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Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development

Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development

Although I was young and inexperienced when I went on my first short-term mission trips, I was full of excitement and compassion for those in need. I wanted to help everyone I saw and I broke my heart to hear their stories and see their desperation. I remember meeting a young woman who had lost her home and was living on the street, begging for food or money. I reached into my purse and gave her some money and then prayed for her. I asked her what else she needed.

I remember her looking me straight in the eyes and saying, “I need a home. I need a place to live.”

Of course, I couldn’t supply for her. I felt terrible and helpless. What could I do to change her situation?

This is a classic example of the difference between relief and rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is, of course, not the final step but a bridge to development. Different situations require different responses: either relief, rehabilitation, or development.


1: Point of Crisis; 2: Point where Rehabilitation begins; 3: Point where Development begins

  • Relief is the temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis. For example, when a child is discovered to be severely malnourished and living on the streets, her immediate needs may be a safe place to stay, immediate medical care, and nutritious food to nurse her back to health. Counseling, therapy, schooling, etc. can come later.
  • Rehabilitation begins as soon as the immediate needs are met, and is purposed to restore people to where they were before the crisis occurred. Notice the diagram above: once rehabilitation is complete, the highest point in that line is even with the path the individual was on before the crisis (marked by a lightning bolt) hit. A key difference is that relief is mostly assistance provided to helpless people while rehabilitation works with victims or the community to empower them in participating in their own recovery. For example, that child who was discovered malnourished and abandoned may begin meeting with a counselor and therapist who can help them understand and deal with their trauma. A pastor or mentor can begin loving on them and revealing to them who they are in Christ Jesus. She can be re-enrolled in school so she can begin learning again and growing mentally and socially…back to where she was before she was abandoned and left to starve. The child is not just sitting back receiving things. No, she is an active participant in this process and so is the community. Getting the community involved in key to this sustainable and relational step. This is the bridge between relief and development.
  • Development is the process of ongoing change that moves people closer to being in right relationship with God (spiritual growth), with each other (social growth), with themselves (emotional growth), and with the world around them (material growth). It is a process that people do with each other, not simply for each other. For example, placing the child with a loving, stable, Christian relative (or family) in her community will allow her to continue to develop farther than she was even before tragedy struck. She will continue upward to mature as an individual, have a sense of belonging, learn how to work and live in her own context, and hopefully become a well-rounded adult who contributes to society. It is just like the process of discipleship – taking a new believer, teaching them about Christ, helping them mature and grow, and then leading them as they are able to lead and disciple others to know Jesus.

As you work with orphaned or vulnerable children, be thinking to yourself “Does this person need relief, rehabilitation, or development?”

Key source: Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012)

This post is written by Stephanie Eitzen, a student studying Ministry to Orphans and Vulnerable Children at Austin Bible Institute.
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