2017 Literacy Throwdown Book Review! – When Helping Hurts

Have you ever been part of a conversation among a group of people, and then somewhere in the middle of it your mind drifted away for a minute? Maybe you were thinking about whether s’mores or brown sugar cinnamon is the best Pop-Tart flavor, or why guys have all started wearing light brown shoes with dark suits all of a sudden. When you come back, you still know basically what’s going on in the conversation, but there’s a gap in your understanding that keeps you from being able to fully engage. So you spend the rest of the time nodding and smiling, hoping no one asks you anything specific.

That’s where I think the authors of When Helping Hurts are: they know basically what’s going on, but there seem to be some gaps in their understanding that I really would like to ask them about.

I completely buy the premise of the book: If you want to really help people in poverty, rolling up and dropping a bunch of money in their laps may not always be the best way to do it. Depending on the circumstances, they may need money, or they may need what the authors call “development”: some combination of training, access to credit, and infrastructure to support economic activity.

The ultimate goal of charity, they say, should be to bring people out of poverty to a place where they can glorify God by using their gifts to support themselves and their families. They say that poverty is the result of broken relationships — with God, with others, and with oneself — and alleviating poverty means restoring those relationships.

That’s all great and I agree and the book is valuable for this message alone. However, the authors still have a hard time completely walking away from the comforting fog of multicultural jibber-jabber.

I’ll show you what I mean. The book devotes a lot of time to denouncing “paternalism”; we have no business sauntering into other cultures and telling them how to run their business, like we were the Great White Father or something. They say every culture has its own unique perspective, and none of them are any better or worse than the others, just different.

As an example they point out that different cultures have different ways of looking at time. Some are “monochronic,” viewing time as linear and valuing schedules and punctuality. Others are “polychronic,” viewing time as cyclical and placing less value on exact times. They provide this handy graphic, placing different cultures on the monochronic/polychronic continuum:

There’s no judgement about where these cultures fall on the continuum, because they’re all equally valid, see?

Now, take another look at that graphic, and tell me which of those cultures are more likely to send poverty relief, and which are more likely to need poverty relief. Does send/need align almost perfectly with monochronic/polychronic? The next time I see an Ethiopian guy handing out free shoes to the kids in my neighborhood will be the first time. I don’t want to sound all paternalistic or anything, but maybe some cultures really do need to get their crap together more than others.

It’s lacunae of common sense like this one that keep me from fully endorsing When Helping Hurts. It’s definitely valuable in its genre and worth your time to read. But maybe when you’re done you should read something else to fill in the blanks.

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