When NOT Helping Hurts

“Can you help me? My daughter is sick,” my neighbor asked me the other day. He showed me her swollen stomach and her hands are turning yellow. I looked into her sad eyes knowing that children die here often, usually from curable diseases. My missions professor in seminary called it the “stupid stuff.” There are so many people dying from preventable causes, and that is how it feels: stupid. It is stupid that this little girl might die because of intestinal worms that could be cured with one round of meds. But then again, it could be that she has a swollen liver because of hepatitis. Truth is, I have no clue. Which means that what they are really asking me for is not medical advice, but for money to go to the hospital.
This puts me in a classic missionary situation. One like those covered in books like When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. We read through this book before coming to Cameroon with our missionary mentors and found it extremely helpful. In the book we are called to “alleviate poverty without hurting the poor.” One major principle is to not do something for someone that they can do for themselves. Good-hearted giving from Westerners sometimes (maybe even most of the time) creates dependency, encourages sinful habits and removes motivation to work hard. That is exactly where I find myself. My neighbor is asking for money for his child, when I know that he either has, or can find the money himself. I know this because of our conversation last week when he asked me to give him money for a relative’s funeral.
There are tons of expectations on people here for funerals. Depending on your relationship to the deceased it will be expected that you bring food to feed mourners, wood for the fire, or alcohol. I told him that I was not willing to give him money, so he asked if I had any beer as it was his responsibility to provide the alcohol. Having seen the drunkenness that usually accompanies these parties, and not having any beer, I offered him food. After some arguing about the quantities (he wanted to provide for many people) he walked away with three medium-sized bags of rice. He seemed content. Later told me that he was somehow able to wrestle up the money to bring a good amount of beer to the funeral as well (great…).
So now, knowing that he found a way to bring a large amount of alcohol to this funeral, he is approaching me once again for money. The reason is different, a sick child, but the request is the same. What I really want for my neighbor is for him to save his money, not buy alcohol, and to instead use that money for when his child is sick. Giving him money to take his daughter to the hospital means that he will have more money to get more alcohol later. So, I do not want to give him money. I want him to take responsibility for his own child. I do not want my “helping” to hurt him and his family.
But here’s the rub: do I let a child die to get across this point? I am absolutely persuaded that this girl could die. I am not a medical person, so perhaps it is an exaggeration, but she looks really rough. And one thing that you learn here quickly is that if you do not have the money, the hospitals will let you die. Not long ago I was told that a woman went into labor, had a complicated delivery, did not have enough money for the necessary surgery, and she and her baby died. So, what would you do?
Stacey and I have come up with a slogan, one that we try to allow to motivate our giving decisions. It is a mixture of two differing parables used in these types of situations. Here it is:
Teach a man to fish, and throw a few starfish in along the way. 
I am sure you have heard of the two sayings: 1) Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. And 2) is a story about a beach where thousands of starfish had washed up on the shore. A man approached to find a young boy throwing starfish, one by one, back into the sea. He responds to this sight by saying “There is no way you could save all of them!” The boy replies, “No, but I can save this one, and this one, and…” So we are mixing our metaphors and it is probably a bit cheesy. But our idea is that we want to be wise, encourage hard work, teach when we can, but sometimes you just have to give. Sometimes children die if you do not. Sometimes NOT helping means a greater hurt than helping.
So, what am I going to do? For now I have sent off information to a medical missionary, to see what really needs to be done. I am hoping for a simple solution, some meds and good rest. But if it is more than that, I am prepared to pay for surgery. Why? Because I love them. Because this little girl comes to my porch when we read Bible stories to the kids in the neighborhood. Because I want her to live and come to know Jesus. I have had conversations with her father about working, drunkenness, and the Gospel. But for now, I am going to throw back a starfish. I am not sure that it is the best thing to do. I do not know if Fikkert and Corbet would agree with my decision. But it seems right and I pray that the Lord will use my efforts.

Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.