Tag Archives: Sustainable development

The key to reducing poverty is… fewer armchair experts

Certain sectors seem to attract more armchair experts than others. We all think we know what is needed to fix the Australian Cricket Team’s woes. Sack the selectors and cut down the playing schedule to eliminate burnout. Bring back Warney.

We all think we know what is needed to produce better classrooms for our children. We need to reduce class numbers, get the teachers back to teaching basics, study more of the classics in their original form, not after they have been put through a blender by Baz Luhrman.

Development is no different. I recently took a flight from Singapore to Cambodia, and had a lovely, chatty couple in their 50s sit next to me. They were instantly interested in hearing about my work in disability in Cambodia. After asking the usual questions about what I do, they  told me that they were active donors in Cambodia.

They had a local guy who found good, sustainable projects for them to fund. Of course, good and sustainable are entirely subjective.

“We believe that the key to getting people out of poverty is giving the chance to start their own business,” he said to me earnestly. “You need to let them tap into their inner entrepreneur. We don’t believe in providing welfare, because it makes people lazy. We think that starting small businesses are key for poor people.”

I feel like MLK Jr may disagree.

As such, the couple only gave to projects that supported this ideal. For instance, they bought a tuk-tuk for a driver, so that he could earn a living for himself and his family. They provided funds for a soy bean drink machine, imported from Singapore of course, so that another family could sell drinks in their village.

For the next 20 minutes, I listened without interrupting as they explained their views on what constitutes good development, and how the projects they had funded were creating a sustainable future in Cambodia. At the end of this spiel, they turned to face me front on and ask, “So, in your work in Cambodia, what do you see as the major challenges you face?”

I paused for a moment, and replied: “One of the biggest problems we face is donors from outside Cambodia, who have no experience in development, let alone in Cambodia, dictating what they think constitutes good development, rather than listening to what people in Cambodia actually want. It forces the NGO to change their activities to suit the needs of the donors, and ignore the needs of people.”

(I’ll be the first to admit that this is a somewhat pompous response, but really, I had bitten my tongue for 20 whole minutes!)

In a recent interview, Founder and CEO of Global Poverty Project, Hugh Evans, was asked by MSNBC journalists about what Americans could do that would “translate into action” for people living in extreme poverty. For example, the suit-clad men in MSNBC’s studio wondered, should WE teach THEM “better techniques in terms of harvesting rice and grain”? I think Hugh handled this absurd question very well, though his visceral reaction was pretty obvious.

What food did they serve Hugh in the MSNBC green room?

We have great conversations about development online and offline. Although we need to consciously make effort to escape the bubble of developmentcentrism, we are always exploring how to get development right.

Many of us are working in development, consumed by it, and are constantly reflecting on it. Even these people are constantly searching and debating about how to get development right, without a clear answer. If this is the case, what makes those in the general public so sure that they know the answers?

How many times have you heard the phrase “I think the key to getting people out of poverty is X”? You can replace X with education, small business, focusing on women and girls, used yoga mats.

You would be very hard pressed to find anyone saying something similar about other sectors.

Thank you, Wikipedia.

Yet, similar opinions in relation to poverty abound.

It is pretty common knowledge in the development sector that overheads are in no way a good measure of an organisation’s effectiveness. Yet, as many of as aware from numerous conversations, people in the general public don’t seem to realise this. How many times have you heard the opinion “I give to so and so charity because they use volunteers and most of the money goes to the people who need it?”

Why is there such a gap between conversations within our development bubble, and those outside?

I’m going to put forward one possible reason, though I am very interested to hear what others think in the comments section below.

One reason could be marketing. There is often a huge gap between how NGOs market themselves and how the programs themselves work. As long as NGOs continue to propagate the myth that overheads matter, in a bid to get more donations, the public is going to believe them. This could be why, in terms of overheads, the conversation is lagging far behind.

We’ve spoken before on WhyDev about the race-to-the-bottom tactics that NGOs can use to get funding, and how this can ultimately affect the scope of work that program staff are able to do. This is another example of how negative fundraising tactics can hurt development – by stifling knowledge of good development in the public.

What do you think? Why do many people opine baselessly about the key to ending poverty? Why do conversations around development lag so far behind in the public sphere?

Postscript: A few people have asked, here and elsewhere, how the couple responded to my response. The couple had a glazed look over their eyes, then the food service came, then the man started snoring. End of story.