Recently, this blog discussed a study on cinematic representations of development, highlighting notable films such as Slumdog Millionaire and City of God. Over the weekend, I was reminded that even forgettable films can underline key development lessons. In The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a professional magician engages in international charity work. He explains, “I go to places where children have neither food nor clean water, and I give them magic,” as he passes out magic kits in an unidentified low-income rural community. A journalist asks, “Do you also give them food and clean water?” “Well, no. I’m a magician. I bring magic.” Later, his endeavor failed, the magician returns to the United States and meets an old friend:
“What about the poor?”
“Turns out they didn’t want magic: They just wanted food and clean water.”
International development history is littered (literally!) with stories of people and governments providing what they want to give rather than what recipient need, whether it is people unhelpfully donating goods instead of cash or governments requiring that international aid be spent on goods or services from their own country.
On the other hand, local communities don’t have all the answers. Evidence on the effectiveness of community-based targeting is mixed, with clear evidence of manipulation in Colombia and a more nuanced story in Indonesia. So is the evidence on community monitoring of public services: In Indonesia, increasing grassroots monitoring of corruption on a roads project had little impact. In Uganda, providing information on school funding to local communities strongly reduced corruption and improved student learning.
But while local communities aren’t omniscient (or omnibenevolent), they’re more likely to know where to start in identifying their problems than international actors are. This points to an iterative approach that engages local players and complements their identification of the problem and proposed solutions with rigorous evidence and experience from development efforts elsewhere.
A few years ago, I was gratified to hear an education official in northern Brazil express her pleasure that the World Bank operation in her state took her priorities and concerns as the base and improved them with international evidence. Let’s do more of that and better.