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When Do-Gooders Make Things Worse

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Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 03/09/15 - updated on 06/07/17

Dead Aid,  Dambisa Moyo, Lupton says toxic charity is the “disease of which it pretends to be the cure.”

Do gooder governments and NGOs are not the only ones to come under Lupton’s fire. He asks why we spend millions on so called “mission trips” which too often turn overworked and underfunded aid workers into tour guides for suburban teens, undermine the local labor market and encourage further dependency. He tells of local church communities in the developed world who do nothing but provide endless hospitality and logistics management for “poverty tourists” who come for a week or two, gawp at the poor, paint some playground equipment and then go home.

With shocking naiveté and crass cultural condescension we waltz into other countries and cultures waving our wallets and providing solutions that are often inappropriate, insulting and ineffective in the long term. Lupton tells first hand stories of his work among the urban poor in Atlanta, recounting how well meaning and well off Christians undermine local urban communities with the misplaced charity he calls “toxic”.

What’s the antidote? Lupton lays out six principles:

1. Never do for the poor what they can do for themselves.

2. Limit one-way giving to emergencies

3. Empower the poor through employment, lending and well planned investment grants

4. Serve the poor, not your self image.

5. Listen to those in need

6. Do no harm.

What to do with a traditional soup kitchen or food pantry? Lupton suggests turning it over to those who are being helped. Some food pantries have become food co-ops which are run by the poor for the poor. With ownership and local management the food pantry becomes a place of community enterprise, self-reliance and pride rather than a weekly exercise in humiliation for the poor. The antidote to toxic charity is to engage and grow with those in need rather than simply giving handouts to the poor.

But this requires hard work, patience and the willingness to live and work with our neighbors. We have to roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty and make many greater sacrifices than just writing a check or handing out groceries.

A great example of the right approach exists in my own parish. The Turning Point was founded by Fred McCain—an alcoholic from Brooklyn who lost his business and ended up sleeping in his car. After his own recovery Fred helped his first fellow addict to a new life. Eventually he bought one of the dilapidated hotels to house men in recovery. Turning Point helps the addicts find jobs and provides transportation to work. They live together in the hotel, pay rent and go through their recovery programs. Because they’re working and contributing the charity is self supporting—not relying on gala dinners, advancement directors and huge fundraising campaigns. It is low key, down to earth and on my visits the men in recovery have a sense of pride, a sense of humor and a sense of direction and meaning to their lives.

The antidote to toxic charity is to remember that that “charity” is the old fashioned word for “love.” True love desires the best for the other person. True love is never self serving, but always listens carefully to the other person— working with them patiently to grow toward all that is beautiful, good and true. If we really want to love our neighbors we need to challenge our motives and methods—striving to avoid toxic charity and to develop a charity that is both tough and tender and truly serves those who are in need.

Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Her serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog and browse his books at

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