Relief Work is Not Poverty Alleviation

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“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This old saying, which remains true to this day, illustrates an important distinction in poverty alleviation. When it comes to doing poverty alleviation, there is a big difference between relief and development.

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Relief

Americans typically confuse relief work, rehabilitation, and development. We often think of poverty alleviation in terms of relief, when actually the appropriate response to long-term poverty is development. Relief work should only be done when people are unable to provide for themselves. Relief is the immediate and temporary provision of aid and is only appropriate when there is a crisis: some sort of a natural disaster or other traumatic event.

However, according to Steve Corbett, co-author of When Helping Hurts, crises and disasters aren’t causing most poverty. “From The Hunger Project it’s been estimated that around the world only about 10% of poverty related causes are due to crises that need a relief response. Thus, most poverty we’re dealing with is due to deeper ongoing causes that need a deeper response,” Mr. Corbett says. This doesn’t mean that relief should never be done, however. He emphasizes that when relief is needed, it needs to be done well, considering the time pressure of most crisis situations.[1] But since the majority of poverty is the result of deeper and more complex causes, relief is not the appropriate response. Relief work is not poverty alleviation.

Rehabiliation

Rehabilitation serves as a bridge between relief and development—it’s the process of getting people back on their feet. It’s happening at Bonton Farms. Just released from prison, a man returns to his home in Bonton. When he runs into some old buddies from the neighborhood working on the farm, they tell him about the daily stipend he could get by helping out on the farm and passing the drug test.

It’s not a lot, but enough to get him back on his feet. While he’s there, he learns about the hope his friends have found in Christ.

Development

Rehabilitation leads to development—the “process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved—both the ‘helpers’ and the ‘helped’—closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others and the rest of creation.”[2] It’s recognizing that we are all broken and in need of restoration. It’s building relationships and learning together. It’s walking with the poor, because we are all utterly helpless without Christ’s reconciling power. That’s what happens at H.I.S. BridgeBuilders.

Development is a process, not a product. It requires participation. It’s done with people, not for them. It’s about recognizing assets as well as needs, and then building on the resources and skills that already exist within the community. Bonton Farms is an example of development.

When Urban Missionary Daron Babcock became aware of the need for fresh food in Bonton, he and his neighbors came up with a solution from within the community. Rather than bringing in lots of outside resources, they planted a garden, which eventually grew into Bonton Farms.

Development is an empowering process. A community needs people to believe in them, to support them, and to trust them, not handouts that deepen their sense of powerlessness and inadequacy. H.I.S. BridgeBuilders empowers people by offering them the resources they need to start improving their lives and community. Men and women from the community can find employment on the farm or through BridgeBuilders’ services—they can provide for their families through meaningful work on the farm or elsewhere. They are welcomed into a new community. The people of Bonton not only have many more healthy food choices, but this fresh food comes with a sense of dignity because it is from their community. The community begins to flourish.

Bonton Farms is about more than just providing food and jobs. In the development process, Bonton Farms is not only growing vegetables and milking goats, but also, more importantly, it is creating a context for restoring broken relationships and bringing Christ’s kingdom to bear in the city.


  1. To learn more about effective relief work, see The Sphere Handbook, which provides Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response.  ↩

  2. Corbett, Steve, and Brian Fikkert. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself. Chicago: Moody, 2009. pg. 100.  ↩