When Helping Hurts: How to Travel Intentionally | Part 2 - Intentional Travelers
When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor... And Yourself | An intro to the book by Intentional Travelers

11 Nov When Helping Hurts: How to Travel Intentionally | Part 2

To follow up on my introductory post from last week, I want to expand on one more critical concept for volunteer travel that will help us make sure we’re not undermining the communities we’re trying to help.

The following concept comes from the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone who participates in volunteerism during their travels. They also have a great online video series, which I just discovered. It’s coming from a faith-based perspective but the principles are universal and extremely important.

Teaching life skills

Teaching life skills during Peace Corps, Jamaica

Three Stages of Help

The book poses this question:

Under what conditions do you believe it would be appropriate to give things or money to people who need help?

As discussed in my previous post, how we define poverty and its causes will determine how we choose to help. If we believe that poverty is simply a lack of material things, then our solution will be to give material things.

But if we understand that poverty is not as simple as that, we will look deeper. We will see that different situations call for different approaches. The book defines these in three stages:

Discern whether the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation, or development… The failure to distinguish among these situations is one of the most common reasons that poverty-alleviation efforts often do harm.

Three Stages of Help: Relief Rehabilitation Development from "When Helping Hurts" | Intentional Travelers


Relief is for an emergency situation. Urgent and temporary crises, like natural disasters, would fall into this category. To use a medical scenario, this is when a doctor has to stop the bleeding of a wounded victim.

Ask yourself: If I fail to provide help, will there really be serious, negative consequences – or is there possibility for the person/community to take actions on their own behalf?

The key feature of relief is a provider-receiver dynamic in which the provider gives assistance- often material- to the receiver, who is largely incapable of helping himself at that time.


Rehabilitation comes into play once the life-or-death situation passes- or, to continue the medical analogy, once the bleeding stops. At this point, any “outsiders” there to help are working with the victims who are able to participate in the restoration of their wellbeing. As soon as someone is able to help themselves, or at least participate in their own betterment, the provider-receive dynamic needs to change.

Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.


The key to Development is empowerment. It is a long-term, ongoing process where “helpers” and the “helped” work together so that all involved can “become more of what God created them to be,” improving in a holistic way. This means the poor become better able to fulfill their life calling, working and supporting themselves with the fruits of their work.

Development is not done to or for people but with people.

Understanding the difference between Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development can ensure that we’re meeting needs with appropriate solutions.

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

helpinghurtsThere are so many more critical concepts and best practices to be found in the book, When Helping Hurts, I truly hope this brief introduction will inspire you to dig deeper before your next mission trip or volunteer experience.

Have you witnessed or been a part of relief, rehabilitation, or development efforts? Was it done appropriately? Please share your experiences and reflections in the comments below.


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  • Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com
    Posted at 11:26h, 18 November

    Hi Michelle! More good points from this book. And as you say, it doesn’t matter that it is written from a “faith-based” perspective at all. (In fact that might be good when you consider that missionaries have been part of that problem for YEARS) I think these ideas are timeless and when you think about it, they are also offering great advice for helping those in our own back yard –and even family members! While relief might be needed and necessary on occasion, much of the time rehabilitation and development is a much better longterm solution. ~Kathy

    • intentionalmc
      Posted at 16:21h, 18 November

      I agree, this framework is just as useful in our backyard. Sometimes we offer short-sided solutions to poverty when we’re focused on avoiding our own feelings of guilt. To truly make a positive impact, we have to look deeper at the root causes and think about rehab & development.

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