Monday, October 25, 2010

Private citizens and foreign aid

The cover article of this past Sunday's New York Times magazine was Nicholas Kristof's "The D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution." It's an excellent article, featuring inspiring accounts of individuals who have taken into their own hands the challenge of trying to improve the fortunes of the world's most vulnerable people.

Continuing the theme of being clear-eyed yet optimistic (see Saturday's post), Kristof points out that altruism and determination are not enough:
"it’s complicated. Scharpf is engaged in a noble experiment — but entrepreneurs fail sometimes. And anybody wrestling with poverty at home or abroad learns that good intentions and hard work aren’t enough. Helping people is hard."
Moreover, the kind of development initiative that can be spearheaded by a single individual rarely has an impact that is measurable on a global scale, as Kristof concedes. This may explain why major development agencies have tended to ignore such efforts.

There are two responses to this, one of which Kristof offers (and abundantly illustrates in the article): the local impact can be tremendous. The other response is that international development agencies may be looking at a bigger picture, but they still fund individual projects. And it is not clear that those are any more likely to have an impact on a global scale than the efforts discussed by Kristof.

Moreover, individual aid projects funded by the major development agencies are often not any larger than the private initiatives Kristof discusses. This can easily be verified by looking through the projects listed at AidData, which over the past few years has put together an unrivaled database of official development assistance at the project level (disclosure: AidData receives institutional support from the College of William & Mary, as well as from Brigham Young University and Development Gateway)

Since private initiatives may have an enormous local impact, it stands to reason that many individual efforts might, put together, exceed the global impact of larger, official development initiatives. Kristof thus argues that "The challenge is to cultivate an ideology of altruism, to spread a culture of social engagement — and then to figure out what people can do at a practical level," referring to Peter Singer, who last year published The Life You Can Save, a book that has precisely this goal.

Another conclusion one can draw from Kristof's article, however, is that official development agencies should start thinking about better ways to harness and build on these types of initiatives, which start as one-person efforts but frequently morph into non-governmental organizations of a type that the official agencies are quite used to working with.


  1. Very nice sum-up of an interesting evolution in altruism.

    It may be worth thinking about the comparisons between the effectiveness of individual one-off efforts versus long-term iterative giving from development agencies.

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    As I read the blog I felt a tug on the heartstrings. it exhibits how much effort has been put into this.
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