When helping harms

Just before vacation I caught a PBS television show on how economic development (funded by international aid) often ends up hurting while trying to help. Here’s a link to the documentary website. The show covers two areas of Kenya and the pros/cons of trying to raise the living standards of those who live there.

This is not a new problem and reminds me again that there is a book I need to read (When helping hurts).

As a counselor who has traveled to Africa to try to help, I am very interested in finding appropriate methods to provide emotional support and care to traumatized peoples. What are some of the ways we counselors might unintentionally hurt those we want to help?

1. Pressuring clients to do something we think is important (e.g., stand up for yourself, say no to a violent spouse, speak the truth about your abuse, etc.) without considering the consequences. I once read about some African women who sought counseling for rape. Problem was that by going to the rape counseling center, they communicated to their village that they had been raped–and were later killed for being defiled.

2. Assuming that counseling can only be done by licensed professionals. We could train counselors in another country but if these folks couldn’t get paid to counsel because their clients are all subsistence farmers, we have only created additional frustrated individuals.

3. Similar to the last point, if the trainers are all westerners, then they will likely fail to understand culture specific resources/challenges and may reinforce the assumption that only westerners are competent to provide the care.

What are some other ways you have seen western counselors unintentionally harm the helpee?


Filed under counseling, counseling skills, Cultural Anthropology, Psychology, suffering

2 responses to “When helping harms

  1. When Helping Hurts is a very thought provoking book for those of us who work here and overseas. It caused me to rethink a lot of what we do as counselors and as churches who want to see kingdom transformation in peoples lives and in our community. Not sure I’ve got a lot of answers yet but approaching the questions from a different perspective…I would definitely recommend reading it.

  2. As professionals we want to do no harm. I’m so glad you addressed that there are times when helping others can cause harm because we are not sensitive or understanding of their culture, values, belief system… Even as we work with diverse populations and people with different religious beliefs within our own country, I think it’s important that we are sensitive to these issues. I have heard of harm done by Christian counselors who do what you listed first–pressure clients to do something we think is important. As we meet people where they are at and understand where they are coming from, we can do a great deal of good. Thank you for this post!

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