By Kyle Davidson; reprinted with permission from Compassion International.

Extreme poverty is a heartbreaking thing to behold. It’s especially crushing when you see how it affects an innocent and vulnerable child. When you see children suffering, the natural reaction is to ask, “How can I help kids in need?”

It’s a noble question, and one where you’re likely to find a lot of different answers. You might be tempted to think that just doing something is better than nothing. But what if, out of your desire to help, you actually hurt a child’s long-term prospects for escaping poverty? It’s a real possibility, as you’ll see. So in this article, I’d like to share with you how NOT to help kids in need.

But first, let’s define it — what is poverty, really?

I’m glad you asked! (OK, maybe you didn’t, but I bet you’re wondering about it now, right?)

This is the biggest mistake we make: defining poverty as simply a lack of material resources, thinking if we just provide more income, health care, housing, food or resources then the problem of poverty will be solved! This is bad thinking. It’s like a doctor treating a symptom instead of working to discover the root cause of an illness. And it fails to account for how people in poverty actually feel about their circumstances. So maybe we can let those who experience poverty the most describe it.

In their own words, “Poverty is … ”

In 2001, the World Bank conducted a study that asked roughly 60,000 of the world’s most impoverished people, “What is poverty?” Only 1 in 10 said anything to do with material resources. People from around the world described their poverty in terms that were psychological, social and spiritual. People living in poverty said they felt they:

  • Lacked dignity.
  • Were inferior.
  • Had no purpose or meaning in life.
  • Were failures.
  • Were ashamed and denigrated.
  • Were mistreated and taken advantage of.

The truth is, poverty is more than a lack of material wealth. Poverty is the lack of fulfillment, dignity and the ability to make a change. Poverty is broken systems. Poverty is the end result of a world full of broken relationships — with God, with ourselves, with Creation and with one another. And since children are the most vulnerable among us, relying on relationships to meet their basic needs, poverty’s effects are extraordinarily sinister.

So, here’s how NOT to help kids in need …

1. Only providing for their physical needs

Children aren’t one-dimensional beings. And we already discussed how poverty makes people feel. By simply caring for physical needs, we treat the symptom and not the problem. Children’s physical needs are important because hunger, lack of shelter and medical needs are often urgent and life-threatening. But to solve the problem, we can’t stop there. It takes a holistic approach.

2. Not including them in solving the problem, or thinking we know better

This is a big one because when we come in and say, “I have all the answers to your problem,” we actually remove their dignity. This approach treats them as having no influence over their circumstances. It reinforces the negative belief that they aren’t good enough and have no ability. This is a BIG lie that poverty tells children, and they need to see for themselves it’s not true. And there’s no better way to believe in your own potential than to experience it for yourself.

3. Thinking there’s an easy, quick fix and that what worked in one place will work everywhere

Poverty is complex. A writer once told me how she saw a graveyard of decaying wells near a village in Uganda. When she asked why they weren’t being used, she was told that certain organizations thought they could help, so they drilled wells. But they didn’t consider the long-term scenarios for the specific communities or seek the community’s input. It turned out that the villagers didn’t have the resources or knowledge to maintain the wells. Over time they simply crumbled or became sources of disease-infested water.

To be sustainable, any would-be solution to poverty has to be embraced and “owned” by the people experiencing it.

4. Not being in it for the long haul

The desire to help is an amazing thing. It shows you’re a kind person who wants to make the world better. But lasting change doesn’t happen overnight. Because poverty is the result of a set of intertwined, broken relationships, alleviating poverty is about restoring those relationships. Our efforts must include healing our relationships with Creation, with other people, with ourselves and — most importantly — with God. The work of restoring relationships takes time and hard, deep work. And it’s work that all of us must undertake, not just those living in poverty.

5. Thinking we can solve poverty ourselves

Here’s a secret you won’t hear from many: The truth is, we can’t end poverty, because as imperfect human beings living in a broken world, we ALL live in poverty. Some just experience it to greater degrees in more aspects of their lives. We believe there is only One who can ultimately alleviate the despair and lack that poverty brings — Jesus Christ, who restores our souls and makes things new. To end poverty, we must allow our Redeemer to work in us and through us.

So what now? Here’s how TO help kids in need.

This article is not meant to leave you feeling powerless. The truth is you can make an immeasurable difference, and you don’t have to uproot yourself, move to an impoverished community, gain the trust of the people, and then begin the work of doing life together to bring forth holistic restoration.

To read the rest of this blog post on Compassion’s website, click here.