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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Helping without Hurting (And Marie Jeanne's story)

when helping hurtsSeveral years ago, a couple from our church hosted a study on the book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. This book is a must-read for every North American Christian for several different reasons. First, as Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert write at the very beginning of the book, North American Christians are not doing enough. "We attend our kids' soccer games, pursue our careers, and take beach vacations while 40% of the world's inhabitants struggle just to eat every day." This is not easy to hear, especially because so many of us already bear implicit guilt about our wealth. It is also difficult to hear because of the regular overwhelm we experience in the face of global poverty. Can we do anything to make a meaningful difference?

But Jesus has called his church to love and serve the poor. There are not exceptions to this, and we, the North American church, vastly rich and resourced, cannot ignore our responsibilities of stewardship. If much has been given to us, much will be required (cf. Luke 12:48). A second reason for reading When Helping Hurts is to educate our efforts. As Corbett and Fikkert explain, when we try to help, we often do more harm than good. We are largely ignorant about poverty, failing to appreciate its complexity. We create dependence on Western money and outside intervention, rather than foster initiative and self-reliance. And we ignore the shame that the world's poor feel, doing too little to affirm their God-given dignity.

We need to do more. We need to do it better. And we can - by God's great grace given to his people. Here are just a few of the principles Corbett and Fikkert lay out in their book.

1. First, we must consider the local assets of poor communities as we commit to helping. "A significant part of working in poor communities involves discovering and appreciating what God has been doing there for a long time," the authors write. There are resources present in every community, and they must be appraised, valued, and put to work. This tempers our efforts with necessary humility and even awe.

2. Second, we must understand that poverty is greater than material lack. "Research from around the world has found that shame—a "poverty of being"—is a major part of the brokenness that low-income people experience in their relationship with themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God, low-income people often feel they are inferior to others. This can paralyze the poor from taking initiative and from seizing opportunities that improve their situation, thereby locking them into material poverty . . . According to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, it is this lack of freedom to be able to make meaningful choices—to have an ability to affect one's situation—that is the distinguishing feature of poverty." Investing capital in a poor community does not alleviate shame. Money alone can't "fix" what is broken.

3. Third, the best development efforts are those that create opportunities for work. "God, who is a worker, ordained work so that humans could worship Him through their work." In Genesis 1 and 2, we see work, not as curse, but as gift. Fostering opportunities for people to work and became financially self-sustaining not only makes provision for their physical needs but rescues them from their sense of shame and inferiority.

These are three reasons that I love what HOPE International is doing in Rwanda and other places around the world. Operating in 16 countries, HOPE functions as a network of microfinance institutions, which make small loans and provide basic business training and savings services to the world's most vulnerable poor (women, ethnic minorities, and victims of war and corruption). Their programs boast a repayment rate of over 96%. As HOPE describes, "Contrary to a handout, micro finance offers a hand-up. It demands ownership and active participation from the beneficiaries of the intervention. Microloan recipients can take pride in knowing that their own hard work has made the difference between poverty and provision."

Today, I'd love for you to read the story of Marie Jeanne, one of Hope's clients in Rwanda.

Marie Jeanne with coffee 2

The bumpy, narrow road to Murehe Parish in eastern Rwanda is flanked by fragrant groves of flowering coffee trees. Coffee beans sun-dry on blankets in the front yards of mud-brick homes. These groves aren’t large enterprises but rather small, homegrown opportunities for those with a bit of land and a talent for farming.

For Marie Jeanne Mukagwiza and the fellow members of her HOPE International savings group, in partnership with the Anglican Church, coffee farming has opened many doors. Before forming the group in 2002, Marie Jeanne says she saved her money under her mattress or stored it in a cow’s horn—and while she explains that each group member had her own way of saving, she suspects most had no extra money to save. In fact, most members of the group initially balked at the idea of pooling their savings to grow a usable base of capital. “They said that no one in this community is rich enough to save,” Marie Jeanne recalls. As they received training, however, participants began to shift their focus from what they lack to what they have. A savings group coordinator explains, “God is asking, ‘What do you have?’ You have hands, you have knowledge, and you have your group. This is a strength when you work together.”

Looking at what they had, the 21 members of the group that calls itself “People Seeking God” found that they were all farming independently. The church offered an unused parcel of land, and as the group’s savings grew, they were able to purchase coffee trees. They’ve now planted 300 trees and recently bought a second parcel of land, on which they plan to plant 1,000 trees. As their income has increased, their savings have also grown, from 8 cents a month to $1.83 per month.

In addition to the jointly owned coffee plantation, many group members have sent children to school, acquired assets, or even purchased homes. Marie Jeanne has six children, and she’s proud to say that all of them are in school. “We started small,” she says proudly, “but today we are very grateful.”