Why Some “Help” Really Hurts


When I visited a school in a Ugandan village, the local leader I was working with told me that the buildings were not being maintained and would continue to fall apart, because everyone knew that western aid-workers would just come rebuild them if needed.

Very revealing.

This doesn’t mean I think assistance programs are bad, but this concept makes you think hard about how aid should be shaped to have good long-term effects. I remember seeing lots of very clear and damaging cases of “shifting the burden to the intervenor” while living in and visiting some very poor areas in Africa.

Consider this–from Peter M Senge’s excellent study, The Fifth Discipline: The Are & Practice of the Learning Organization:

“The long-term, most insidious consequence of applying nonsystemic solutions is increased need for more and more of the solution. This is why ill-conceived government interventions are not just ineffective, they are “addictive” in the sense of fostering increased dependency and lessened abilities of local people to solve their own problems. The phenomenon of short-term improvements leading to long-term dependency is so common, it has its own name among systems thinkers–it’s called “shifting the burden to the intervenor.” The intervenor may be federal assistance to cities, food relief agencies, or welfare programs. All “help” a host system, only to leave the system fundamentally weaker than before and more in need of further help.”

You see lots of this. And it’s not just in poverty relief. You see it in personal life. You see it in business–when companies use kid gloves and cute initiatives to train and empower leaders (watering down what real, complicated leading looks like) and end up just babysitting a lot of managers that were never given the chance to be taken seriously. You see it in customer service–when out of a desire to go above-and-beyond, companies accidentally train customers to be extremely high-maintenance instead of self-reliant. Examples are endless.

So the tough question is–how do you help AND avoid that effect?

I don’t have a perfect answer, but I think it starts somewhere along the lines of: “Teach a man to fish…”

What do you think?


Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. – Chinese Proverb

Author: Peter Elbridge

I have a passion for helping others, and that is why I write. I believe that sharing our experiences and discoveries in life is the best way to make a difference. After all, we're all in this together. (My opinions and endorsements are my own and do not represent my employer.)

One thought on “Why Some “Help” Really Hurts”

  1. Totally right Peter. Help is not inherently bad, but we need to be wise about how we go about help. The concept of ‘Teach a man to fish…” is probably part of the best route depending on situation.


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