How to Address Poverty D-E-V-E-L-O-P-M-E-N-T-A-L-L-Y

Building a human tower - an old Catalunyan tradition.

No doubt it’s happened to you:  Someone asked you for money because they’ve had a crisis and are short on cash.    Or you felt compassion for neighborhood families that are struggling to make financial ends meet and volunteered to work in a food pantry.  Or your congregation’s leaders grew concerned about homelessness and decided to support a shelter that provides temporary housing for persons who might otherwise sleep on the streets.

In each case, poverty presents itself as a crisis that calls for RELIEF.   Steve Corbett, a community development specialist, has this to say about effective relief: 

  • It’s immediate.  When an earthquake hits Nepal or a woman is trying to escape from an abusive spouse, help needs to come right way or it will do no good.
  • It’s temporary.  Corbett points out that “If relief is given for too long, it can do harm by creating dependence.”[1]

However, not every situation of poverty is a crisis that calls for short-term relief.   Viewed from a community development perspective, there are at least three responses to poverty, only one of which is short-term:

  1. Relief:  “Emergency aid that seeks to reduce immediate suffering from natural or [human-made] crisis.”
  2. Rehabilitation:  A next step, which “seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their precrisis conditions.”
  3. Development:  An ongoing process of in which “helper” and “helped” are brought into right relationship with each other and God.

Corbett states: 

One of the biggest mistakes that North American [congregations] make—by far—is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.

He tells a cautionary tale about himself and the work his congregation provided for a homeless shelter.  Seeking to help, members would bring food and prepare a meal for residents once a month.  It was a full-service operation.  “We did everything short of spoon-feeding the men, never asking them to lift a finger in the entire process.  A more developmental approach would have sought greater participation of these men in their own rehabilitation. ”

How do you address poverty developmentally?  As a start, Corbett recommends the principles laid out in Minimum Standards of Disaster and Rehabilitation Assistance, developed by a network of eighteen humanitarian agencies operating worldwide.  Here are five principles for disaster relief which offer a developmental approach.  These principles apply to poverty relief as well:

  1. Ensure participation of the affected population in the assessment, design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of the assistance program.  For the homeless shelter, this would have meant involving residents in the planning and preparation of the meal.
  2. Conduct an initial assessment to provide an understanding of the disaster situation and to determine the nature of the response.  In other words, before loading the truck with volunteers to head to the disaster area, make sure you understand the local context.
  3. Respond when needs of an affected population are unmet by local people or organizations due to their inability or unwillingness to help.   Don’t just load the truck!  Make sure that local people have told you that your help is needed.  They know better than outsiders what their situation requires.
  4. Target assistance based on vulnerability and need, and provide it equitably and impartially. As above, this means taking the time to understand the people you want to serve before providing resources.  Who, precisely, is most in need?  It’s important to be cautious and not think you have all the answers.
  5. Aid workers must possess appropriate qualifications, attitudes, and experience to plan and effectively implement appropriate assistance programs.  Untrained volunteers can do more harm than good, but so can volunteers who are un-self-aware.  Unconscious attitudes such as “I-am-here-to-save-you” may hinder recovery. 

 A little humility can go a long way.



[1] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts:  How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself (Chicago:  Moody Publishers, 2009), 109-113.


Photo: David, “Helping Hands,” August 4, 2005. Flickr Creative Commons.


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