Chickens. Cows. Cookstoves. Toilets. Solar panels. Job training. Clean water.
Western NGOs dole out lots of stuff to help poor people in the global south become less poor. Do such programs work? It’s hard to know, but when researchers for a series of World Bank studies called Moving Out of Poverty asked 3,991 households in 15 countries how they escaped poverty, just three of those households credited “NGO assistance.” Hmm.
What we do know is that economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in such places as Botswana, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam. With a few glaring exceptions–notably China and Vietnam–these countries benefited from democratic political institutions, relatively stable governments, the rule of law, property rights and trade. “Countries need inclusive economic and political institutions to break out of the cycle of poverty,” write Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in Why Nations Fail, a sweeping 2012 book about the origins of prosperity and poverty.
Most development economists agree. Chris Blattman, a scholar of international development at the University of Chicago, puts it bluntly: “The problem in the poorest countries today is first and foremost politics.” (This, despite the fact that Blattman is best known as an advocate of cash transfers to alleviate poverty.) Blattman and Harvard prof Lant Pritchett, who are both associated with the Center for Global Development, lately have been engaged in a lively debate about poverty alleviation in blogposts (here and here) and on podcasts with Russ Roberts of EconTalk (here and here), all of it inspired by Bill Gates’ enthusiasm for raising chickens; while Blattman and Pritchett disagree on chickens and cash, they share the view that economic growth, supported by the right political and economic institutions, is the best way to alleviate poverty. As Pritchett has said: “Treating world poverty as if it can be addressed programmatically [by chickens, cash transfers or women’s self-help groups] biases attention away from the real solution to poverty, which is having higher productivity economies.”
How, then, can philanthropists, NGOs and governments help poor countries reform their institutions and enjoy the benefits of economic growth? Again, that’s hard to know, but today’s blogpost will spotlight Spark MicroGrants, a small NGO that practices what’s called community-driven development, an approach that invites communities to design, execute and manage their own aid projects–farms to feed families, power lines, schools or roads. There’s growing evidence, according to Spark, that community-driven development leads not just to more sustainable projects but to “stronger governments and institutions.”
“We help to create local democracy,” says Sasha Fisher, the co-founder and executive director of Spark MicroGrants. “People have have a platform to work together. Citizens become engaged and start driving local change.”
Spark isn’t designed to spark political reform, but when you give people a taste of democracy, well, don’t be surprised if they want more. Continue reading