Relief and Development: The Distinction Is More Than Academic


Sometimes relief is not the most effective tool of ministry.

We turn on the evening news and see that an earthquake has devastated China, leaving millions without food, adequate clothing, or shelter. Following a commercial break, the news returns and features a story about the growing number of homeless men in our city, who are also without food, adequate clothing, or shelter. At first glance the appropriate responses to each of these crises would seem to be very similar. After all, the people in both situations all need food, clothing, and housing, and providing these things to both groups seems to be the obvious solution.

But there is something nagging in us as we reflect on these two news stories, for deep down it seems like the people in these two crises are in very different situations. In fact, applying the same remedy to each situation might very well do harm. As in all situations, truly loving the poor requires careful analysis in order to design the appropriate response.

A helpful first step in thinking about working with the poor in any context is to discern whether the appropriate approach is to use relief, development, or some combination of the two. “Relief” can be defined as the urgent and temporary provision of resources to reduce immediate suffering from natural or man-made disasters. Relief is the first response that comes to most people’s minds when they see the suffering of others. “Development” can be defined as a process of ongoing change in which people are moved closer towards being in right relationship with God, with themselves, with others, and with creation. As people develop, amongst other things, they are better able to support themselves through their own work.

Both relief and development can be appropriate interventions, but if we do relief when we should do development, we can actually hurt the very people we are trying to help. For example, giving food to an able-bodied person who persistently refuses to take advantage of opportunities to work will simply enable them to continue to live irresponsibly, thereby hindering their “development” of better relationships with God, with themselves, with others, and with creation. In such a situation, not providing this person with relief would be the loving thing to do. But that doesn’t mean that our responsibilities towards them end. On the contrary, our neighbor in this instance needs “development,” which will be far more time-consuming for us, as we seek to walk alongside of this person and help them to develop better work habits.

Diagnosing the Situation

How can you discern whether relief or development is the appropriate approach? Unfortunately, there is no magic formula, but there are some principles you can use.

First, a good rule of thumb is that you should not habitually do for somebody what they can do for themselves, for if you do so you will undermine their development as stewards of their own gifts and abilities. Many well-meaning ministries routinely violate this principle, thereby doing serious harm to the development of the very people they are trying to help. For example, years ago one of the authors of this article helped to mobilize his church to volunteer at a homeless shelter. The church members graciously bought food, prepared a meal, served it to the residents of the shelter, and cleaned up afterwards. The homeless men were never asked to lift a finger in the entire process, thereby confirming their perspective that they were incapable of taking charge of their lives. A more developmental approach—and a more time-consuming one—would have involved the homeless men in every stage of the process, from planning the meal, to shopping for the food, to helping with serving and clean-up.

Second, there are some assessment tools that can help you to discern the nature of a person’s needs. These tools can range from an informal set of questions used in an initial conversation to a more formal and detailed written form. Such assessment tools help to identify the type of assistance that would be most beneficial and can also help to determine if the need being expressed by the individual seeking help is real. Furthermore, these tools can reveal the willingness of the person to address larger life issues that may have contributed to their present situation.

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