Unintended consequences – “Your help is hurting”

How would you like this to be your legacy on the missions committee?

After the genocide in Rwanda, your church decides to help the village by providing eggs to everyone. Great idea, right?


You help for a while and then you sense God is leading you to help in another area now that things are settling down in Rwanda.

Cool, right?


Unfortunately, what you didn’t realize is there was an entrepreneur who had bought some hens and sold eggs in the community. He was growing his business and providing food to more and more people.

No business can compete with free, so when you started helping with your ministry of giving away eggs, his business went under. He moved on to another business so he could feed his family.

When you pulled out of the town, there were no eggs. That protein was unavailable.

Not so great.

Not so cool.

You drove out of business the guy who was previously meeting local needs and then you disrupted the food supply.

You left the community in more distress than when you first arrived.

That is an actual situation told by Peter Greer, CEO of HOPE International, in his interview with Jerry Bowyer, summarized at Your Help Is Hurting: How Church Foreign Aid Programs Make Things Worse.

There can be serious and unintended consequences from charity. Those of us who have been blessed by God with the ability to help others and have the compassion to see the need around us ought to keep that in mind so we don’t cause more trouble than hurt we reduce.

Providing charity is an area loaded with potential unintended consequences.

Mr. Greer introduces some of the dangers:

  • Paternalism and power inequality – I have the money and knowledge and ability so I must be better than you. I will take care of you since you can’t.
  • Motivation – He tells a story on himself about the spiritual pride that powered one of his first efforts to provide international aid – He was focused on how good he would look to the people back home.
  • Dependency – He tells of research in Haiti where once every year an organization provided a new home to the poorest family in a village. That one family won the ‘charity lottery.’ That created a serious disincentive for people to improve their home because they would be out of competition to win a new home.

I don’t know where that phrase “Your help is hurting” came from. I probably need to read some of Mr. Greer’s writings to find out (check out The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good and The Poor Will Be Glad.)

What would you do?

I’ve travelled outside the U.S. a few times. Not enough to understand anything anywhere, but enough to know how little I know.

Here’s a question for me and you – what would you do in this situation?

Let’s say you are a soldier in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Let’s say there is hyperinflation. Let’s say the government is only able to pay you 3 or 6 months after you earned your wages. Let’s say you get paid this month at the amount you earned 6 months ago.

That means with the horrible inflation in recent months what you got paid today for a month’s work is enough to buy food for a week.

How do you keep your dear wife and three precious children alive until weeks or months from now when you will get paid again? And when you get paid sometime in the future you will again have enough money to buy food for maybe a week.

Just exactly how will you keep your babies alive?

If I have a government supplied AK-47, I very likely might get together with some of my buddies and stop the next aid truck we see and take a few boxes of food. Might find some stuff I could sell on the black market.  My buddies will join in so they can feed their weeping children.

Or I might throw away my rifle and desert the army to go start farming or start a little business to make enough money to keep my babies alive another week. I must confess I really don’t know what I would do in that situation.

So is that the fault of the seldom-paid soldier? Or does the fault fall on the heads of the government?

On one hand, those soldiers are nothing more than bandits. From another perspective, they are trying to keep their babies alive.

Inferiority or born into a lousy situation?

One of the serious dangers of aid is the risk of paternalism and superiority.

The deep truth of this exchange struck me hard:

Jerry:  “People in the third world aren’t inferior, are they?”

Peter: “Oh, man, Jerry. In my job I lived in Rwanda, lived in Cambodia, and Zimbabwe, and travel around to the sixteen countries where Hope operates, and any notion that there is this superiority complex is not only wildly offensive but completely untrue. You look at what people have done to survive in these places, you look at how hard people work in these places where we serve, and they have my utmost respect and my admiration. I could not do what they do, and that’s not just some platitude. I believe that at the very core of who I am. I could not do what they do. So absolutely, the people that we serve: hardworking, faithful, competent. It’s just that they were born into a very different circumstance than you or I were born into.”

Jerry: “Right. The institutions under which they’re forced to operate might be inferior institutions. You know, lack of rule of law, military dictatorships, situations of chronic unrest or civil war. That’s an inferior way to run a country, to not respect peoples’ property rights, but that doesn’t mean the people there are inferior. They’ve got a system foisted upon them. It has to do with history and has to do with all sorts of factors, right? There’s spiritual factors, geographic factors; they’re in a lousy situation. But they’re resourceful, intelligent, ambitious people in a lousy situation. They don’t deserve to be hungry. They’re not hungry because they deserve to be hungry. They’re hungry because the incentives that they’ve been handed create poverty.”

(emphasis added)

The incredibly huge challenge? How to help people help themselves into a better place.

And to do so without causing more problems.

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