, Part 3
I’ve taken three days on this book because I think it very good and very important. Anyone with a heart for the poor or who has ever tried to help the poor should read this book. Today we come to the final section.
Part Three: Practical Strategies for Helping Without Hurting
The most provocative chapter in the book is Chapter 7, entitled “Doing Short-Term Missions Without Doing Long-Term Harm.” It’s no secret that the number short-term missions (STMs) have exploded in recent years: 120,000 in 1989, 450,000 in 1998, 1,000,000 in 2003, and 2,200,000 in 2006. In 2006 alone, Americans spent 1.6 billion (!) on STMs, most of them trips of two weeks or less. I’ve been on STMs. Our church sends them out. They can do good. But they often don’t. STMs are very often costly, ineffective, and harmful to the people they mean to help.
For starters, most STMs do relief work where rehabilitation or development is called for. It’s no wonder that STMs focus on relief. You can’t do rehabilitation or development in two weeks. But you can give things away, or build a house, or run a VBS. We can come in and do stuff for people, but this often reinforces feelings of inferiority, creates a pattern of dependency, and can lead to resentment toward local ministries. I know this will rain on a lot of good hearted parades, but why should a group of Americans go run a VBS in Mexico for week. Don’t they have parents who can do that for their children, and in Spanish?! Fikkert tells the story of a group that came to a poor community in Latin America to do Bible studies for children. After the group left, they kids did not want to go back to the indigenous ministry, because their materials and crafts were not as fancy. Many STMs reinforce notions of paternalism, undercut local initiative, and make learning dependence on God harder not easier.
People on STMs often don’t know the language and by nature of the trip itself they are trying to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time. They also don’t understand the cultural dynamics of time and relationships. On top of this, someone must watch the group of 12 teenagers for a week, translate for them, cart them around, help them when they get sick, etc. It’s no wonder, that “research is finding that most host organizations would rather have the sending organization give them money instead of sending team” (171). Steve Corbett writes, “I know that if someone from Switzerland said to my small church of 130 people in rural Georgia, ‘You can choose between our sending thirteen people this summer to help with your VBS or our giving you the $25,000 it will cost to send the team,’ we would definitely take the money. We would use $20,000 to finish of the church addition we have been working five years to build debt free. And the remaining $5000 would nearly double our normal VBS budget, so we could have a dynamic VBS as well” (171).
But, the experiences we have on an STM are so rich! They can be then the trip is really about us and not about helping them (172)! If we want experiences, we can save up our money and go to Belize and visit a poor community while we’re there. But don’t make the church pay for it and call it missions. As a pastor I get solicitations in the mail for outfits that do nothing but cater to American STMs. The materials I get from some of these “missions” organizations are nothing less than appalling. They advertise the shopping trips and overnight stay on an island. They offer different trips for different costs. If you want the low rate you’ll have to sleep in a tent. But pay a little more and you’ll get a nice hotel and a visit to the art museum. This is a vacation, not missions.
This is not money well spent. Fikkert comments, “Spending $20,000 to $40,000 for ten to twenty people to be on location for two weeks or less is not uncommon. The money spent on a single STM teams for a one- to two- week experience would be sufficient to support more than a dozen far more effective indigenous workers for an entire year…The profound stewardship issues here should not be glossed over” (173).
But, STMs are an investment in the long-term. Many STMers will become missions advocates or long-term missionaries themselves. Actually, a recent study has concluded “that there simply is not a significant increase in long-term missions giving for either the team members or their sending churches” (174). If all the STMs were producing such long-term fruit, why have neither missions giving nor the number of long-term missionaries gone up in the US over the past two decades?
So are STMs nothing but a waste of money? Often, but not always. There are a number of ways to improve the impact of STMs. (1) Make sure the host organization and community members have requested your STM to come. (2) Design to trip to “be” and “learn” more than “do.” (3) Don’t do things for people they can do for themselves. (4) Keep the numbers of team members small. (5) Don’t think you are going to go change the world. (6) Include pre-trip, on-trip, and post-trip training. (7) Screen the team members. Don’t send people who just want to see the world or get a little adventure. (8) Make everyone on the team pay for at least a portion of their own expenses.
Chapters 8 and 9 finish off the book. Did you know “For the first time in U.S. history, more poor people live in suburbs than in cities” (183)? They are hidden in old houses, run-down apartments, and behind stip malls. That’s the point of Chapter 8 “Yes, in Your Backyard.” Chapter 9 looks at the possibilities and pitfalls of the global microfinance (MF) movement. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) can be great success stories, but most churches will not have the know-how, business sense, or guts to do them well.
This is an important book. You should read it. A wrong response to a book like this is: “Well, everything I’ve ever tried to do to help the poor is apparently wrong. So why bother.” Another wrong response would be: “See, the poor just need to do it themselves. We shouldn’t be wasting our time on this kind of thing.” No, the poor need our help. But passion and generosity may not, by themselves, be very helpful. Often, they are downright hurtful. We need wisdom, patience, and humility. The poor need our help, and we need their help too. We are all broken. We all have sins we can’t see. We all need reconciliation.
These are not truisms, but the very cornerstone of effective ministry. Sometimes we do more, by doing less. We can usually do more by doing it smarter. And we can always do more by realizing that God is the one already at work.