6 Forms of Harmful Dependency (Part 1)

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on August 21, 2017 | Print

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert wrote an excellent book entitled When Helping Hurts. It was written for the church, especially the church in the United States, to address the issue of how to alleviate poverty without hurting those we intend to help as well as hurting ourselves.

Corbett and Fikkert talk about an often hidden (to us, the outsiders) problem called paternalism. Paternalism is basically doing for others what they can do for themselves. It is often well-intentioned, but can leave people dependent upon others and even rob them of the motivation and joy of trying to handle their own problems. It is “help” that “hurts” and leads to stunted or handicapped growth of people.

The book cites five forms of paternalism, and I have added a sixth:

  1. Resource Paternalism – This stems from our “have” and “have not” philosophy of poverty. If we see the poor of the world as lacking things, the temptation is to provide them with “things” or resources. This is often done with good intentions but in a way that actually cripples a community’s ability to grow in development.
  2. Spiritual Paternalism – When we assume the position of spiritual superiority, we often create an unhealthy communication of what the Kingdom of God is about. We should embrace other followers of Jesus as equals and recognize that the Holy Spirit can work through them in their own cultures in a more relevant way than we can as outsiders. I have been amazed over and over at the spiritual insights that I learn from national partners if I will only listen. The one thing we do is continually point them to the Word of God for direction. But we should be open to how God speaks to them (and their culture) through His Scriptures.
  3. Knowledge Paternalism – All of us are guilty of this at one time or another. It is easy to assume that people are experiencing underdevelopment because they have a lack of knowledge. I learned early on to view most local people as a whole lot smarter than I am. They could live and exist in harsh environments and with limited resources that would literally kill me if I tried to duplicate what they were doing. For instance, I came to learn that even though I was a college trained agriculturalist, the Filipino farmers I worked with were much more capable of living and existing in their conditions. They could raise a family of six on two acres of land with only a net cash flow of US $25 per month. They could feed, clothe, house, and educate their children. I came to regard them as some of the smartest people in the world. I concluded, rightfully so, that I could not do what they did with the resources at their disposal.

In our next blog post, we will continue with this list citing the next three forms of harmful dependency…