Book review: Toxic Charity

No one wants to think how the ways they try to help others with food pantries, mission trips, holiday gift giving is actually not helping but hurting.

Toxic Charity doesn’t eschew giving or helping others. It calls for reflective giving. What is the purpose of giving? To help the other. Are you really helping by giving them food, by going on mission trips, by giving gifts around the holidays?

Of course the answer is no. The author explains how these (and many other) well-meaning acts of charity are actually destructive.

Robert D. Lupton discusses different types of charity that are appropriate at different times. Emergencies call for emergency responses. Food and supplies to New Orleans following Katrina, for example. But too often our only giving is emergency giving. What is harder is what is needed after the emergency. The long-term planning for development.

He describes too how the ways we give undermine our giving by creating a sense of dependency, entitlement, and exclusion. Those in need are not included in making their lives better. They are not empowered to help themselves or their community. They are seen as resourceless. Dependent on others. And yet without giving towards development, planning for the long-term, they are locked in the same situation that led to their need.

We need to think of the impact of giving on others. What do they truly need and what is the roadmap to get to that place? How to include them? How to let them drive the process? We need to listen to them tell us what they need rather than us determining what giving they get from us.

Back to the food pantry, the mission trip, the holiday gift giving. Invariably, this giving robs the people we mean to help. By being given food rather than buying food at discounted rates, people feel disenfranchised and eventually entitled.

With mission trips, we determine what we will come do without input from the locals. Input both in terms of learning what help they truly need and in terms of their leadership and training. (We go to build houses though few of us have that training…and meanwhile the locals who have the skills or know-how are not included in the projects.) Scarce resources are diverted from fulfilling community needs to playing events coordinator for the visiting mission trip.

Holiday gift giving robs the dignity of the parents. Rather than giving presents to children, empower the parents by letting them buy the presents for their children at reduced rates. They retain their dignity having purchased the gifts that they will give to their own children.

Charity is sometimes seen as a dirty word. Especially by those on the receiving end. (Who wants to be the recipient of charity? It is demeaning, emasculating.) For good reason. It is. But coming alongside those in need to help them channel their resources or provide them with resources they need for long-term community development, that really is a gift.


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