A Story to Illustrate Helping Without Hurting (When Helping Hurts – part 7)

Here is an illustration from the book When Helping Hurts. I hope it helps put some better understanding behind the principles I've been talking about:

To illustrate, consider the savings and credit association affiliated with Jehovah Jireh Church, a congregation located in a slum in Manila, the Philippines. Each of the members of this savings and credit association live on approximately one to five dollars per day. Each member of the association deposits into a group just twenty cents per week, which the association uses to make very small, interest-bearing loans to the members. In addition, each member contributes five cents per week to the association's emergency fund, which can be used to provide relief to members facing an emergency crisis.

From a North American perspective, these people are extremely poor. In this light, it is instructive to consider the policies that the savings and credit association developed for its emergency fund. Money from the fund is lent – not given – at a 0% interest rate to group members whose family members get sick. No assistance is available for people who have had their electricity or water cut off for not paying their utility bills. According to the group, such a situation does not constitute an emergency, since electric and water bills are regular household expenditures for which they should all be prepared. The group will not even give emergency loans for hospitalization for giving birth, because the family had nine months to prepare for the delivery of the baby. Finally, the amount of the loan from the emergency fund is limited to the amount of the savings contributions of the member getting the loan. The members of this savings and credit association are tough cookies!

Now what happens when a North American church encounters the members of Jehovah Jireh Church's savings and credit association? We often project our own ideas of what is an acceptable standard of living onto the situation and are quick to take a relief approach, doling out money in ways that the local people would consider unwise and dependence-creating. And in the process, we can undermine local judgment, discipline, accountability, stewardship, savings, and institutions. In fact, research has shown that the injection of outside funds into these savings and credit groups typically dooms them to collapse. The point here is not that the policies of Jehovah Jireh's savings and credit association are normative for all churches and all contexts. The point is that, in deciding if relief is the appropriate intervention, we must be careful lest we impose our own cultural assumptions into contexts that we do not understand very well…

Who needs relief? It is unlikely that you know many people in this category, for the reality is that only a small percentage of the poor in your community or around the world require relief. These would include the severely disabled; some of the elderly; very young orphaned children; the mentally ill homeless population; and victims of a natural disaster. People in these categories are often unable to do anything to help themselves and need the handouts of relief. However, for most people, the bleeding has stopped, and they are not destitute. Acting as though they are destitute does more harm than good, both to them and to ourselves. This does not mean that we should do nothing to help those who are not destitute. it just means that rehabilitation or development – not relief – is the appropriate way of helping such people. This help could very well include providing them with financial assistance, but such assistance would be conditional upon and supportive of their being productive. 

It is crucial that when someone needs help – we decide if they need relief, rehabilitation or development. If we get it wrong and give them the wrong type of help, we likely are hurting them when we want to help them.


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