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Giving the Poor What They Need, Not Just What We Have

David Evans's picture
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.”
“Ugh. Fools!”
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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.

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Submitted by mapiB on

The movie trailer says it all. Thanks for sharing David!
On the other hand, I wonder what should be the approach when the community decides they want to use aid to build a soccer field, for example. Even though we may always be able to support the argument that the community always knows best (a soccer field would encourage exercising and maybe some healthy community bonding)what about feasibility studies helping decide where to invest development assistance, regardless of our own (or other people's) preferences?

Submitted by David on

Very nice point, Mapi. I think that your example highlights exactly the point that communities don't always know best. But they know something. So we iterate: I remember an education ministry once proposing to send primary school teachers for masters degrees in order to improve student learning. We have quite a bit of international evidence that masters degrees don't improve student learning, so we shared the evidence and brainstormed together on what would achieve their goal.

I think the key is to start with the community's ideas, think through their goals with them, and iterate until we reach something that both sides (us with our experience, international evidence, and feasibility studies, and them with their knowledge of local needs and means) believe is likely to have the desired return. Like magic kits.

Submitted by Kim on

Excellent point David. To use your example of education, I grew up in an environment where education was a very one-way, information drill-down from the teachers, instead of an engagament of minds based on learning abilities. The difference in teaching styles here, transformed a disinterested D student to an A student with a love of learning. If we see ourselves as teachers, sharing knowledge that will benefit the client, it would better serve both of us, if the 'lessons' are based on individual needs/abilities and with maximum client engagement.

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