What is “resource paternalism?”

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert are the authors of this excellent book

I have been reading When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. The authors argue that a common unhealthy practice of North American Christians toward the poor is paternalism. Note: Since I am reading this book with an Amazon Kindle, I am referencing the book using the Kindle reference system which is by “location” rather than by page number.

Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves. Memorize this, recite it under your breath all day long, and wear it like a garland around your neck. (location 1690)

The authors have outlined five types of paternalism.

  1. Resource paternalism
  2. Spiritual paternalism
  3. Knowledge paternalism
  4. Labor paternalism
  5. Managerial paternalism

I am grateful for the work of Corbett and Fikkert in making these distinctions about the various kinds of paternalism. With this post, I am beginning to write my take on each of these “paternalisms.”

I define resource paternalism as the practice of providing money, materials or other assets to people or organizations who could otherwise provide it themselves.

Resource paternalism hurts the poor because it tells them indirectly that they do not have the ability to provide for themselves, thus harming their dignity as responsible, capable, creative persons made in God’s image. It hinders the development of the poor because it reinforces the idea that they lack the capability to address their own problems. Resource paternalism advances a worldview that contributes to the cycle of poverty.

Resource paternalism hurts the non-poor because it releases resources that could have been invested more wisely and effectively for God’s kingdom in other ways. Moreover, it contributes to a “poverty of spirit” on the part of the non-poor—pride and arrogance—failing to recognize that, in the words of Corbett and Fikkert,

until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.

Can middle- and upper-class Christians from North America avoid paternalism, and rather, take an attitude of servanthood toward people in poverty—an attitude which recognizes “our mutual brokenness” and rejects a spirit of pride and superiority?

What do you think?


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