Everyone agrees that during times of natural disaster, people need help. With “Superstorm Sandy” pummeling the eastern third of the U.S., it is easy to see that many people will need aid in the form of  food, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities, and we are obliged to help.

But we should be smart about it.

Brian Fikkert, author of “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…or Yourself”, gives three reasonable guidelines for helping in these situations. First, he says, help must be immediate. No one should have to wait for crucial needs and services. Second, this type of help should be temporary. Why?

 It should only be provided during the time that people cannot participate in their own recovery. Determining when to stop relief is never easy. We can make the mistake of ending our relief too early, but we can also err in creating unnecessary dependency by extending it too long.

Finally, Fikkert says, relief requires partnership. This is a key element in the aid of any sort. When relief turns to pity, a situation of paternalism and not partnership is created, and that is unhealthy for both parties. As Michael Fairbanks, co-founder of The Seven Fund has said,

 …you create that parental relationship. I’m helping you. You should be guided by me because I have a bag of money. The responsibility for your future is actually on me, not on you because I have the resources to develop you. It’s patron-client; it’s master-slave; it’s donor-recipient. It’s all broken.

Fikkert reinforces this:

 Experts say relief is typically needed only for a week or less before you should transition into a rehabilitation development strategy, working with people to help them move forward rather than merely doing things for them. As you do this, look for opportunities to form relationships. As we walk with people over time, we can address the deeper issues of life and what it truly means to be a fully restored human.

As we continue to examine how we can best help our fellow human beings, whether it is in time of naturall disaster, on-going entrenched poverty or personal crisis, it is good to remember that forming relationships is always better than simply dropping supplies into someone’s lap and moving on to the next big problem.

Read Brian Fikkert’s “Help Without Hesitating” at the Gospel Coalition.

This article is cross-posted at PovertyCure.org.