The rookie mistake people make when they try to help the poor.

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A few years ago I was at a church that wanted to find some poor people to help.  We formed a committee that was focused on local poverty issues and began meeting to discuss what we might do.

Photo Credit: malias via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: malias via Compfight cc

Someone in our group had noticed a local social housing community close to us and we called a meeting to make some plans. People wanted to give and help out. Many gracious and innovative ideas to help out were shared at our meeting. People discussed what skills they had, and what they could bring. We talked about the source of the problems, the demographics and “felt needs” of the community. We came up with awesome solutions.

  • We could help with simple car maintenance for single moms.
  • We could help give people a hand with moving
  • We could put on a health clinic
  • We can give people rides
  • We can give away our used clothes and furniture.

All great suggestions – now the question changed. Where should we begin? What was the biggest need? What would give us the greatest bang for the buck? The problem is that we didn’t have a clue. We had forgotten one vital aspect in our planning.

No one who lived in that community was at our meeting.

Here we were, a bunch of strangers, trying to help a community based on our “do-good-er-ism” feelings about the poor. In looking back, as strange as this is, it certainly is not unusual. I frequently hear of groups meeting to discuss different plans and programs to help out a less fortunate group of people. Some of those groups create huge programs and invest $1000′s of dollars (and a lot more) in starting a great new program.

They usually look great to outsiders (and donors) and they usually fail.

Thankfully, once we realized our big mistake, we changed our plans. In the end we had a BBQ and invited the neighbours. That helped us to discover who lived there, what they were like and what they thought about where they lived. We met people who were willing to meet with us and to get to know us. We began to connect with one another. At one of our BBQs we gave out some disposable cameras to the kids and had them take pictures of their community from their eyes. That was the start of something great!

So what was the big mistake that we, and most people, make when they first try to help the poor? It is simply this.

Rookies ask each other “what do those people need?”

There is nothing wrong with the question if it is asked at the right time. The right time is when a disaster has just happened and a building has fallen on someone or a child is drowning. In an emergency like that, get moving! Save lives.

But as super-great as that question is at that time, it is perhaps the most horribly ineffective and damaging question you could ask at any other time. Don’t do it! Asking what people need assumes a few things.

1. They are in need
2. You can meet the need
3. You should meet the need
4. It will help if you meet the need

The first two assumptions are usually correct. There are (1) real needs around the world, and we (2) usually can spare a few bucks to do something about it. The problem is that those first two assumptions often convince us that our third and fourth assumptions are also correct.

That is a rookie mistake!

Asking the question of need most often sets us up as paternalistic benevolent dictators – even though that is the last thing you want to be! Asking “what people need” usually leads to disaster in a few months, it will almost always fail within 2 years. So what should you do? If there are real needs and you want to help out in a meaningful way, there is another way to get involved. This will work, but it takes time and patience.

It starts when you ask other questions entirely. Better Questions.

The type of questions that help move you from having a good idea to starting a good plan. They lead towards the holy grail of all good poverty reduction work – sustainability.

These Better Questions also reveal problems and solutions, but they do so from a very different point of view. Rather than showing your vision of the problem and your idea of the solution, when you ask Better Questions, the community itself begins to show off their own problems and internal solutions.

The people you are thinking about going to help begin to show off what they can do rather than what they need. As a development worker (or anyone who works with the poor) these kind of Better Questions are referred to as “Appreciative Inquiry” or “Asset Based Community Development” (ABCD).

Trust development workers and agencies, if there is a way to take an idea and give it a fancy name or  to add an acronym they will do so.

Anyways. The ways that different agencies use Appreciative Inquiry are numerous, but one I particularly enjoy is “picture taking” It is what we did in the community I was telling you about. The idea is simple:

  1. Loan out 5-10 disposable (or digital cameras) to a bunch of people in the community.
  2. Ask these new photographers to go around their community and take pictures of:
    • the things that they are proud of
    • the things that they want to change.
  3. Show off their pictures and invite the community to discuss their findings
  4. Ask people what they think. Is there anything in particular that the community members want to share with one another, or tackle together?
  5. Follow their lead!

The difference is who is leading. Asking questions in this way allows the local people to show off their community, to own the solutions. They will point out with pride the things that they love as well as share their real feelings about the problems in their community. You don’t need to do this for people, they already know for themselves.

Have you ever tried to help someone out and made a mess of it?

Mark Crocker

Originally posted to stopover.ca