The response to Irma shows why we often get charity so wrong

When the latest storms and floods hit the US, people began opening their wallets to give to charity. Justin Beiber, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Lopez all gave cash. Michael Dell created a massive fund. Even Donald Trump promised to kick in a cool million.

And the relief efforts have been operating 24/7 ever since. Inspiring stories of neighbours helping neighbours and mattress shops opening up for the suddenly homeless have filled the interwebs.

I reckon we witness the best of humanity when we respond together to emergencies.

It would be fair to say, we do charity BEST in the face of a disaster.

Just wearing this Red Cross vest makes me feel inspired!

Just wearing this Red Cross vest makes me feel inspired!

But not every situation of poverty is a "Hurricane Harvey".

In fact, because most situations of poverty are entrenched and complex, our desire to treat everything like a disaster (that requires a rapid response and outside supplies), can actually do a lot more harm than good.

I call this the “Disaster Mentality”.

In a disaster, speed is crucial. Food and water are needed urgently. Getting them to those who are hungry and thirsty is all that matters.

In an emergency, shelter must be provided immediately, basic supplies are critical. Meeting those needs is all that matters.

And the way we like to do charity suits these disaster situations well. We are tangible, results-oriented thinkers.

We see that people are lacking the basics somewhere, so we get together the money to buy and distribute those basics. The more funds we can raise, the more basic needs we can meet. Woo hoo! Then eventually the problem is solved or our attention shifts elsewhere.

This is the Disaster Mentality – where all solutions are tangible and easily solved with money.

But most of the situations of poverty facing the world today are NOT the immediate aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Harvey – though natural disasters tend to exacerbate them. Most of the world’s poor are entrenched in complex systems of injustice and poverty – that are decades old.

The Disaster Mentality just won’t cut it. These situations of poverty are not going to be easily solved with outside supplies and a gung-ho attitude. In fact, these emergency strategies will make things much worse.

This simple bag contains all you need to transform your slum!

This simple bag contains all you need to transform your slum!

So, when we rock up to a poor country and notice that people don’t have enough food or water or shelter, we must learn to discern that this poverty is fundamentally different from the disasters we see on TV.  And we must learn the wisdom of responding in ways that will build capacity, not destroy it. If we fail to do so, these are some of the issues that will arise:

Result #1. We Create Dependency

When we treat non-emergencies as if they are disasters (or we continue disaster relief too long), people learn that the solutions to their problems are most easily found outside their own community. Free food? Free water? Bring it on! Who wouldn’t respond that way? So, the outside assistance that is supposed to strengthen, ironically ends up weakening the very ones we intended to help. They become dependent on the free flow of supplies.

Result #2. We Stifle Creativity

When a community comes to believe that the solutions to their problems will come from outside donors, instead of from within, they have been robbed of the opportunity to find a creative solution themselves. They give up trying to find solutions. Which sucks, because there are few things as beautiful, empowering and encouraging as a poor community coming together to solve a problem creatively.

Result #3. We Undermine Self Worth

After enough time, something happens to these communities that are constantly on the receiving end of outside assistance. They come to believe that they have nothing to offer. They internalize the “beneficiary” or “victim” label that has been stuck on them by well-meaning outsiders. And that is devastating to their sense of self. Ultimately, they have internalized the Disaster Mentality themselves.

So, rather than always responding to poverty with a Disaster Mentality, I recommend discerning when to respond with a “Development Mentality”. A Development Mentality, which should be our main way of addressing poverty, recognizes 3 basic principles:

1. It takes a spider to repair its own web

The resources a community needs to work towards transformation must primarily come from WITHIN the community, for the reasons listed above. Some practitioners call this Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) – which is based on the idea that we need wise eyes to see the rich resources already present within a community. We see Jesus using this approach in the feeding of the 5000, when he recognizes the fish and bread brought by the small boy as an important resource, and gives thanks to God for it.

2. Work is twice done by the man in a hurry

Whereas in a disaster, speed is crucial, in most situations of poverty great restraint is more important. When we rush in to solve people’s problems for them, we do them a great disservice. A short term mission trip is NOT the best way to determine what is needed in a community and come up with a solution. Time and space, restraint and discipline are needed to allow creative solutions to arise from within the community. It's fascinating to me that Jesus waited 33 years before launching his ministry. He never rushed with his solutions, but instead was often accused of being too late (Jn 11:21). He took time to discern.

3. How you climb a mountain is more important than reaching the top

Unlike disasters, where the goal of feeding or sheltering people is of utmost importance, in most situations of poverty the PROCESS is what will truly bring transformation. When we allow the poor to take the lead in their own contexts, using their own resources and ingenuity – the outcome will be empowerment and strength – rather than ongoing dependency. Jesus did this with his own disciples – sending them out to do the work two by two, despite the fact that he probably could have done a better job himself. Jesus stepped back and gave them space to grow. He focussed on a transformational equipping process, rather than just shooting for the quick, easy outcome.

It's time we grew into a deeper and wiser engagement with charity and the poor. There are times for an emergency relief response - natural disasters, refugees fleeing for their lives, war torn regions. But we do our neighbours a great disservice when we adopt a Disaster Mentality in ALL our humanitarian and missionary efforts. Discerning the difference between a disaster and a situation of poverty is crucial. As a result we'll be better practitioners, ministers, donors and supporters. 


  • When we respond to every need as if it’s an emergency – we can disempower the poor.

  • When we treat every context of poverty as a disaster zone – we may create dependency.

  • When we bring in too many supplies from outside – we undermine local ingenuity.


As Christians, we see Jesus engaging with great wisdom. He stayed in the community long enough to become an insider, growing in wisdom and favour (Lk 2:52). He called out people's faith and invited them to contribute the things they had to offer - helping them to grow and develop rather than solving everything for them.

The response to Harvey is inspiring. Let's use it to grow in our understanding of how charity works best. And let's not forget that there have been massive and far more devastating floods in parts of Asia and Africa. For the sake of our impoverished brothers and sisters around the world.