The Necessity of Distinguishing Relief and Development

In both cases, the goal is to help the person back to self-sufficiency. But the strategies in each case are different — often profoundly so.


The goal of relief is to meet pressing, urgent needs that are causing great hardship to a person or group. You don’t worry about things like “dependency” here; you just get in and solve the problem because people’s lives, or livelihoods, are at stake and there is very limited time. For example, right after an earthquake you don’t care about whether your help might create a “dependency” or whether you are dealing with the so-called “worthy” poor.  You just get in and save lives. Time is of the essence, and people need immediate help.


The focus of development is enabling and empowering the other person or group to act to solve their own problems. Here, things like the risk of dependency matter very much, because you aren’t dealing with extremely time-sensitive needs that are of such an extreme nature that the person will lose their life or experience extreme loss if the needs aren’t addressed almost immediately. You have time. If you simply give the person hand-outs, they will not develop their own capacity and become self-sufficient.

The Great Mix-Up (Which is No Longer What You May Think)

We often get these things mixed up. One of the central tenets of my thinking for the last 15 years, ever since I started learning about economics, is that we often take a relief-based approach to situations that are really issues of development. This screws everything up and hurts those that we are seeking to help.

As the importance of this truth is being recognized more and more, I am unfortunately noticing an unfortunate trend in the other direction now. People are suggesting development-based approaches in contexts that actually require a relief-based approach. This especially happens in personal situations here in the U.S. I’ve seen people withhold help to others that is essential to meeting pressing needs (Titus 3:14) out of fear that they will create dependency in the person. As a result, the person experiences great loss that, in turn, actually undercuts their ability to remain self-sufficient.

How’s that for irony? In an attempt to avoid creating “dependency” in the person, you actually undercut their ability to remain self-sufficient by failing to help with a need that is genuinely beyond their capacity, through no fault of their own.

Plain and simple, this is disrespectful. We need to have enough respect for people to realize that most people are not seeking to become moochers. When a person has a real, immediate need that is beyond their power to meet, plain and simple, just help them!

This is why we don’t see Jesus very worried about “dependency” in all the healings he did. If a person was blind, or paralyzed, or disabled in another way, Jesus didn’t say “well, hmmm….; if I help you, you might not be grateful enough, you might abuse it, and you might become dependent, no longer seeking to do things yourself.” He healed every person he came across (Matthew 4:23-25; 9:35 — note: he healed “every disease and every affliction”). People are supposed to be able to walk, they are supposed to be healthy, and they are supposed to be able to see. That’s God’s design for human beings. When people lack these things, you have a case of relief, not development, so Jesus healed every person he came across in order to re-establish them, at the very least, back to the baseline of what God intended for them.

With our sanctification, on the other hand, the Lord tends to take a development approach with us (Philippians 2:12-13). That’s why it’s so hard! The Lord is not an enabler and does not do everything for us. He is helping us grow into mature, self-governing Christians who are capable of making our own decisions. Hence, he takes us on paths that will involve us making mistakes and having to exert great effort on the path of sanctification. The result is that we grow.

But the Lord doesn’t mix up the situations calling for relief, and the situations calling for development. He takes a relief approach when necessary, and a development approach when that is appropriate. We shouldn’t mix these things up, either.

Bottom line: when a person has a need that is beyond their capacity, especially that is a result of injustice, don’t let the concern to avoid “dependency” get in the way of actually helping them. When you see a pressing need, help meet it (Luke 10:29-37; 1 John 3:17; Titus 3:14)!


  • Michael in Dublin

    A book worth reading is “Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa,” by a Zambian, Dambisa Moyo. While I do not agree with all she writes, especially because it lacks a specifically Christian answer, she speaks about what she knows.

    I find the best approach of Christians is to channel their giving via reputable Christian charities that work through local churches in the poorest parts of the world. Devout Christians are in the best place to know where and how help may be best utilized not only within the Christian community but in larger community.

    While Matt correctly draws attention for the need to distinguish between relief and development, in the latter case Christians should look to using “appropriate” or “intermediate” technology suited to the particular areas in which they are working. Here I recommend an article by a Christian, Michael Clifford: “Appropriate Technology: The Poetry of Science.”

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  • Wendy McMahan

    It’s a good point, Matt. I have noticed this recently too in situations with friends at church who have had emergency needs.

    Overall I’m encouraged that the difference between relief and development has finally dawned on many of us.

    I appreciate that we are now running our giving through the relief/development filter, but our responses to human need must come out of wisdom and the Spirit’s guidance, not pat answers.

    I’m also curious what you would say about individuals in our congregations who may have ongoing needs that (we could argue from Scripture) should be met by the church, and on a continuous basis, such as widows/single moms. Do you see the best approach here as relief? Development? A different category?

    • Matt Heerema

      I see a third category in the scriptures for widows and orphans, and ministers of the Gospel: support.

      Ongoing financial support of enrolled widows (a well-defined category in 1 Timothy), and those who have dedicated their life to the proclamation of the gospel (vocational ministers) is well-taught in the scriptures. This is neither relief nor development.

      • Wendy McMahan

        Makes sense, Matt. In my specific situation, a group of us are working on helping a single mom (read: widow) and her son. We’ve had some confusion about whether or not we are “enabling” certain behaviors–like offering child care when she could be paying for it–and causing “dependency.” It has gotten fuzzy because we all want to help in the way that is truly most helpful, but we also have different thresholds in mind of what her contribution should be.

        I agree that the case for supporting widows, orphans, ministers and others is clear in Scripture. Now I’m wondering what level of support is appropriate.

        • Matt Heerema

          That’s the wonderful thing about community, because it’s so hard to formulate specifics that will apply to every case, isn’t it?

          The scriptures do actually warn about supporting young widows, lest they (my reading) become dependent and thus become idlers, gossips and busybodies, etc. But the command to “have them marry” isn’t always… that simple. But you get the picture of the ideal here.

          So the principle of supporting them such that they are able to meet their needs, don’t have the opportunity to become idlers and gossips and busybodies, gives you some picture, yes?

          • Wendy McMahan

            Yes! Thank you for pointing out that Scripture. Once again, God’s Word has the answer. Good book. :)

          • Matt Heerema

            Good book, indeed :)

        • Matt Heerema

          For the record, I have 1 Timothy 5 in mind here.

          • Matt

            Great interaction. Really, really good point on the third category: support. I totally agree. Ministers of the gospel, to use that example, _deserve_ support. “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” “Do not muzzle the ox when he is threshing.” So giving to those who are ministers of the gospel is not relief, not development (trying to get them beyond the need for the giving), but support. To support ministers of the gospel, or widows (meeting the qualifications of 1 Tim 5) is no more “enablement” than an employee who receives a salary from their workplace. Great point.

  • Glenn Brooke

    Matt, thanks for your helpful insight here — I need to work at discerning when relief is appropriate and when development is the right course.

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