Tuesday, September 13, 2011

When someone needs help.... do they need relief, rehabilitation, or development? (Pt 1)

Months ago I was reading and blogging through the book When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert. I stopped reading over the summer but I just picked it back up again. This is actually the question that I mulled over in my head all summer long.

Think about materially poor people in North America who have asked you or your church for immediate financial assistance. Under what conditions do you believe it would be appropriate to give things or money to these people?

The key point that I think WHH makes is that there's a difference in levels and types of need.  There's relief - the need for emergency help right away to avert disaster. Then there's rehabilitation, which comes after relief and helps restore stability. Then there's development. That's the ongoing process of change to grow to be healthy and whole in all areas of life.

The question that we have to ask ourselves anytime we're presented with a need is, "Is this a situation that needs immediate relief? Or does it instead need rehabilitation or development?" The response to each of those situations is different, so determining the need is key. A quote from the book: "One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make - by far- is applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.

With that in mind, today I want to analyze the first situation that came to mind in response to the question above:


Situation 1 - Refugees.
I wrote about this situation last year in a post called When refugees accidentally rack up an $1800 phone bill. Isaac and I mentor a newly arrived refugee family from Burma. We're there to teach English, make friends, and generally be a guide and advocate on anything that comes up in the massive cultural adjustment to living in the USA. So - with this particular family they brought out a phone bill that they didn't understand. Actually, it was a bill from collections - for nearly $2,000. After picking my jaw off the floor, I told them I'd call and try to figure out what was going on. Turns out that having grown up in refugee camps with no electricity, they  were taught to use the phone in their Dallas apartment and had no idea that there was a difference between international and local calls. They called family back in Thailand every day and racked up all those fees in ONE month. When they got the bill in the mail they of course didn't pay it, and the phone was shut off immediately. The bill was sent to collections.

So. What is the need in this situation? Relief, rehabilitation, or development?

"If you fail to provide immediate help, will there really be serious, negative consequences? If not, then relief is not the appropriate intervention, for there is time for the person to take action on his own behalf."


My heart just sank when I saw the phone bill because I know the financial pressure on this family is immense. This guy has a minimum wage job as a dishwasher and he supports himself, his wife, his infant daughter, his mother-in-law, and his brother-in-law. He works hard. They didn't get in the situation by mismanaging money - it was a question of cultural ignorance.

Still - if we didn't step in, the consequences wouldn't be disastrous. Perhaps it was a situation of rehabilitation. Their credit would go down, but then again they don't have any credit to begin with. The bill would stay out there until paid, right? I don't have a lot of experience with collections so I'm not sure about that. I just know that while it feels urgent in my head because any debt is urgent in my head, I'm learning that there are times you can't pay a big bill right away (ie - Judah's birth expenses) and paying it out over time is your only option. You have debt. You pay it off. You learn to budget.

On the other hand, though, I don't want them to learn from the outset of their time in the USA that they owe money and can't do anything about it, so just go ahead and live and spent and ignore your debt. Plus, with the bill being in the creditors, their financial situation taking a turn to the worst really could have serious, negative consequences. There was a touch of need for relief.

I think we did the right thing by picking a middle ground. If we had just gathered money from people and paid the bill, they might not have actually learned from the experience and learned to avoid major bill problems next time around. There is a huge financial lesson to be learned here, and in this case with a family brand new to the culture, it's a bit like a college kid managing money for the first time. They need both grace and mercy in order to get through it with hope but still learn from the experience.

First we advocated for them - I called the creditors and the phone company, explained the situation, begged for mercy, and they dropped the bill dramatically and allowed it to be payed out in two months of installments. I told the story on the blog and some friends in real life and in the blog world said they wanted to help. Money came in, enough that the bill was mostly covered and the family just had to pay a couple hundred dollars both months. This was good in that it allowed them to still have to pay their bills and feel financial weight of it themselves, while simultaneously feeling as though the Body of Christ was providing miraculously. There was some relief, there was also rehabilitation.

It's such a fine line. One of the worst things that is done to refugees when they arrive is that church and community groups sweep in and provide a lot of charity money. This means the newly arrived families don't learn to create a budget and live on it themselves, and they quickly are ingrained with this mindset of being the recipient of paternalism. It reinforces our arrogance and their dependence. However, I don't want to be so scared by that prospect that I never help at all. I do, however, want to always help in the context of relationship. I never want to throw money at someone's problem, but I would love to help a friend in need, just as I have been helped (and that, my friends, is a story for the next post on this topic, in which the "need" presented was our own). 

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