Periodically in the news, headlines arise claiming foreign assistance to fight extreme poverty hurts rather than helps. These headlines were spurred most recently when Angus Deaton received the Nobel Prize in Economics for gathering data on consumption patterns of the poor, but has since gained attention for his critique of foreign aid.

Looking past the headlines, what you find is that many critics of foreign assistance are not against aid itself, but instead how it is used. When used to empower communities, hold governments accountable, and change policy to put new systems in place — foreign assistance can result in prosperity at the household, community, and country levels.

Foreign aid gained negative attention recently when the Nobel committee announced Princeton economist Angus Deaton as the winner of this year’s prize in Economics for a body of work that includes his use of household surveys and data to understand the dynamics of poverty. While Deaton is a vocal critic of some forms of aid, his primary concern seems not to be with giving aid, but rather donors giving aid directly to governments, lifting some of the responsibility off of governments for them to be responsible themselves. He has also argued that the main barrier to progress in fighting poverty in the world’s poorest countries is bad government rather than a lack of resources.

While Deaton’s work calls for a reevaluation of foreign aid, we see more cause for hope than concern. As an aid partner in nearly one hundred countries, World Vision values critics of foreign aid who sharpen our work.

World Vision sees foreign assistance as one way to help children and local communities achieve ‘life in all its fullness.’ Deaton aligns with aid critics who, over the years, have helped us to see that what most often prevents the well-being of children is not a lack of assets in local communities but failures of justice, of good governance, and the lack of addressing root causes of violence and prejudice.

Delivery of foreign aid is only part of helping the poor emerge from poverty. More importantly, partner countries and local communities must be empowered to lead their own development, know their rights, and hold their own governments accountable. World Vision, like many international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), often partners with official donors such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) — to primarily provide aid directly to communities through our programs. While not giving directly to governments, we strengthen the “social contract” between citizens and government. We build capacity through established community trust and long-term presence in host countries, using evidence-based approaches to address development challenges. This strengthens local systems and social services for the poor.

One way we do this is through a program called Citizen Voice and Action that equips local citizens to identify gaps in services they need, and provides training in the skills needed to hold governments accountable — often leading to national reforms in countries that improve services for all.

Effectively creating community-led change at the national level means shifting beyond merely measuring income to measuring the broader concept of well-being, as Professor Deaton has helped his fellow economists to do. His research focused on consumption, measuring the food people eat, the condition of their housing, and the services they consume. As the New York Times reported, Deaton has been a trailblazer, shifting the attention of economists away from aggregate measures like GDP, and toward the analysis of individual households. Understanding a country’s context down to the household level, like Deaton argues for, fits World Vision’s community-based approach. This is highlighted in a World Vision program that helps to integrate extremely poor farmers into input markets, allowing them purchase improved seed and other resources, ultimately improving their financial situation in a sustainable way, and therefore improving the community’s economy. In Bangladesh, the percentage of parents or caregivers able to pay for their children’s health costs without external assistance went from 33 percent to 77 percent over the course of the five-year project.

These economic programs help communities avoid dependence, set foundations, and demand market access for the poor – high standards that are also set by our friends at the Acton Institute and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where the conversation on aid and foreign assistance is also being advanced as a faith-based argument.

A new documentary on aid, Poverty Inc., produced by the Acton Institute, was featured at a recent panel hosted by AEI. The filmmaker, Michael Matheson Miller, presented a very compelling argument for rethinking aid, asking whether poverty-focused organizations risk inadvertently becoming part of the “poverty industry” that keeps poor countries in a state of dependence.

The filmmaker argued two main points. First, there is a “dominant model” of humanitarianism that has become a “hollowed out and secular version” of Christian love. Done in this way, aid prevents flourishing, as opposed to charity, or Christian love, that seeks the well-being of the other. Second, aid often treats people like things and tries to socially re-engineer them – turning aid recipients into a laboratory for experiments and objects for our own emotional satisfaction.

But the poor need justice, Miller said, and we as Christians, especially, need to rethink aid. “We will not eradicate extreme poverty forever by buying our way out of it,” Miller said. Echoing WVUS President Rich Stearns’ argument that poverty is deeply complex, Miller talked about the ‘moral ecology’ that includes dignified work and keeping the ‘eternal worth’ of a person in the forefront of our mind. This also means we must engage institutions of justice to help create opportunities for prosperity for families and communities.

We agree, and try to make these principles central to our assistance. World Vision has partnered with faith communities and community leaders to raise awareness of the importance of registering a child at birth, including helping to pass the Girls Count Act in the U.S. and making birth registration a core part of our community-based programs. Millions of children remain invisible to their government and unable to fully participate in their communities each year, but through this work children receive justice and are one step closer to breaking the cycle of poverty.

In a growing number of World Vision programs, we help communities gain an ’empowered worldview’ to establish a foundation to strengthen or change local systems, achieve market access and resilience, and build up physical and spiritual well-being.

These aid efforts are great examples of what is needed to enable locally led development and are often made possible or strengthened by private and public foreign assistance. We are grateful to Professor Deaton, the folks behind the film Poverty Inc., and other faith and non-faith critics for offering the principles and challenges that sharpen our efforts.

Randy Tift is World Vision senior policy director based in Washington, D.C., and has worked with World Vision for nine years.  Before coming to World Vision he spent a decade in the field managing community development programs and prior, served as a United States Congressional staff member.

Photo: Oscar, age 1 and a half, and Emmanuel, age 3, enjoy cakes made out of orange flesh sweet potatoes, which saved the boys from malnutrition. Through a USAID and World Vision funded project in Uganda, community members now grow sweet potato vines and sell the juice and baked goods in their community. the Vitamin A rich potato has become a source of food security and income. © 2015 World Vision/ photo by Simon Peter Esaku

5 Comments

  • Excellent document on the way WV works in communities and why.
    Back in the late 1980’s, I was priviledged, as a young new missionary, to view in person, the distribution of a semi loaded with 100kg bags of maize in NE Zimbabwe. The area was ravaged with drought.
    If I did know who provided the maize and the means of providing it to this community, I do not remember.
    What I do remember is that the people kept coming with their bags, buckets, etc to receive the maize. We sat watching the procession for hours, me, not understanding at the time what was happening.
    When the distribution began, the bags were opened, and people finally lined up to receive their share. It was orderly as if everyone respected each other and gave no attention to “getting there first.”
    Later it was explained to us that the church leader in the area, the community government laizon, the area/community chief and the governor of the province had to meet and decide how the distribution would be fair and equitable. The people waited for hours under the scorching hot sun for this meeting to end. Everyone seemed to get either a quarter or a third of the 100kg bags.
    Later we were welcomed into the home of the pastor that was part of this discussion and offered a meal. It was my very first meal in the rural areas and observing the deep complex rituals of what happens at meal time. By the time we headed back to Harare, it was past 9pm.
    As I have grown to understand WV’s great work and deeply complex workings at the community level, also viewing it first hand as I visited my sponsored child in Zimbabwe, Professor Deaton does have the ability to make as many suggestions to spur “the principles and challenges that sharpen our (WV) efforts.”
    Our God over sees it all and we must simply open our eyes and work with other groups to do God’s kingdom work.

  • One of the troublesome issues raised in this excellent post is the poor semantics of aid critque. “Aid” encompasses a broad range of endeavors for a broad range of reasons. When we speak of “aid” not working, we need to be more specific about which mechanism – and, perhaps, which motivation – we are talking about.

    In her book, Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo is very explicit: she critiques the short-circuiting effect of concessional loans and grants. That is, Moyo, along with Easterly, Deaton, Root, Coyne, Bromley, North, Anderson, Andrews, Pritchett, Carothers, De Gramont, Kleinfeld, Chayes (need I go on?) and others have studied and criticized the impact of direct financial grants and loans to developing country governments by nations. The jury is in and the findings are not pretty. Although there are exceptions, a great deal of this kind of “aid” is not working, but is instead misdirecting accountability of governments so that they answer to their financiers, not their citizenry. (Yes, there are many nuanced variations and findings in these data, but the strength of negative findings is depressingly strong.) It is worth noting that much of this kind of G2G aid is intended to influence foreign relations, and may also include attempts to improve the living conditions of the nations that are funded. So motivation, perhaps, is as much of a concern as is methodology.

    But there are other forms of aid that can and do have a positive impact, and they are increasing. In seeking an approach to effective aid, it helps to understand where good intentions went wrong

    When the aid enterprise (or even industry) was begun in the U.S., the intellectual framework was summarized in Harry Truman’s famous Point IV speech, in which he noted that the developed world had things – technology and education – that the developing world needed. If we could simply provide those things to the developing world, the reasoning went, the developing world would catch up and converge. It was essentially a commodity dump mentality based on a linear model of assistance. We could provide textbooks, medicine, laws, equipment, and host of other missing things, and our well-supplied beneficiaries could take it from there. Unfortunately, an important question went unasked and thus unanswered: why don’t they have these things already?

    Okay, I admit there were some versions of that question, but the answers tended to come down to blame – colonialism, neo-colonialism, capitalism, and various other memes built on the assumption that the rich world must have gotten rich at the expense of the poor. There is good reason to condemn the colonial history, but stopping there leaves a gaping omission: why did independence not lead to prosperity.

    It turns out that systems of government provide the number one explanatory factor for differentiating between the rich and the poor of the world. Where economic and political rights, coupled with economic and political opportunity, are found, there tends to be prosperity. As Deaton and a host of his friends have found, you can’t just pay for the kinds of institutional reforms that are needed. Where rule of law has emerged, so has hope and opportunity. But rule of law cannot simply be purchased of the shelf from the OECD bookstore. It requires a restructuring of the relationships inherent in a system of merit-based rule.

    So what does this have to do with World Vision and “successful” aid?

    Within the appropriate concerns over G2G aid writ large, there is an oasis of effective assistance. Sometimes this is at the humanitarian level, where a group like World Vision (and many others) help a suffering community get back on its feet after a natural catastrophe. Such aid can be life-saving.

    There are also forms of assistance in which the outsider engages meaningfully with local actors and their institutions to identify the deeper problems of deprivation. Technical assistance, by itself, often produces sad returns if treated as a technology transfer. But rethinking the relationships that are at the heart of poverty by engaging deeply over time with counterparts allows for dignity-enhancing work that recognizes the worth and rights of the “beneficiaries” as they build something better.

    My hat is off to World Vision for an incarnational approach to assistance, where staffers live and work long-term in building healthy dialogue with aid recipients – not as recipients but as equals – and work with them to reconcile unhealthy societal relationships into more redemptive possibilities, It’s not about technology – it’s about the people who may or may not want new technology.

    As to aid critiques, may we all continuously ask ourselves how we can better serve one another by looking at the weaknesses and constraints in aid thinking and delivery. We can and must do a better job, but can only improve if we are open to regular evaluation and even criticism.

    • Both initial comments are great contributions. Wade Channel nails the argument for effective development as “rethinking the relationships that are at the heart of poverty by engaging deeply over time with counterparts [to] allow for dignity-enhancing work that recognizes the worth and rights…”

      World Vision’s focus is increasingly on changing local systems “bottom up,” with impact based on citizen demand and agency which restores the dignity of parents, caregivers, producers, and other “owners” of our development assistance. Where the ability to provide well for their families has often been eroded by government misuse of power and resources, scaling up social accountability – as World Vision is doing in 45 countries – holds great promise to achieve and sustain development. It also reduces dependency by arming citizens and governments with tools to ensure that services are provided and local systems become responsive.

      World Vision’s long-term and constructive presence in communities helps. Our “trusted status” with both local governments and communities can facilitate engagement that might otherwise be overly confrontational. Our approach supports local government officials who may otherwise start on the defensive. A pivot point is establishing local community dialogue with government about real community needs and priorities.

      We welcome Professor Deaton and his long list of friends to continue this dialogue that recognition of his work is advancing, and congratulate him on receiving in hand his well-deserved Nobel tomorrow in Stockholm.

  • Does World Vision still engage in food monetization? If so, how does that square with the problems described in Poverty, Inc in the segment about Haitian rice, in which subsidized, US, agricultural products flood foreign markets driving down prices and putting local farmers out of business? I’ve only heard Action Institute’s criticism of this practice, and there are two sides to every story, so I’d love more clarity on this.

    A little personal background: We’ve been sponsors of several children for almost 10 years, and we’re trying to make sure that our helping is not hurting. I’ve appreciated your thoughtful response to these criticisms thus far and look forward to a more thorough explanation of this specific issue.

    • Thank you for your question and longtime support of World Vision. We shared your question with Beth Ann Saracco, World Vision Policy Adviser for Food Security and Livelihoods, and she provided the following answer:

      Food assistance and food security programming can be a rather complex topic especially in the US context due to various laws and regulations guiding international programming. At World Vision, through our work, we support people in producing their own food, and advancing their livelihoods through increased access to markets. We also use cash, food vouchers, food commodities, and local and regional procurement to respond to various food security needs as well as to support public works programs, school meals, and maternal, and child health programs. There are many tools available in providing food assistance including the practice of monetization.

      Under current US law, at least 15% of non-emergency food aid funding must be made available to qualifying nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for monetization. As it sounds like you know, monetization is the process of selling U.S. in-kind food commodities in recipient-country markets in order to generate funding for development programs. Such activities may include purchasing scales to weigh babies to make sure they’re meeting growth targets, or for training or tools that will help farmers grow more, and better, food.

      However, when implemented incorrectly, monetization can be inefficient and even in worst case scenarios harmful (as shown in the movie’s Haiti example). Therefore, monetization should be undertaken only in those countries and economic circumstances in which there is no risk of disruption to domestic production and markets for the selected agricultural commodities or their substitutes. Market assessments should also confirm that there is no risk of disrupting regional and international trade in the same or similar commodities. Consistent with such assessments, World Vision (along with two other international NGOS) is currently implementing one monetization related program in Bangladesh with the government of Bangladesh serving as the sole buyer.

      As we look forward to 2017, US legislation addressing this issue will be considered including the minimum 15% monetization requirement and we welcome your voice in this conversation. In particular, we have been talking to the US government about the need for flexible funding and other public policy initiatives and legislation that advances effective food security and nutrition program models in the many countries where we work and serve.

      Please let us know if you have any further questions in this conversation!

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