Picture - Roland 2014An Interview with Roland Hoksbergen
Co-author of When Helping Heals

Interviewed by Katherine Ulrich

Why did you choose to go into the field of international development?

I was always interested in other countries and places. During my undergraduate years a person in my church pulled me aside and said, “There was an earthquake in Guatemala. Would you like to go there and do some work?” That sounded wonderful to me for all sorts of reasons. I would get to go to a place I learned about in my anthropology classes. I knew the Mayans were from that part of the world, which thrilled me. The other thing was that I was a Christian who cared about helping and being compassionate. So, this was an opportunity to put that compassion and learning about another culture into action. It was a really nice confluence of events.

I ended up in Guatemala for a year, where I was confronted with poverty and oppression, marginalization and inequality, injustice in ways I hadn't ever seen before. That experience naturally raised questions in my mind: Why is this? What can we do about it? What can the church do about such poverty? What can my nation do? Who is responsible for this? I wanted to ask all those questions. I decided to study economics since poverty played such a big part in what I witnessed.

When I returned from Guatemala to finish my undergraduate studies I needed some guidance on how a degree in economics might address the questions I had. At that time, I think I was a junior, a professor introduced me to the discipline of economic development. I remember feeling like several pieces came together as I encountered economic development.

I studied economic development in graduate school. Economic development has a tendency to focus on markets and GNP growth. My experience in Guatemala, however, taught me about working at the grassroots level and with NGOs, which helped me focus on the development side of economic development.

Finally, when I came to Calvin as a professor, we started developing the International Development Studies program. It became international development and not economic development because the discipline is broader than economics. My interests have always been more broadly oriented toward the story of humanity within the developmental context.

What was your inspiration for When Helping Heals?

First, several questions have always been on my mind: What can I do to help? How can I help? Is this a good way to help? These questions have framed the way I approached my research.

Second, some recent books claim that helping hurts. In fact, there is a very good book with that title, When Helping Hurts. Actually, it is a very good book. A few other books communicate that message as well: Toxic Charity, Dead Aid, Lords of Poverty, and The Tyranny of Experts. None of these books offer a message of hope. But, I don’t think that that’s really true. I like to think about this in terms of baseball. Take some of your best baseball players. They will strike out sometimes. But when they hit a good one it makes it worthwhile. In international development there are good hits. We wanted to focus on the things that have gone well and offer a message of hope. It is true that we have made mistakes and we don’t do this stuff well all the time. On the other hand, we have learned a lot, a lot that has been good. Moreover, there is a lot of good to be done.

Another motivation for writing the book was the biblical message to help people by living out the call to love our neighbors. Part of this message finds its fulfillment when we give our neighbor a hand when our neighbor needs one. And who are our neighbors? Well, the way I read the story of the Good Samaritan is that everybody in need of help is our neighbor. So then, it's our job to figure out what is good help. In the context of the Samaritan story, there were probably ways of helping that could’ve hurt the person on the side of the road. The Samaritan did a good thing. Stories like the story of the Good Samaritan teach us that there are good ways to help.

Finally, a lot of our students were getting jaded and cynical about the possibilities of helping because of the books devoted to this topic. That bothered Tracy and me. We didn't want our students to walk away thinking there was nothing good to be done. A lot of students come in starry eyed about how easy it is to help people and when they discover it's not so easy they feel like giving up. We hope to show there are ways to help.

What has been the most challenging part about writing this book?

Keeping it short! There’s a whole lot going on out there, and you want to say so much. In the end, we have two stories, two stories of so many that could be told. They’re both NGOs working in different arenas and showing different things, but there’s so many other types of stories we could have told as well. But to tell those stories, we felt that we had to set it up by giving an understanding of the lessons that we have learned, the mistakes that we have made, and getting some sense of that history and the learning that happened in the process. So we did that.

What is your hope for When Helping Heals?

In a conceptual way, I hope the book provides a vision towards an understanding that help is possible, that we’ve learned a lot, and that this would counter the negativity people have been writing about. I hope that When Helping Heals will be used by programs that are training people--young people, college programs, and churches. This isn’t the only book that is gonna do that or the only resource that’s gonna do that. But I hope it’s a resource that catches people’s attention in a way that says, “Yeah, there is work to be done. We are definitely called to help. And here are some ways to do it well.”

What are your favorite development books?

Having People, Having Heart by China Scherz

Aiding Violence by Peter Uvin

Walking with the Poor by Bryant Meyers

When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen

Development to a Different Drummer by Richard Yoder

The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs

The Age of Sustainable Development by Jeffrey Sachs