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When Helping Hurts

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your desire to help ended up making a bad situation worse? You had good intentions, but your good intentions lacked knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of the full picture. Maybe a specific situation comes to mind, and if you could go back in time, you would respond differently. The good news is you’re not alone. In fact, this happens on a much larger scale to organizations every day, and many organizations are unaware it’s happening–just like we were when we first started our work in Uganda.

In their book When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikker say that many organizations and churches are at risk of unknowingly embracing what some might call a “God-complex”—a mindset that causes us to focus more on the brokenness of those we’re helping than on our own brokenness. And “until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good” (Corbett and Fikker 61). We all have to continually remind ourselves of our own brokenness everyday, but being aware of our tendency not to remember is a good start.

Whether you’re on staff at an organization, a partner of Amazima Ministries, or someone who simply desires to help people, we hope reading through these four key ideas from When Helping Hurts will at the very least cause you to think, even if you don’t agree with all of Corbett and Fikker’s ideas. And for some of us, these ideas just might spark a revolution in our minds—a redefining of poverty and of ministry.

A path forward is found, not through (only) providing resources to the poor, but instead by walking with them in humble relationships.

By prioritizing relationships over tasks, we’ve seen our programs grow into communities­–safe places where individuals can grow in their relationship with Christ in such a way that restores their relationship with their selves and others. The women of Amazima’s Beading Circle, for instance, haven’t just learned how to make beautifully-designed jewelry over the years. They’ve learned how to share in each other’s burdens and be vulnerable about their lives, they’ve learned how to hold each other accountable, and how to praise God in victory and defeat… together. Month after month they meet with members of our staff, and while we all come from different walks of life, our differences dissolve under the cool shade of a mango tree as we open God’s word and study the true giver of dignity—Jesus.

Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.

For someone like Jaja (a commonly used word for grandmother in Uganda) A* who has experienced unspeakable loss at multiple points in her life, it was not enough for us to simply address the material poverty in her life. She needed a community to come alongside her and understand the relationship between outward poverty and inward turmoil. Ultimately, she didn’t drink because she was poor. She drank because she was hopeless, and helpless because of her hopelessness.  Jaja’s story is not uncommon in Uganda or anywhere in the world, and that’s why our mentors don’t just evaluate physical needs when they make their routine home visits. We believe a holistic approach to ministry, with an emphasis on relationship, is the only hope for lasting change—the kind of change Jaja has experienced. Today she has a job and is no longer bound to addiction, but more than that, she’s able to provide for the needs of her grandchildren and take care of herself. As community members have witnessed the incredible change in her life, Jaja A gives one answer when they ask how they, too, can experience this change: Jesus.

Participation is not just the means to an end but rather a legitimate end in its own right.

Last year Amazima transitioned from a traditional sponsorship program to a scholarship program. This was a minor, yet significant, change. One we believe will affect the trajectory of our impact over time. Our previous approach empowered students by providing them with education, medical care, mentorship, and daily meals, but it didn’t require participation from their guardians and parents. This new approach will allow our partners to continue to provide for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of hundreds of students, while at the same time elevating parents and guardians in the eyes of their children by simply inviting and asking them to be involved.

One of the biggest mistakes many churches (or organizations) make is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.

This idea of providing rehabilitation or development in addition to or in place of relief has impacted our methods in various ways over the years, most recently in our strategy for The Amazima School, our secondary school in Jinja, Uganda! We knew we wanted to help improve the education system in Uganda, but we also knew that how we set out to do that was just as important. So, we’ve chosen to hire a very limited western staff and develop Ugandans as much as possible. Any western teacher helping at the school works very closely with a Ugandan teacher. While the western teachers are able to share ideas about different methods of teaching, Ugandan teachers take the lead in the classroom! This idea also drives ours stance on not having a large-scale volunteer program on the ground. While there are many needs on campus that could easily be filled by short-term missions teams or volunteers (we are SO humbled and grateful anytime we receive emails about opportunities to serve), we believe this would take jobs away from Ugandans. And that’s why we’ve chosen not to implement a volunteer program at this time.

At the end of the day, we’re on a journey just like you, of discovering what true and effective ministry in the name of Jesus looks like. But this we know, we could provide for every physical need in the world and still miss it if we don’t offer people a solution for the poverty in their souls—something we can do only when we become aware of the poverty in our own souls.

If you partner with Amazima, we want to say thank you. Thank you for your love for people, your passion for change, and your commitment to see the gospel go forth and multiply in all nations! We are grateful to have you alongside us as we continually seek His will.

To learn more about the work of Amazima Ministries or to partner financially with us, visit www.amazima.org.

To learn more about current job openings at Amazima Ministries, click here.


Corbett, Steve and Fikkert, Brian. When Helping Hurts. 2009. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009. Print.

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