Mar 11, 2010


There was an interesting article in the NYT a couple days ago about a village in Kenya called Sauri (pop: 65,000) that has been carpet bombed with aid for the last couple years:
Agricultural yields have doubled; child mortality has dropped by 30 percent; school attendance has shot up and so have test scores, putting one local school second in the area, when it used to be ranked 17th; and cellphone ownership (a telltale sign of prosperity in rural Africa) has increased fourfold.
My friend Kristin riffs on this over at her place:
But of course the question is is this really a realistic and sustainable project? I do like the idea that each village that is successful in these practices is used as an example to surrounding villages, but with all of the funding being used in each of the villages, it seems unlikely that other communities would just be able to “pick up” these great practices. I guess I just have a problem with the international aid community being so focused on highly-funded projects. Even in the Peace Corps, I have read statistics that there is no correlation between the amount of money put into a project and how sustainable or successful it turns out to be.


I suppose I’m a bit jaded on this matter because of my experience here. Everyone in my villages are soooo focused on just getting money and material items, which is really frustrating for me as someone who has devoted to years to solely HELPING and teaching them… something much more valuable than money or things in my opinion. Even just the other day there were some British missionaries in the Kuruman area, and my school was just about to freak out trying to get them to come here and “help” us. I kept asking them exactly what they did or gave and they just said “they give money to villages to develop them”. It was like nails down a chalkboard for me, as I am here giving MYSELF to them for 2 years but all they can think about is getting money - money does not equal development! It’s all about the immediate satisfaction, not the long-term process.
I think international aid is an area where well-intentioned people can do a lot of nothing (or even harm) by poorly thought-out donations. Obviously aid to governments is the worst offender, often skimmed by corrupt bureaucrats or warlords. I think aid to underdeveloped governments could stop tomorrow and there would be no great loss.

Smaller-scale direct lending has a different problem, the one of creating dependency. I see this a lot in South Africa, and though I think conservatives in the US use it as kind of a bogeyman, I have seen the truth of it here. I will say it's generally a bad idea to give rural South African children anything, even pencils or pens, with no strings attached. Driving around Eastern Cape we would pass packs of kids that would stand by the side of the road screaming "SWEETS!" with outstretched hands. Or: my grade 4-6 kids all got a ruler, a pencil, and a pen the first day of school. Inside of two weeks the pencils were all gone and the pens about 50% destroyed. Now there's a serious shortage, so I lend out my own pens, but I don't give them away, because they would just disappear. Or: my most frequent interaction in the village (though it has finally been tapering off) is people asking me for money.

This is the start of a begging culture, which is corrosive to the health of a community. I'm not saying that poor rural folks can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps by sheer force of will, but that if any progress is to be made, however small, community members must first stop looking for handouts and start trying to help themselves. To the extent that aid helps create that begging culture, it is a waste of time and money. To put that in development-speak, the community must have ownership of a program if there is any chance of success.

Later in her post, Kristin says:
One thing that has really rang true with me here is that change on a large-scale has to come from the inside, from the people who are themselves affected. If the communities don’t have the drive to change, then it won’t happen... no matter how much money is put into it.
I basically agree, though, I think the problem with aid is primarily with implementation. If I had known what I was doing at the beginning of the school year and made sure that I created a culture of treating classroom materials very well, with negative consequences for those caught destroying their things, the gift of a free pen at the beginning of the school year probably would have worked fine. It might be a moot point, as this assumes a basic level of competence that I think is naive to attribute to all aid organizations.

However, it seems that Jeffery Sachs, the guy behind Sauri and other Millennium Villages, has successfully threaded this needle. He's helped this village with education, health care, and job training without making them look for the next benefactor:
There is a palpable can-do spirit that infuses the muddy lanes and family compounds walled off by the fruity-smelling lantana bushes. People who have grown bananas for generations are learning to breed catfish, and women who used to be terrified of bees are now lulling them to sleep with smoke and harvesting the honey.

“I used to think, African killer bees, no way,” said Judith Onyango, one of the new honey makers. But now, she added, with visible pride, “I’m an apiarist.”
That kind of thing isn't impossible, but it's hard. The Millennium Villages are the paternalistic model, I suppose, where you have a massive influx of people and money that is carefully managed and allocated; where you're essentially leading the village around by the nose. That can work, provided the aid organization is very competent (as Sachs obviously is). Another model more palatable for a liberal could be the microloan idea. Not an exhaustive list to be sure, but a couple tried and true methods.

A lot of criticism of these programs misses the point. People immediately want to scale these programs up and cure poverty everywhere, which is obviously ridiculous. As Mr. Sachs says, he's solving about a third of the problem. I have the same answer for most of the people who criticize Teach for America--of course it's not sustainable! Sustainability is overrated. It's a band-aid on a bullet wound. But these programs are making a serious difference in the lives of thousands of people all over the place, working on notoriously intransigent problems. It's worth doing even if it's not sustainable.

Now, is my program worth doing? That's a question for another post.

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