WASHINGTON – International development practitioners focus on policies through which they can eliminate or alleviate poverty, the visible manifestation of underdevelopment, rather than planting the seeds that may foster self-sustaining economic growth and therefore true development –which is, by the way, the only proven way for any society to really get out of poverty. This “poverty alleviation is our goal” approach, while well intentioned, encourages the misallocation and outright waste of limited financial and human resources, all in the name of the noble cause of the “fight against poverty”.
Non sustainable projects
For instance, it is considered good policy to create “economic” activities in poor countries, whatever they may be, that will generate some new income for the poor. However, in the haste to make some positive changes happen now, donors all too often leave out any solid analysis of the reasonable chances for such activities to become self-sustaining after the donor initial funding and assistance is gone.
The consequence of incomplete analysis is that very substantial resources have been squandered in supporting non sustainable activities –all of them justified as honest, good faith efforts to reduce poverty. Unfortunately, quite often when the donors leave the poorly planned and under resourced activities collapse.
Focus on what it takes to produce sustainable growth
In fairness, absolute poverty creates so difficult an environment that it may very well be impossible to engineer within its confines any kind of meaningful economic enterprises. Indeed, there can be a legitimate debate about what is really at issue: “Poverty as lack of economic development”, or “The dreadful condition of poverty that, as such, prevents building the foundation for economic development”.
True enough, it is obvious that the sick and the hungry, societies without clean water or electricity, along with refugees displaced by conflicts, cannot possibly engage in any meaningful economic development activity.
Relief alone will solve nothing
Still, if we focus most of our resources on improving what are very bad, sometimes horrible living conditions without recognizing the absolute necessity to create at the same time indigenous economic wheels and help them turn as soon as possible, at best we have delivered some measure of humanitarian relief. To be sure, relief has a positive impact in reducing the impact of poverty, or at least its worst consequences in terms of disease, malnutrition and overall hopelessness.
But in so doing we will not have caused any meaningful qualitative transformation. Qualitative change leading to real development must include the creation of a workable process through which societies are able to chart a path towards self-sustaining economic growth.
Poverty is reduced through self-sustaining enterprise
Contemporary examples reinforce this fact. Structural changes encompassing laws and incentives rolled out by governments in some important poor countries greatly improved the “enabling environment” for wealth creating activities, some of them supported by foreign investors. These policy changes have had the consequence of allowing millions (tens of millions in some large countries) to be more productive and thus lift themselves out of poverty through their very own engagement in wealth creation activities that in preceding times were not accessible to them.
China and India
The different stories of economic growth in China and India in the past twenty to thirty years have been told many times.
But it is important to stress here that the activities of donors and aid programs have had very little impact on the gigantic, systemic policy changes which fostered growth in both India and China. The key factors that unleashed huge creative energies have been economic liberalization policies that allowed and indeed encouraged people in China and India to become more productive, to invest in education and new enterprises, and make money without penalties or fear of being dispossessed.
in China and India significant poverty reduction has been the byproduct of almost unprecedented rates of economic growth made possible by policies that fostered the creation of new enterprises. It has nothing to do with donor-assisted policies which had poverty reduction as their primary goal.
It is all about successful wealth creation.
Donors do not like to focus on economic growth
But, somehow, the notion of economic growth as the primary goal of development does not appear to be a noble enough purpose. At least for some development practitioners, economic growth conveys the images of rapacious businessmen, outrageous profits, corrupt practices, wheeling and dealing, profiteering, cronyism, child labor, domestic and foreign exploitation perpetrated by the unchecked powerful; and –worst of all– it means accepting growing economic disparities within societies.
Some of these critiques are justified. Unfortunately, some of these problems are often part of the picture within struggling societies that just embraced entrepreneurship, at least to some degree.
It is true that economic development, while crucially important, rarely occurs in a linear, harmonious fashion, with gradual, well-distributed benefits for all. To the contrary, it is a messy affair, especially in developing countries that usually lack the well-oiled framework of laws and effective institutions that should at least limit excesses and protect people from injustice.
Economic growth is a messy process
However, the existence of significant flaws in how economic development occurs does not disqualify the basic proposition of wealth creation as a precondition for any lasting improvement in the human condition.
In fact, unless we postulate really large-scale, donor-led activities in perpetuity, there is no other way to reduce and eventually eliminate poverty. There just isn’t.
But many development practitioners are unconvinced. Many of them, contemplating the negative aspects of uneven economic growth, affirm that, unless this process can be properly regulated to ensure harmonious growth and fairness, then it is better not to have it all. So there you have it: better all poor but equally poor, if the alternative is wealth, but just for some.
Development practitioners often lack a business background
The inability to put economic growth front and center in the framing of development agendas in part can be explained by the cultural make-up of the practitioners.
The development industry is managed mostly by civil servants and functionaries who work for public donors: state-run development agencies or multilateral development institutions. In the U.S. many of them are former Peace Corps volunteers, essentially lay missionaries who see development as moral duty to help the poor.
These professionals are flanked by large, religious or lay, private charities. For all of them, development is a mission, not a policy goal that requires the mobilization of indigenous resources in an economically productive way.
Bottom line: most of them are not business people.
As a rule, all these practitioners do not know or understand business and what it takes to make economic growth happen and flourish. For many of them, their primary mission is fighting poverty. They view this as a moral, noble endeavor for the good of mankind.
Teaching people how to make a profit in a competitive environment — the indispensable lever for economic growth– is viewed as promoting self-centered and egotistical drives, therefore not at all a laudable effort. In fact many see it as morally questionable.
Poverty reduction alone will not do it
However, lacking a clear focus on economic growth as the paramount strategic objective, the goal of achieving development through poverty reduction is likely to be an endless and quite frankly fruitless task. True, with all these efforts, the poor may become a little less poor, but they will not learn much about how to become self-sufficient through engagement in money-making enterprises.
Asia grows, while donor-supported Africa does not
Asia reduced poverty largely through the elimination of artificial barriers to economic activities, while at the same time promoting education as the ticket to gaining marketable skills, and therefore access to better jobs and a better life.
On the other side of the divide, we have the sad story of Africa as the paradigm of what has gone consistently wrong, despite decades of well-meaning, donor-led efforts aimed at reducing poverty and improving overall conditions.
Whatever has been tried, it failed to create, (with few exceptions, of course), an environment in which enterprises could flourish, with the attendant positive outcomes of sustainable wealth creation activities and consequent diminution of poverty.
This massive failure, compared with the success stories driven from within Asian societies, should provide enough material for reflection on the validity of the current approach.
Still, as yet, this reappraisal has not taken place. Donors are still “fighting poverty“; instead of creating solid foundations for sustained economic growth.