Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Good intentions, toxic charity

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)
Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)
by Robert D. Lupton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.84
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5.0 out of 5 stars Good intentions, toxic resultsNovember 16, 2011
This review is from: Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) 
Its title notwithstanding, this book is not a case for stinginess. Its author has four decades' experience of faith-based charitable work to his credit and draws on this experience as well as a host of anecdotes and research (which, however, he does not cite - the book is one of advocacy, not scholarship). His is also not an argument against voluntary or faith-based giving in favor of public welfare or rights-based claims on the state. Rather, with multiple and compelling examples, from weeklong `missions' of church youth groups to poor countries through inner-city charitable initiatives to the enormous Kroc grant to the Salvation Army, Lupton argues that this work needs to be rethought and reoriented. 

As Brooks (Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism) has shown, giving by religious Americans, both to church-based charities and secular agencies like the Red Cross, is extraordinarily generous by any measure, in time, treasure, and talent, compared with that of secular Americans and citizens of other affluent countries. Lupton does not disparage these efforts or their (mostly) good intentions, but argues that most of this activity does more harm than good. Given the author's own commitment and credentials in the field, anyone engaged in this work will want to pay attention to his critique.

In some ways, Lupton echoes those 19th-century critics of "sentimental charity," who sought to replace random handouts with organized charity based on a relationship between giver and recipient that offered "not alms, but a friend" (the motto of the Charity organization Societies). Those charity reform efforts, which gave rise to the profession of social work, are widely disparaged today, not least by professional social workers. But the problem of how to help those who need help, whether through government programs or private charity, in ways that do not shame, demoralize, sap initiative, and create dependency remains, as Lupton shows, as big a challenge today as ever.

Lupton's approach, that of asset-based community development, aims to empower and partner with those helped, recognizing and engaging their capacity to contribute to their community with their own resources, knowledge, and wisdom. Instead of flying in with a team of eager young missioners to build a well for a poor village whose women have to carry water long distances on their heads - and coming back every year to fix `their' well - Lupton argues for an approach that facilitates engaging the skills and energy of the local people to fund, build, and manage their own well. 

It is not a matter of being stingy rather than generous, but of helping in ways that truly help, without the enervating, dependency-creating disempowerment of much current charity in practice. Lupton's argument is not against charity as such, but for charity in its true sense of willing the good of the other. This implies, Lupton shows, a consistent focus on results rather than intentions, on the good of those helped rather than the supposed benefits to the giver (e.g., the 'life-changing experience' of young participants in expensive mission junkets or the warm feelings of congregations that want to help.) The virtue of charity in this view cannot stand alone. It requires the exercise of other virtues like justice and prudence, and full engagement of the head as well as the heart. 

Paul Adams

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