Helping People Help Themselves: Towards a Theory of Autonomy-Compatible Help

This is a precis of my book Helping People Help Themselves: From the World Bank to an Alternative Philosophy of Development Assistance. (U. of Michigan Press, 2005) I explore several principles or themes of a theory of autonomy-compatible assistance and show how these themes arise in the work of various authors in rather different fields such as:

  • John Dewey in pedagogy and social philosophy,
  • Douglas McGregor in management theory,
  • Carl Rogers in psychotherapy,
  • Soren Kierkegaard in spiritual counseling,
  • Saul Alinsky in community organizing,
  • Paulo Freire in community education,
  • Albert Hirschman in economic development, and
  • E. F. Schumacher in socio-economic development.

The fact that such diverse thinkers in different fields arrive at very similar conclusions increases our confidence in the common principles. The points of commonality might be summarized as follows using the common framework of “helpers” trying to provide autonomy-compatible assistance to a certain set of “doers”:

  • help must start from the present situation of the doers not from a “blank slate”,
  • helpers must see the situation through the eyes of the doers not just through their own eyes,
  • help cannot be imposed upon the doers is that directly violates their autonomy,
  • nor can doers receive help as a benevolent gifts that creates dependency, and
  • doers must be “in the driver’s seat” which is the basic idea of autonomous self-direction.

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