When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, has shaped much of the way 127 Worldwide interacts with vulnerable communities. We recommend their book as a helpful resource for evaluating the effects of well-intentioned charity upon the receiver. It highlights how Christians can do harm to a person’s dignity, to local economies, and to themselves even with the best of motives.
In Brian Virtue’s review of When Helping Hurts, he highlights a particular chapter on paternalism. Paternalism is the act of interfering with another person’s life under the banner that they will be better off as a result of our involvement. Here’s his helpful summary:
“In a section the authors highlight as “The Poison of Paternalism” they boil it down to a simple truth – don’t do things for people that they can do for themselves. You likely are doing damage to them, yourself, or both if you do. But here’s ways you can possibly identify the poison of paternalism at work. These are all clues that we need to take a step back and repent of our assumptions and seek a renewed perspective.
- Resource Paternalism
When wealthy entities or organizations with large resources view the solutions as requiring merely the addition of new financial or material resources while the real solutions require helping a community steward their own resources.
- Spiritual Paternalism
When missionaries aim to go “do” missions “to” people, assuming that they are the experts and failing to recognize that people in poverty often have great spiritual depth. There’s much to listen to and learn from.
- Knowledge Paternalism
When we think we have all the best ideas about how to do things. We assume we know best. It never occurs to us to ask people who are likely the best experts of their own communities what we can learn from them. Brief note – this is rampant everywhere in the missions and business world.
- Labor Paternalism
Doing work that people could and should do for themselves. Doing work for people that they should be doing themselves robs them of ownership, participation, dignity, and other important things important to development and healthy community.
- Managerial Paternalism
Basically when entities or organizations of power enter into a different context or community with less power and take over. Integrated with some of the above elements, it’s when people of power just take over, control, and end up being in charge of various works or decisions or projects that affect another community as if they are the experts.”
- Brian Virtue admits that he’s exhibited every one of these five points. Give an example of a time your church, a non-profit, or you personally have unintentionally practiced a form of paternalism.
- The author writes, “My last thought is that in the last chapter they highlight what may be the most important ingredient to “healthy helping” that contributes to dignity. That ingredient is “repentance.” Paternalism continues in different forms because of blind spots as well as a failure to repent of the ways that our best of intentions are hurting others or doing damage.” What do you feel led to repent of in light of what you’ve learned?