What Is Paternalism? The Superiority Complex, Explained

What is paternalism? Why do some people treat the poor like children?

Paternalism is a superiority complex where people treat others like children. Manifesting this complex delivers the message that some people are incapable of taking care of themselves, and often brings more harm than good.

Keep reading to learn more about how paternalism hurts others.

Paternalism, Explained

What is paternalism? Paternalism consists of treating other people like children: deciding what’s best for them, providing for their needs, sometimes overruling their decisions for “their own good,” and so forth. 

(Shortform note: Strictly speaking, paternalism is not always a bad thing. There are situations where it’s appropriate to treat people like children, such as when they are children—especially if they’re your children. That said, even when you’re raising children, it’s important not to be excessively paternalistic, so that they have space to develop problem-solving and decision-making skills.)

In When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert observe that when we treat the poor paternalistically because we feel superior to them, this tends to inhibit forming working relationships with them and often leads to relief efforts that do more harm than good.

They define five specific variations of the paternalism superiority complex, which we’ll recount below. To show how each variant can negatively impact poverty alleviation, we’ll consider them each in turn for a hypothetical situation where a church sends a short-term missionary team to build a new house for a local family in an impoverished community where some of the houses are deteriorating to the point of being unlivable. 

The 5 Variations

1. Resource Paternalism: Giving the poor resources such as food, clothing, or money. In the case of this hypothetical mission, the missionaries bring their own construction materials along or make their own arrangements to purchase them. This not only reinforces the locals’ sense of helplessness by insinuating that they are incapable of providing or selecting the materials themselves, but it also hurts the local economy since now there’s no reason for the family to buy building materials from local suppliers.

2. Labor Paternalism: Doing work on behalf of the poor. In this case, the missionaries do all the work constructing the house. Again, this not only insinuates that the locals are incapable of doing the work, reinforcing their sense of helplessness, but it also deprives them of an opportunity to put their skills to use (if they have them), learn new skills on the job (if they don’t already have them), or stimulate the local economy by hiring a local contractor to do the work (if others in the community have the necessary skills).

3. Managerial Paternalism: Making plans and decisions on behalf of the poor. In this case, the missionary team designs the house or uses a standard floor plan that they brought with them, with little or no input from the family they’re building the house for. Once again, this reinforces the poor family’s impression that they have no control over their situation.

4. Knowledge Paternalism: Failing to adequately solicit input from the poor or assuming you know better than they do. Even if you genuinely have more education or technical expertise than anyone in a group of poor people, they still have a better understanding of their situation than you do. In our example of building a house, this feeds into managerial paternalism. It also may result in poor decisions: The missionary team designs the house to use natural gas heat because it’s efficient and cost-effective, but they don’t realize that the community doesn’t have a natural gas line to hook up to. 

5. Spiritual Paternalism: Assuming a leadership role in church services or other religious functions conducted for the poor. As with knowledge paternalism, it’s true that the typical affluent Western Christian has more academic knowledge about Christianity than the typical poor person. But academic knowledge does not necessarily equate to spiritual maturity. 

In the authors’ experience, poor people often know better how to apply biblical principles to their situation than outsiders do. Moreover, poor people often have stronger faith in God than affluent people do because the poor actually rely on God for things that the wealthy can rely on their own resources for. 

For example, suppose an upper-middle-class American and a poor African both get sick. The American goes to a doctor for treatment and relies on her medical insurance to pay for the incident. If she recovers without any complications, the episode probably has no effect on her faith in God or lack thereof. The African can’t afford to go to a doctor, so he prays that God will heal him. If he recovers, his faith in God is strengthened.

Finally, the authors point out that just as other forms of paternalism can undermine the local economy, spiritual paternalism can undermine the local church. They observe, for example, that when affluent missionaries host a children’s Bible camp in a poor area, local children abandon the local Bible studies that they’ve been attending to go to the camp and then don’t come back after the missionaries leave because the local studies aren’t as entertaining and don’t give out free stuff like the missionary program did.

Service Without Paternalism

It’s worth noting that the five types of paternalism Corbett and Fikkert discuss are arguably examples of actions that may be motivated by a paternalistic superiority complex but may also be motivated by an entirely different mentality. And when done in the right spirit, some of them may actually be helpful instead of harmful. In this light, let’s reconsider each of the authors’ five types of paternalism in turn.

1. Resource Paternalism: Corbett and Fikkert point out that giving people money or other resources can come across as an assertion that they are incapable of providing for their own needs. And indeed, monetary gifts can give this impression—especially when the giver has a superiority complex.

But in principle, a poor person could also interpret a monetary gift as a vote of confidence. It could be as if the giver were saying, “I know that you’re capable of improving your situation and that you’ll put any resources at your disposal to good use, so I’m giving you enough resources to make a quantum leap forward.” Studies have found that, at least in certain countries, poor people who receive cash transfers do indeed use the money efficiently to improve their situation. This could be taken to imply that at least some poor people interpret cash transfers positively in practice.

2. Labor Paternalism: Similarly, doing work on someone’s behalf can imply that she’s incapable of doing the work, but it doesn’t have to. As a parent, you do things for your child that your child can’t do for herself. As an employee, you also do things for your boss that (hopefully) your boss could do for herself, but chooses to delegate to you.

If you’re an aid worker helping a poor person, your relationship to the person you’re trying to help would probably fall somewhere in between these two extremes. As you get to know the person, you may find things you can do for him that are genuinely helpful and not insulting. As we’ll discuss later in this guide, Corbett and Fikkert emphasize the importance of getting to know the people you’re trying to help as a prerequisite to providing effective aid.

3. Managerial Paternalism: It’s more difficult to envision a situation where making decisions for a poor person wouldn’t be paternalistic, because making a decision on someone’s behalf generally implies that you have some kind of authority over him, especially if you make the decision without his input or consent. As such, making decisions for people may be more closely connected with a paternalistic superiority complex than most of the other actions that Corbett and Fikkert discuss.

4. Knowledge Paternalism: In Corbett and Fikkert’s discussion, knowledge paternalism seems to be closely related to managerial paternalism, because failing to solicit input would usually happen in the context of making plans or decisions. By definition, you should always seek adequate input from the people you’re trying to help. But, as Corbett and Fikkert discuss later, sharing your knowledge with the poor through education and training can be an effective form of aid. You may indeed have superior knowledge in certain areas, and that can be beneficial for your aid efforts. But assuming you have superior knowledge in every relevant area is problematic and—as the authors point out—usually incorrect. 

5. Spiritual Paternalism: Is it ever helpful for a missionary to assume a position of leadership over a local church? If so, at what point, if ever, should the missionary step down and hand over leadership to the locals? These questions have been debated throughout Christian history, and different churches endorse different answers, as reflected in their organizational structure.

Some churches (the Episcopal church, for example) have a centralized structure: A central organization decides where to build local churches and sends pastors to lead them. When a church with this structure establishes a mission church in a new locality, they typically appoint a full-time missionary to lead it. As the local church grows, the central organization may appoint a new pastor for the church and send the missionary to a new mission. In the case of cross-cultural missions, they might eventually appoint an indigenous pastor but probably only after he had graduated from a seminary endorsed by the central organization.

Other churches (the Southern Baptist church, for example) have a decentralized structure: Local believers organize their own churches and select or hire a pastor. If any organization above the local church exists, it is made up of delegates sent from the local churches. When a church with this organizational structure sends missionaries to a new area, its goal is typically to make enough converts for an indigenous church to form, independent of the church that sent the missionaries. Sometimes the missionaries do play an active role in founding an indigenous church, but even in this case, they ideally hand over leadership to the locals as soon as the locals can take on the task.

Some might argue that the decentralized approach is superior because it is less susceptible to spiritual paternalism. But proponents of the centralized approach contend that, assuming the leaders sent from the central organization are well qualified to teach Christianity, their leadership will be empowering rather than disempowering because they can help new believers get up to speed in their faith faster. While this may be true in some cases, Corbett and Fikkert’s observation that locals often have stronger faith, despite having less academic knowledge of Christianity, partially counters this perspective.

What Is Paternalism? The Superiority Complex, Explained

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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