IWMC: Brian Fikkert

Today, the International Wholistic Missions Conference started. I’ll be posting notes from the sessions I attend over the next few days.

Dr. Brian Fikkert is a professor of Economics and Community Development at Covenant College. He has a Ph.D. from Yale University, specializing in international economics and economic development. He has been a consultant to the World Bank and is the author of numerous articles and the book When Helping Hurts.

The following are notes I took during his talk titled, “When Helping Hurts.”

How do you define poverty? How we define poverty determines the solutions we choose for alleviation. Misdiagnosing the problem can result in not getting better or worse, devastation. If I go to the doctor with a headache and he gives me tylenol again and again when I really have a brain tumor, it will not be a neutral result; I’ll eventually die. So it goes with serving the poor.

The chart below explains how most organizations and government programs define (and try to alleviate) poverty.

Screen Shot 2013-01-09 at 10.13.50 PM

We have to get the diagnoses right, we must root poverty in a biblical worldview.

Four key relationships are important in defining poverty from a biblical worldview:

Screen Shot 2013-01-09 at 9.54.25 PM

Conservative evangelical Christians doubt how seriously the systems are broken. They are the most likely to not think systems are a cause of poverty.

There was a Ugandan school that was randomly closed one day. When someone asked why, one parent explained it: There was a man who has been a cobbler his whole life. All of his ancestors were cobblers. He wasn’t making enough money so he decided to change his profession. Everyone around him told him that his ancestral spirits would be upset with him so he decided to go to a witch doctor to appease the spirits. The witch doctor told the ex-cobbler that in order to appease his ancestral spirits, he needed to bring him the heads of 40 school children as a sacrifice. The community’s solution to this problem was to close the school.

Poverty is the result of relationships that are broken.

If poverty is rooted in broken relationships, who are the poor? All of us… everyone.

Poverty alleviation is fundamentally about reconciling these four key relationships.

Immediate implications for working with the poor:

  • Walk humbly WITH the poor as Christ transforms us together.
  • The verbal proclamation of the gospel is central.
  • The local church has a vital role to play.
  • Prayer is a central tool.
  • We must address broken systems AND broken individuals.
  • Use asset-based, instead of needs-based, approaches.

Repentance is the first step of poverty alleviation.

MY THOUGHTS: These are not things that Dr. Fikkert necessarily said himself but I’d like to make note of.

He said the first step of poverty alleviation is repentance. He didn’t mention a second step which makes me think that until we take the first step, it’s impossible to discover the second one.

We have pride and God complexes while the poor have marred identities and inferiority complexes. When a prideful person and a person that feels inferior interact, it can be a very bad combination. The prideful person can actually reinforce the inferior feelings of the other person without even knowing it. We must be especially careful of this when working with the poor.

In his book, and many of his talks he references World Bank study called, “Voices of the Poor.” It’s a great resource to go back to time and time again.


2 thoughts on “IWMC: Brian Fikkert

  1. Poverty is a mindset. Poor class Americans suffer in much the same mindset. However, if you are undereducated or oppressed by corrupt powers, your mindset is affected. I find sin ramped in all people, poor and rich, so sin is somewhat unrelated. One might argue that the type of sin varies, however.

    Interesting that you add broken relationships in the list. I tend to agree. Sometimes I feel as if people stuck in extreme poverty are in quick sand, and we are the feet to pull them out. But I think you mean something much more — that the way we hurt and stable or are simply disconnected to each other penetrates poverty. I grew up middle class, so I hanged out with middle class people. One reason missions was life transforming is that I met people who were poor, and I saw the problem with my disconnect with them. I realized I was part of the problem.

  2. Once we realize that poverty is not a lack of stuff, it’s broken relationships, we realize that we all suffer from different forms of poverty. In Africa, it’s mostly material poverty. In America, the thought that we always need more and can’t be satisfied with what we have is a completely different form of poverty.

    We all have broken relationships and so it seems to restore some humanity when we realize we are all in this together. I, as an American with a college degree, am not above an African who grew up in the slums. We’re just different; like a bunch of puzzle pieces; and if all the pieces aren’t there, the puzzle won’t be complete (regardless of how great of a puzzle piece I am).

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