Why aid and development are difficult

Life is complicated.

My reading over the last two years has opened my eyes to why successful aid and development is so difficult. Unintended consequences and complexity in general are a few reasons why it is hard to make things better in poor countries and why improvements are so slow.

Many of my readers processed through the ideas I’ll mention in this post a long time ago. This is old news for many.

For me, and for some readers of this blog, this is new territory. One of many reasons I blog is to work through what is new for me.

Here are two more articles that illustrate the complexities of facilitating change:

Systemic lack of justice

Why We’re Losing the War on Poverty is an interview in Christianity Today with Gary Haugen discussing his book, The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty requires the End of Violence.

The lack of functioning law enforcement allows violence to prey on the poor and plunder them. The corrosive effect of violence undermines everything else in a society. The one sentence summary:

The lack of reliable law enforcement, Haugen argues, exposes the poor to the worst predatory violence, undermining the good accomplished by the billions of dollars aid agencies spend annually to fight poverty.

The sobering question framed up in the article:  When police appear on the scene, do marginalized people who’ve done nothing wrong go toward or run away from the police?

I’ve seen a few minor glimpses of marginalized people who are more worried about interacting with law enforcement than dealing with the problem that would otherwise lead me to make a fast 911 call if I were in their situation. It’s an eye-opener to me that some people who just suffered harm fear more harm from police involvement. (Yes, a few readers are now laughing at me for only now realizing that is reality for some people. That’s okay.)

Expand that to a country-wide issue and any form of aid or development will lose much effectiveness.

Mr. Haugen gives several examples of projects run by International Justice Mission to help a law enforcement system to protect young girls from sex trafficking.

This is an integral part of a larger idea that multiple institutional systems must be operating effectively to allow an economy/ region/ country to thrive.

Encouraging development and growth is difficult if

… aid … ignore[s] the on-the-ground political and governance problems that undermine the effectiveness of that aid.

Reservations about cash grants

Whether the new trend of giving unconditional cash grants to poor people is a good idea is discussed by Peter Greer in his post Is Giving Cash to People in Poverty a Good Investment?

He mentions that two books have focused attention to the dangers of making things worse while trying to make things better: When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity. Those two books were major eye-openers for me in terms of understanding the unintended consequences of helping people.

Initial reports suggest cash grants can help. That is good news.

Mr. Greer describes a few cautions to remember about cash grants. One is the long-term impact, and whether the grants increase employment. How does one deal with the friction and tension created by picking this person but not that person, this village but not that village?

Another is whether it addresses the systemic causes of poverty.  There are more variables in poverty than just the lack of cash. See above comments about lack of a justice system. Just giving out cash in an environment of predatory violence won’t do much long-term good.

Biggest caution is whether this very new concept of handing out cash is merely today’s silver bullet that solves every imaginable problem:

Every few years, a new concept is announced as THE solution to poverty. And shortly afterwards, it’s rediscovered that there simply is no such thing as a silver bullet. I hope the initial enthusiasm [for cash grants] does not oversell impact or recognize the critical partnerships required among health care, financial services, investment, mental health, and business. It’s only with a concerted effort that we see solutions to the complexity of poverty.

That gets us back to the systemic institutional issues mentioned earlier.

Life is complicated.

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