When Not Helping Hurts

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We’ve long preached sustainable development over handouts. The pandemic forces us to change our approach—for now.

The coronavirus pandemic is having a devastating economic impact on people living in global poverty. We are in a moment that requires immediate, full-scale relief.

Such a statement may come as a surprise to those who know me. As head of a Christian organization focused on economic development and microfinance, I have been a vocal critic of indiscriminate charity and long-term handouts. Too often, misapplied relief is like a Band-Aid stuck on a broken bone. Instead, it’s jobs and sustainable development that can make a marked difference in the lives of individuals, families, and even entire communities.

Spending the last 20 years in international development, I’ve seen firsthand how charity efforts have not only failed to help but have caused lasting damage in communities around the globe. Books like Dead Aid, Toxic Charity, and When Helping Hurts have put to paper what the world has experienced when aid has been misapplied.

Yet, over the past few months, even this pro-business, pro-entrepreneur, and pro-sustainability leader has become pro-relief. We’ve seen the coronavirus pandemic wreak havoc across our world—precipitating country-wide lockdowns and sending the global economy into a tailspin. The impact is even more severe among families living in poverty. Many of these families were the least equipped to deal with COVID-19 and have been the most devastated by it.

In the wake of an emergency, families do not need another microloan, more skills training, or even a safe place to save their money. Right now, from India to Zimbabwe, people living in poverty are telling us the same thing: We need relief, and we need it now.

Pivoting our priorities

Some economists estimate that the impact of COVID-19 …

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