Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Right Response: Relief, Rehabilitation, or Development?

We've all encountered people on the street who ask for money. And if you're like me, you are really uncomfortable giving it to them, even if you feel compassion. We instinctively know that the money will at best bring short-term comfort (a cup of coffee?), but we fear it will be used to feed an addiction, or somehow extend and enable their poverty. It turns out that our instincts are largely right. 

Not all poverty situations are the same, and therefore not all responses should be the same. There are three responses that must be considered: relief, rehabilitation, and development. (See Steve Corbett's and Brian Fikkert's excellent book When Helping Hurts for more information on this framework.) Applying the wrong response to a situation can actually create more problems than it solves. This framework is extremely useful in determining what our own responses to a given situation should be, as well as in evaluating non-profits in their approaches to alleviating poverty. 

Relief is immediate and urgent assistance in response to a disaster or crisis. A good example is our response to the earthquake in Haiti with provision of food, water, and medical supplies. The goal of relief is to stop the bleeding with external assistance because the recipients can truly not help themselves.

An important principle of relief is that it should be temporary, not a recurring practice with the same individuals or communities over and over again. Relief should be used for emergencies, not regularly occurring dilemmas or short-falls. If relief is continually being called for, this indicates a deeper issue that must be uncovered.

For example, a family who needs emergency rent assistance because of a recent job loss could be a legitimate relief situation. However, if that same family asks for rent assistance several times a year for years on end, then a longer term response such as development is called for. 

Unfortunately, many charities and individuals provide relief when development is more appropriate. Not only is this a waste of precious resources, it can also strip dignity and reinforce a poverty mindset by validating the recipient's belief that they are inferior and incapable.

Rehabilitation seeks to restore people to their pre-crisis situation. An example is the aid given to tsunami victims in Thailand to help rebuild houses, schools, and businesses. In rehabilitation, the immediate crisis has ended and relief has been provided. But now there is a huge hole from which the victims need to rebuild.

An important element of rehabilitation is that it should be done with the affected population, not for them or to them.This builds up their dignity, giving them appropriate levels of resources to rebuild towards their own future.

Development is an ongoing process in which we work side-by-side with the poor to help them improve their own lives and communities beyond where they have been before.  Examples of development include job training programs, training in budgeting skills, as well as a wide variety of community and economic development programs. As with rehabilitation, it is important to include the poor in the process. In fact, it is absolutely critical that the poor own as much of the development process as possible because this is really the only path to empowered, self-sustaining individuals and communities.

Back to the example of the family seeking rent assistance over and over again: one possible development approach would be to meet with the adult(s) in the family and lay out a plan toward economic sustainability. This may include getting some education, skills training, or job finding assistance. It is important in this process that the development personnel allow the poor to define their own future and pathway. This calls for a difficult stance of "leading by stepping back", offering ideas and help where appropriate, without commandeering the situation and imposing our own rules and wisdom upon the poor. Such a participatory development process can actually do more for the poor than the official training or education they receive. The reason is that by empowering them to own their own future and path, their dignity is affirmed and healing to their "poverty of being" propels them forward.  

1 comment:

  1. I would add that anyone (government or non-governmental) that provides any form of rental assistance should also provide auxiliary services such as job and credit counseling. This would help break the cycle of poverty.