Thursday, January 09, 2014

Relieving Poverty

This morning I read an interesting article about the unintended consequences of anti-poverty programs and how difficult it can be to truly relieve poverty.  The article, called Saving Africa?  New Book Casts Harsh Light on Prominent Poverty Program,  outlines some truly horrific problems with a particular initiative focusing on several villages in Africa.  Things like raising a bumper crop after being given fertilizer and high-yield seeds but then having no way of getting that crop to a market, or artificially supporting one village so well that people give up their nomadic life and settle down, only to have no industry or work in such an isolated area.  Or the chaos and violence that ensues after a community learns to depend on new water wells that then break down for months at a time.  It's eye-opening and makes me want to read the book the article highlights.

A very telling quote from the article is this: 

"In the quest to end poverty it is important to understand that theories that we develop in academic environments can't anticipate the chaos of the real world. In trying to put into practice the theories he outlined in "The End of Poverty," Jeffrey Sachs discovered that human beings are unpredictable and irrational. It turns out that ending poverty is a lot more complicated than some people think."

Another interesting look at the same kind of problems is this podcast from Freakonomics my friend recommended.  It talks about the need for evidence-based poverty problem solving and not just doing what sounds like it should work.

In 2012, I read a book about India called Behind the Beautiful Forevers that followed a family's life in a shantytown near an airport.  What was most discouraging about the book was the corruption of the politicians and the abuse of NGO money going on.  For example, the village school received money but was only held when they were notified there'd be a visitor from the over-seeing program.  Otherwise, the kids were left uneducated and the schoolteacher enriched.  Other schemes abounded, as some few people were enriched by what was intended to lift the poorest out of poverty.

In my Church, we do a lot of humanitarian work.  As just a small example among many, my in-laws served an 18-month mission in Russia as humanitarian missionaries from 2002-2003, evaluating and overseeing the aid work going on in Eastern Europe.  They served at their own expense and they found some projects to easily support and others where, like in the article above, there were unintended consequences.  For example, the Church would provide beds or appliances to orphanages and then return later to find these items stored away because they were too nice to use or these items sold on the black market to enrich the orphanage's owners.  There was great need for caution and wisdom in administering the programs and efforts, but even then, the Church was emphasizing specific, reachable goals rather than simply trying a multitude of ideas to see if one would work.

My in-laws in 2002, just after returning from their first mission.  They later served 3 years in Armenia.

This article outlines the humanitarian efforts of my Church well (and if you don't read any other links, please read this one -- it's excellent).  One principle that underlies the gospel of Jesus Christ is self-reliance, with an emphasis on helping people to help themselves.   
I love how my Church works humanitarian aid, with two focuses -- one, on the short-term relief after disasters, and another on long-term initiatives
with specific goals, like clean water, providing wheelchairs, immunizations, etc. 

As much as possible, aid is gathered and provided as close to the people as possible, thus cutting down on transportation and overhead costs as well as supporting the local industries and better meeting the nutritional and other needs of the affected populations.  For example, for relief provided after Typhoon Haiyan, the Church used its existing infrastructure and people as much as possible, housing many people in our meetinghouses and working with local members to distribute the aid.  "
The Church has a vast, local volunteer force among the members in the region and is not seeking volunteers to travel to the Philippines as part of its relief efforts. In addition, the Church has learned that the most effective way to respond to disasters is to work locally, purchasing needed supplies in country as near to the disaster as possible.  This not only ensures that the goods are appropriate for the area but it helps build up impaired, local economies."  (from this article).  This article follows the director of aid for the Phillipines in the wake of the disaster and is well worth the read.

Our Church also partner with other reputable organizations for joint initiatives often, such as that to eliminate diseases like measles and polio through immunizations.

I find this absolutely remarkable: "While 100 percent of fast offerings and humanitarian donations go directly to those in need, the overhead and administrative costs associated with these programs — in addition to the resources needed to build storage facilities, house and deliver humanitarian aid supplies around the world, train volunteers and so on — are privately fronted by the Church. Today, thanks to a robust infrastructure, the Church continues to relieve the hunger, thirst, suffering and poverty of millions of people around the world and to empower individuals and communities to become more self-sustaining." (from this article)

Other organizations do fairly well with keeping overhead costs low as well. For instance, the Red Cross uses just 9% for overhead. (

Others do extremely poorly:


Be careful about where you put your aid dollars.  Be wary of giving to organizations who solicit through telemarketing.  Do some research and make sure the money is going to a good cause.

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