Is it possible to love without waiting for the reciprocal action from those being helped? Is it possible to live lives of true altruism? Are we only using the poor in order to receive eternal awards?

When we’re faced with the incredible dismay and powerlessness of the poor we exclaim with incredulous passion ‘Where is God’? In response to this God asks us ‘where are you’? Once we realize our place in the drama of poverty-alleviation we have to ask the piercing questions of why we’re helping and if our ‘helping’ is in fact helpful.

Thoreau once exclaimed that if he knew that a certain man, “… was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life … for fear that I should get some of his good done to me.”

When we get involved with the poor we have to be reflective towards our motivation. Are we only helping the poor in order to receive divine approval? Or to feel good about ourselves, and make this world a better place? Is our motivation due to pity or maybe compassion? It may be that our foundational drive could be described as a process of ridding ourselves from an ever present guilt; a sort of penance. For most of us, at least those who are honest, a mixture of the above with some of our own personal neurosis will be the case.

Although our motivation has to be assessed we have to face a most basic and primal danger. We should avoid ‘using the poor’ at all cost! When we reduce the poor to a utility for our salvation and growth then we do them the ultimate disservice. Even if our acts towards them are seen as good, nothing will make up for dehumanizing them into objects of our growth, tools for our own betterment. I think this is what Thoreau dreaded. No-one wants to be someone’s project! The danger is to help someone in a dilapidating manner.

Philanthropy has the potential of immense good and yet it can crush the souls of the recipients when it’s mixed with the ingredients of a new-colonialism or an insistence on superiority of race and pride; the ancient injunction to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves’ wrongly understood will eventually produce the inevitable diabolical result of dehumanizing others. I’m not proposing that we should stop helping, only that we should consider what this ‘loving of others’ really means.

The origin of the word philanthropy can be traced to two Greek words. The first is phileo – brotherly love. The second is anthropos – human being. The compound of these words can serve as brackets to keep our help confined to helpfulness. When one moves away from loving or seeing someone as a human being philanthropy changes into an unhelpful activity.

When one really helps the realization of shared humanity can facilitate in eradicating the one-sided direction of dehumanizing acts of philanthropy. This is aptly summed up in the statement ‘help me to help you’ and ‘help for self-help.’ When this happens the poor and the non-poor are both healed. The poor can reclaim their identity in God and the non-poor can shed their insistence on playing god.