What is “knowledge paternalism?”

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

From When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert …

All of us need to remember that the materially poor really are created in God’s image and have the ability to think and to understand the world around them. They actually know something about their situation, and we need to listen to them! This does not need to degenerate into some sort of new-age ,“the-truth-is-within-you” quagmire. Like all of us, the materially poor are often wrong about how the world works and can benefit fro the knowledge of others. In fact, a key trigger point for change in a community is often being exposed to a new way of doing something. But it is reflective of a god-complex to assume that we have all the knowledge and that we always know best.

Knowledge paternalism may be a particular temptation for Christian businesspeople from North America, many of whom are showing considerable passion for using their God-given abilities to train low-income entrepreneurs in the Majority World. This passion is a wonderful development and has enormous potential to advance Christ’s kingdom around the world. But the fact that a person successfully operates a software company in Boston does not ensure that this person has the best business advice for a highly vulnerable farmer living on one dollar per day in the semi-feudal institutional setting of rural Guatemala. Humility, caution, and an open ear are in order.

I appreciate the respect the authors show to the materially poor for the knowledge they do possess. This need for this is amplified when Christian leaders from North America enter into cross-cultural partnerships with Christian leaders in the Majority World, who as indigenous followers of Christ, usually have a clearer understanding—better knowledge—of how to share the love of Jesus and build God’s kingdom in their community.

The ideal in a cross-cultural partnership is to learn from one another and to learn together. This has the effect of deepening the relationship reservoir from which to pursue your ministry goals, and to work through inevitable misunderstandings.

For more on paternalism: What is “resource paternalism?”What is “spiritual paternalism?”


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