I want to keep these thoughts basic and simple, but this one is a bit philosophical… See if it helps you understand more about helping without hurting.
Helping without hurting isn't just a physical issue. Ultimately, it is a spiritual one. This story may help you understand that (from the book "When Helping Hurts"):
A Christian relief and development agency attempted to improve crop yields for poor farmers in Bolivia's Alto Plano. Although successful in increasing output, the impact on the farmers' incomes was far less than hoped because the farmers' deep reverence for Pachamama, the mother earth goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. Seeking Pachamama's favor, farmers purchased llama fetuses, a symbol of life and abundance, to bury in their fields before planting. At the time of the harvest, the farmers held a festival to thank Pachamama. The larger the harvest, the larger the celebration was. In fact, a large percentage of the farmers' income was being spent on the fetuses and on the harvest festival, thereby contributing to the farmers' material poverty. Furthermore, by increasing agricultural output without worldview transformation, the development agency realized it was actually adding to these farmers' idloatry, as the farmers were giving increasing levels of praise to Pachamama for her benevolence.
In the book "When Helping Hurts" – the authors make this great statement:
North American Christians need to overcome the materialism of Western culture and see poverty in more relational terms….
"I am not OK; and you are not OK; but Jesus can fix us both."
We have a tendency to define poverty through money and things, but ultimately poverty has relational causes, costs, and consequences. We need to be careful to not view ourselves through a savior complex. Besides, do we really want to make the materially poor all over the world into middle-to-upper-class North Americans, a group characterized by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse, and mental illness?
The goal is not to make sure that the materially poor have enough money. In fact, America's welfare system often traps those who are participants in it.
So – what is the goal in helping the poor? According to the authors – material poverty alleviation involves more than ensuring that people have sufficient material things; rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to be what God created them to be.
And – remembering that poverty is ultimately a relational issue (God – self – others – creation), full poverty alleviation cannot be done without people accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.