Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Searchers

I finally got a book back that I had lent out. I'm thrilled to have it back, in part because it's signed by the author, in part because, frankly, it's an interesting book.

It's called White Man's Burden and its author, William Easterly, probably is getting used to receiving death threats from Peace Corp types. His premise is this: our good intentions to save the poor are often the exact same colonial impulses that messed up these countries in the first place. In fact, instead of doing good, throwing gobs of money at countries probably hurts them far more than it helps them.

He divides his book into two sub-topics: Aid and Military Intervention. Both methods do equally miserably. The top-down approach of what he calls "Planners" create these utopian ideals of changing poor, oppressed countries into beacons of democracy and prosperity. In reality, these sudden, major overhauls, be they military or humanitarian, seldom work and often create corruption, famine, and discord. And this from a guy who was career World Bank most of his life.

So it seems like it's a case of "starved if we do, starved if we don't." What, then, shall we do? Easterly, in his Q&A at BYU said, "Nothing. Get a job, work hard, don't worry about it." In his book, though, he's a lot more optimistic.

In opposition to "Planners" (top-down outsiders with grandiose plans for transforming countries about which they know little), Easterly says that the fate of poor countries is best served by "Searchers" (bottom-up locals who want to change something that they need). Here's the thing about Searchers--one size doesn't necessarily fit all. While microloans was an idea that a Searcher came up with for his own Indian home, it may not necessarily be the pancea that it's been toted as. Or even the PROGRESA pay-families-if-their-kids-go-to-school program that Mexico and some other South American countries have adopted. The point is that we have to search-- come up with an idea, experiment with it (literally, like with controls and double blind analysis, etc), and then keep doing what works and drops what doesn't.

Ideally, Church humanitarian aid should work this way. (1) Bishops and Releif Society presidents see a need. (2) Service missionaries + Church humanitarian officials provide technical knowledge/resources and (3) lay members in the church provide the funds through fast offerings and donations. I didn't come up with these numbers; they correspond to Easterly's "(1) Social enterpreneurs close to the poor [...] propose projects to meet their needs; (2) individuals with technical and practical knowledge, and (3) donors who have funds they want to give away." I realize this is best-case scenerio, because the Church still moves like a beaurocracy, but I think the Church's humanitarian move away from growth towards disaster aid has either been influenced by or codeveloped with this growth criticism.

Information is a big part of this theory. We need information about the projects/places where aid is needed (if West African farmers are growing short-fiber cotton because it's easier on the soil and allows them to rotate in food crops, for heaven's sake, don't force them to grow long-fiber cotton). We need information about what the people want (is it more healthcare or more education?) and how they want it (year-round schools or only after the harvest season?). Once we have a project or an organization, we need to follow up with the people we're helping (were the teachers kind or abusive? were they diligent or lazy? were they qualified professionals or sinecured beneficiaries of nepotism?), and then, even if it hurts, adjust our projects based on what works or doesn't work. It's a lot harder than just playing a benefit concert to throw gops of money at some country already plauged with information failures (Bono's next aid concert should be "Another Mercades for Every Warlord," bless his soul).

One place to start implimenting this sort of thing (if you're not, you know, on the spiritual and temperal welfare council for your ward, or a Church leader), is locally. Create surveys and find out what resources are needed. I remember that my (now title 1) high school had plenty of money coming in for cheesy "self-esteem" banners and mirrors ("Look at a Winner--You!"), but no money to buy enough copies of "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail" for the 35-odd students in honors English to be able to read them at home, or mixers for the home ec class. If someone had asked me what resources I wanted for my school, I'd have told them to buy us some paperback plays and nix the corny banners. But, then, no one ever asked me.

If you don't have time to become an activist (and that's okay, too), you can research where you give more. Ask for numbers. Find out what their aims are--is it to decrease landminds in Mozambique or is it to erradicate crime, hunger, and ignorance in Africa? (I have to admit, I'm beginning to sour on Heifer International as they begin to add ecological responsiblity, women's liberation, and national pride to what was once a pretty straightforward "fewer malnurished families" agenda.) You can also shop before you buy. Check out Kiva or Global Giving to find a project that you can fund like an investor-- giving to something that you think will yeild significant pay-offs in helping the poor.

Anyway, I'm willing to take suggestions if anyone else has a "searcher" idea. Man, I wish they'd put me on Service Council...


J Rock said...

Your book sounds a lot like "Confessions of an Economic Hitman," which I just read [about half of] for my book club. Your book sounds more positive, though. In the half I've read of Confessions..., all it's really said so far is, "Corporations are eviiiiiil, poor people are victiiiiiims, the government is corruuuuuupt, give up on Americaaaaa."

Instead of giving countries money and building stuff for them, I think we need to teach them how to do it for themselves. It's that whole teach a man how to fish thing. All these places need is some pride in themselves and their country, some hope for the future, and some know-how, and they can do anything.

Makayla said...

Yeah... that was a really interesting presentation he gave. I wasn't quite sure what to think (except that he should have axed the Selma Hayeck slide... seems he forgot he was at

mlh said...

I loved the Salma Hayek slide...mostly because I love Friedrich Hayek.

mlh said...

And I hate "confessions of..." I mean, really, get off your horse, dude.

Dave said...

Great post Mary!

I'm becoming more and more convinced of futility and even detrimental nature of development aid. Aid should be temporary and in response to exogenous causes of poverty (eg natural disasters). I'm so glad the church is stepping away from development. Except I hope the PEF sticks around. I like that one but I haven't seen any data for it.

Jon Ogden said...

I swear by Kiva.

I've been thinking about this too, somewhat. You know, many times rich LDS people stay around rich LDS people simply because ward boundaries are divided by geography. Don't get me wrong, I think this is the right way to go about things (any other way would be too complex), but I wonder if there is any way the poorer wards could communicate exactly what they need. And I'm not talking about money, I'm talking about face-to-face interaction.

Jared said...
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