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