“No one wants to be a beggar for life” – “Poverty, Inc.”

consequences facing facts and accept consequence of acts take and face responsibilities
photo courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

Poverty, Inc. is a documentary from a group by the same name. You can see the trailer at those links.

The way we, that is, the developed world, are doing international development is broken. One comment in the movie from an economist in Africa tells the story:  emergency relief is the standard model used for decades to end poverty and suffering.

That isn’t working.

As another speaker says:

“No one wants to be a beggar for life”

I read two reviews of the movie, one from a center-left perspective and one from a center-right perspective. Both praise the movie and share in the criticism of big aid.

The documentary won several awards at a libertarian film festival and then won best documentary at a progressive film festival. Imagine that!

Guess which of the following two columnists made this comment?

It’s almost like anybody with a populist outlook and, you know, a brain between their ears and a heart between their shoulders, has got to look at our current system of international development and aid and say there’s something deeply wrong.


Life is complex. Helping people even more so.

Complicated road. Image courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com
Image courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

Helping people move out of poverty is extremely complex. Every part of a culture and economy is tied to every other part. Changing one part could result in some unanticipated change another part. Or another issue may immediately surface as a block to any progress.

I don’t have any answers to the questions raised by the following articles. I am trying to work through these issues. Join me as I ponder.

About deworming medicine…

The complexity of helping is illustrated by this article at Vox on 7/28: Worm wars: The fight tearing apart the global health community, explained. Three main points I draw from the article:

First, there may be other factors that deserve credit for some portion of the effect of deworming medicine. Thus it isn’t merely passing out bunches of pills that makes things better.


On Unintended Consequences – giving away consumer goods and banning plastic bottles doesn’t do what you would expect


consequences facing facts and accept consequence of acts take and face responsibilities
Image courtesy of DollarPhotoClub.com

One frustrating feature of life is that things are so complex. Doing something to help people or make things better can have unrelated impacts that offset any benefit.  Sometimes doing good stuff can make things worse.

That is called unintended consequences. Here are two more examples.

Giving away free consumer goods may not make life better for poor people…

7/23 – Vox – Buying TOMS shoes is a terrible way to help poor people – Add this article to the vast and growing body of articles explaining that the buy-one-give-one-to-poor-people way to end poverty is doing little to help and might be doing a lot of harm.

Amongst the many points made: (more…)

The problems with celebrity activism? Let’s start with unintended consequences.

Amongst the long list of challenges getting in the way of actually helping the people you want to help, two repeatedly jump out at me.

The first challenge is to avoid unintended consequences. Because humans are so complicated and react to changes around them, you will frequently find that taking one action has some unexpected consequence that undercuts the help you’re trying to provide.

Another challenge is finding out what the people you are helping might actually know about the issue. The people living with the struggle every single day might have some insight that could have helped you while you were in your office figuring out how to fix their problem.

Check out the following article on 7/12 by Georgia Cole, Ben Radley, & Jean-Benoit Falisse writing at Quartz – What’s missing from celebrity activism in Africa? The people.

My summary:  the article explores the long list of problems with celebrities picking a cause, choosing the one single perfect solution that will fix everything, and advocating for their personal preference of policy action.

The world is messy and there is no silver bullet for development

That headline is my feeble summary of a superb 6,000 word article at the New Republic by Michael Hobbes: Stop Trying to Save the World – Big ideas are destroying international development.

In the last year he has read all the books on the shortfalls in development he can find.

The article covers a lot of ground. Here are the three biggest points for me:

There is no silver bullet that will fix all problems or work in all situations.


We need to modify our expectations that we can find a silver bullet.


Projects that work splendidly in one specific location in one set of circumstances won’t scale up by a factor of a thousand and might not do any good if you roll it out across the country.

I often talk of unintended consequences.

New phrase for today is “complex adaptive systems.”


Arguments in favor of harmful aid

Blogger “J” writing at AidSpeak recently experienced another round of lousy arguments in favor of harmful aid. He developed an inventory of the bad arguments in play.

I’ve mentioned “J” a number of times on my blog. He has helped me stretch my understanding in general and especially on the difference between doing aid well and causing harm & hurt by doing aid poorly. We rarely consider the risk of unintended consequences when helping others. Check out some of my articles:

His detailed explanation of great reasons to do aid that hurts is A Taxonomy of Arguments in Favor of Bad Aid.

What does he include in the population of harmful aid?


Before you get too far in planning that short term mission trip….

….read Once more, from the top at AidSpeak. The author, “J”, wrote the article It’s a Crappy World, that I mentioned here.

The article discusses, then demolishes, a number of the arguments for volunteers going overseas to help.

Here’s just a few thoughts for your consideration:

Aid and development are professions, not hobbies. It takes specific knowledge, skill and experience to get this right.


Toxic charity summarized in one post – – hurting by helping

Jeff Rutt, founder of HOPE International offers Confessions from a Recovering Toxic Charity Addict.

He explains his church was sending so many containers of assistance to their partner church in Ukraine that they were causing serious harm to the church. Here are five lessons he learned from the pastor of their partner church: (more…)

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: (more…)

More examples of unintended consequences

Five more examples of unintended consequences.  The problem? People don’t always do what you tell them. They often do something totally different from what you expected.

Cracked describes 5 Laws That Made Senses on Paper (And Disasters in Reality). (Caution, moderate number of naughty words.) These examples are from government.  My three favorites are how to:

  • increase number of guns on the street
  • increase number of cobras on the loose
  • increase pollution from cars

Gun buybacks increase number of guns on the street. (more…)

The world is complicated – the ‘you-can’t-even-just-hand-out-a-wad-of-cash’ chapter

I don’t understand why, but there has been a lot of tweeting in the twitter world about the wonders of addressing poverty by just giving everyone a handful of cash. That would make a number of aid issues a lot easier to deal with.


The world is complicated. Everything has unexpected side issues.

An experienced worker in the aid field who maintain anonymity by self-identifying as “J” writes at AidSpeak.

He explains why even giving cash away is difficult in his post, Cash.


“Your help is hurting” – More unintended consequences

“The world is complicated.”

In a video from PovertyCure, Peter Greer tells the story I mentioned earlier of how in just one summer help from a U.S. church destroyed the egg market in a small Rwandan village.

Second hand clothes sent to Kenya destroyed the textile manufacturing industry and the cotton farms. Sad unintended consequences.




Superb quote from the video: (more…)

Unintended consequences – “Your help is hurting,” government to government version

Previous post described how development aid can sometimes cause hurt.

Part 2 of that discussion describes how government-to-government aid can sometimes make things worse and prevent development.

Jerry Bowyer interviews Peter Greer in Your Help Is Hurting, Part II: The Unintended Consequences Of Giving Dictators Foreign Aid.

Mr. Greer uses the example of the president of Zimbabwe distributing food received as a part of international aid only in the areas that vote for him.

Want to eat? Vote for him. Want to oust the dictator? Your family and community starve.

Not quite what was intended when governments approved the grant.


Unintended consequences – generous gift to local church undermines their giving

Mark Williams tells of a giving a generous offering when he was blessed to be the guest preacher at a church in India – Do You Destroy Through Dependency?

What he did not expect was his graciousness hurting the congregation.

How did that happen?

He gave two $20 bills.

Seems like a reasonable amount, doesn’t it? Yet he explains: (more…)

Unintended consequences – “Your help is hurting”

How would you like this to be your legacy on the missions committee?

After the genocide in Rwanda, your church decides to help the village by providing eggs to everyone. Great idea, right?


You help for a while and then you sense God is leading you to help in another area now that things are settling down in Rwanda.

Cool, right?


Unfortunately, what you didn’t realize is there was an entrepreneur who had bought some hens and sold eggs in the community. He was growing his business and providing food to more and more people.

No business can compete with free, so when you started helping with your ministry of giving away eggs, his business went under. He moved on to another business so he could feed his family.

When you pulled out of the town, there were no eggs. That protein was unavailable.

Not so great.

Not so cool.

You drove out of business the guy who was previously meeting local needs and then you disrupted the food supply.

You left the community in more distress than when you first arrived.