When Helping Hurts

Sometimes helping someone can hurt them.

Scientists tell us that when a butterfly breaks out of its chrysalis, it needs to struggle in order to properly develop its wings. If a kind-hearted person tries to help it out, the butterfly will never develop the strength it needs to fly.
I have come to realize that the same is often true of people. It is especially true of the people I work with; not only the Tawbuid, but all seven native tribes on the island of Mindoro.

Life is hard for my people. Most of their land has been taken from them. The land that remains in their reservations is mountainous, and much of it is not arable. Illegal logging has so decimated the jungle that it can’t support them anymore. Outsiders regularly take advantage of them, stealing their natural resources or making shady business deals with them.

Many good-hearted people have responded to the plight of the native tribes by giving them aid. Local land owners sometimes give them clothes, food and even money. The government, rightfully feeling a responsibility to improve the lives of these downtrodden people, often gives them more food and clothes as well as scholarships and seed for crops. International NGOs (non-governmental organizations) periodically try to help by giving them farm equipment, water buffalos, and of course, more food and clothes.

So, with all of this “help” pouring in from all around the world, my people’s lives have improved dramatically, right? Sadly, the opposite is true. Indigenous government has, in many cases, degraded into squabbles over who gets free money. Disease and hunger is rising as the natives become dependent on white rice, noodles and canned fish. Much of the aid given by the government and NGOs is sold to buy this foreign food. Most of the government scholarship money is used to buy cell phones on which young people watch Western movies and worse. Few go to school, even fewer graduate.

The people in the highlands where “civilization” hasn’t reached, have not been as badly affected by these problems. However, even they have been hurt by the change in culture that all of the “help” has brought. These proud people, once self-sufficient and independent, have been reduced to beggars by a welfare mentality.

What can I do about all of this? To be honest, I feel helpless. Most people simply see me as a rich person to be milked for money. I have nearly been kicked out of Tawbuid territory more than once when certain people found out that they couldn’t simply demand whatever they wanted from me.

And yet, I am here to figure out a way to truly help my people. The ultimate help that they need is to know Jesus. Having worked with the tribes on Mindoro for more than twenty years now, I have found that development work almost never succeeds unless it is combined with true Christianity. The opposite seems to be true as well. Evangelism that does not also seek to improve people’s physical lives quickly breaks down, and the people are left more hardened than they were before. The gospel and development need to be combined for either one to be effective over the long term.

I have also found that people won’t adopt a change unless they discover it for themselves. Among the Alangan, my family tried for years to teach people to grow vegetables. Vegetables produce more nutrition and cash value on less land than rice. We gave out seeds, made an irrigation system and brought in experts to teach. But it was all to no avail. Vegetable growing never caught on until years later when one man with a tiny plot of land decided to try it. He earned so much money that the village became jealous, and the next year everyone planted vegetables. Soon the standard of living across the whole village improved.

Finally, I have found that giving things to people for free often does more harm than good. As I mentioned earlier, free food, money and other aid has caused my people to sink lower into helplessness and poverty rather than pulling them out of it.

So what can I do to truly help? One project I am trying is rubber trees. In the new world which is coming to my people whether they like it or not, a steady cash income is necessary. Once rubber trees reach production age, they provide a steady income, year round, for a minimal amount of work and overhead cost. Even better, the trees can grow on steep mountainsides where other crops might not survive or would cause erosion. The trees will help to reverse deforestation and stabilize the local climate. In order to help rubber really catch on, I have planted several plantations myself to demonstrate its worth to the people and to provide a supply of seeds to all who are interested.

Every day I get multiple requests for food and money. At times, when there is no better way to help, I will give them what I have. Whenever I can, however, I try to use these opportunities to teach and demonstrate a better way. Often I will provide work opportunities. More recently I have begun several micro financing projects. Rather than simply giving food or money, I provide a small amount of capital to start a business. The recipient must agree to let me guide them through the process of running the business for at least one fiscal cycle. I do not require any repayment, but the business owner must also agree not to consume the capital (i.e. buy food with it rather than investing it in the business).
Most recently, I have had a number of high school graduates approach me to sponsor them to college. First of all, I simply don’t have enough cash to sponsor these students. In this culture, any aid must be given equally to all. If I sponsor one student, I will be expected to sponsor all students equally. Furthermore, I have found that fully sponsored students tend to graduate expecting the world to give them whatever they want. I have become convinced that work needs to be a part of every curriculum.

Thankfully, several Adventist universities in the Philippines still offer work-study programs. I have made an agreement with the native tribes on Mindoro: I will take any willing student to one of these universities, advance them their initial fees, and walk them through the process of enrolling. From that point on, they must work themselves through college. This opens the door for anyone who is willing to work to get a high-quality Adventist education and learn valuable lessons of industry and self-reliance. This year seven students accepted my offer and are starting college.

Sometimes people with the best of intentions can cause more harm than good. Usually this happens when free aid is given indiscriminately. I have done this myself more often than I care to remember. However, if we take time to think about the long term and learn from our mistakes, we can find ways to help people that really do give them a better life here on earth and eternal happiness in the earth made new.


Well said! Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, give him a fishing pole, and he can feed himself, and others, and begin an industry and improve more lives……….

By MG on October 11 2015, 2:23 pm

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