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Posts Tagged ‘enabling’

I finished the book When Helping Hurts and have been thinking about how Americans so often  swoop into a third world country or a poor neighborhood and try to “fix” things according to our own standards, which undermines the talents and drive of the people who live there and reinforces our own mistaken sense of superiority.  We should try to partner with local resources and listen to what people actually need.  We should try to make lasting changes that our motivated from within the community rather than imposing quick changes from outside the community that probably won’t last.  We should remember that being poor involves so much more than just lacking the basics that a human needs to survive – it involves feelings of powerlessness and shame and fatalism.  We can’t just throw money at those in poverty and expect things to improve.  Often there are systemic factors like racism that contribute to poverty.  This book emphasizes respecting local culture and working in partnership with the poor in a way that affirms their own skills and brings about long-lasting and organic change.

Even though the ideas in When Helping Hurts are profound, it was difficult to read to the end because of the dry writing style.  I persevered and have since been thinking about the difference between helping people and enabling people.  The way I enable certain people is similar to the way many people mistakenly try to alleviate poverty, and reading about guidelines for dealing with the poor made me think about applying these ideas to my own relationships.  (It sounds like maybe I should’ve read a self-help book this week instead of a book on the poor, but at least I learned something!)  The authors provide 3 guidelines when someone comes to you with a crisis:

(1) Determine if there is an authentic crisis at hand.  “If you fail to provide immediate help, will there really be serious, negative consequences?”

(2) To what extent is the person responsible for their crisis?  If you help them, will they miss out on the chance to learn from the consequences of their actions?  (They note that you should pay attention to systemic factors that can cause crisis and not be punitive.)

(3) Can the person help themselves?  If they can help themselves, doing it for them would undermine their confidence in their agency.  “Avoid paternalism.  Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.”

I am often bossy.  I take charge of situations and make things happen, but that means that I sometimes steamroll over people and don’t give them the chance to develop important skills.  I needed to hear someone tell me to avoid paternalism this week, because that’s a character flaw that I struggle with.  At work, my instinct is to avoid taking the time to train someone for a new task when it’s faster for me to do it myself.  Instead this year I have been making an effort to mentor other people (those 2.5 people who have less experience than I do…) even when it takes time, because it’s the right thing to do and it’s actually more efficient for me in the long term.  At home, I have consciously been including my husband* more in the process of dealing with our bank, because it’s important that both spouses be partners about finances.

I had begun this process of stepping back and letting other people learn how to fish rather than just fishing for them sometime last year, but reading this book gave me words to describe what I am doing.  I am avoiding paternalism; I am affirming the agency of other people.

*I am grateful that my husband has not decided to make me demonstrate more agency in processes like emissions inspections because it is important for both spouses to be conversant about  car maintenance.  Luckily, he has not read When Helping Hurts and probably never will.

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I’ve been reading a very interesting book called When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty without Hurting the Poor that is about how our efforts to help the poor often make situations worse rather than helping them to escape poverty.  This book focuses on the debilitating impact of many short term mission trips that churches undertake and many ministries that churches provide to the poor, as well as misconceptions about what it is to be poor and what causes poverty.

Reading this book is causing me to re-think many beliefs that I’ve never questioned.  For instance, if a homeless person on the street asks me for money, almost 100% of the time I give them something.  I do this because several verses in the bible make it clear that we should share with those who don’t have much when we do have enough, like:

1 John 3:7 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

Matthew 5:42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Proberbs 3:28  Do not say to your neighbor,
   “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you”—
   when you already have it with you.

There are a lot more verses like this in the bible and a lot of people will immediately ask if I’ve also literally sold all my possession and given them to the needy as Jesus mentions in Luke 12:33.  I have not, but I think it’s a very common condition (affliction?) for Christians to pick and choose which bible verses they will interpret literally and which were dependent on the context or perhaps mistranslated over time.

I believe when I die that I will see Jesus and we will talk about my life.  I want him to say that I did a good job, and I don’t want to have to answer to him for the times that I turned away from someone in need.  When my friends argue that these homeless people are just going to buy drugs or alcohol, I always comment that if I were homeless I might want to do that, and that it’s really not my business what they buy with it.  It’s only my business whether I turned away from someone who was hungry, and ultimately I’ll answer for that someday.

This book is making me think about whether my responsibility to the poor involves something different than giving them cash and turning away when they may be stuck in situations where money isn’t really what they need.  As Americans, we often throw money at problems we don’t understand.  I’m not sure yet how my interactions with the homeless are going to change, and in the meantime I am still giving them cash, but I’ll update you when I finish the book.

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