There’s not enough critical reporting about philanthropy. It can feel churlish and even uncharitable to find fault with those who seek to serve others, particularly when they do so with a big heart and the best intentions. The trouble is, as the poet Robert Burns observed in To a Mouse:
Such, I regret to say, could be the fate of a project called Tworore Inkoko Twunguke, which means “Let’s raise chickens and make a profit” in Kinyarwanda, the national language of Rwanda. The $2-million project is the brainchild of Donnie Smith, the former chief executive of Tyson Foods, and it is being funded by the Africa Sustainable Agriculture Project, Smith’s family foundation, and by USAID.
a textbook example of what can go awry when experts arrive in a distant place with good intentions and a solid understanding of what works in the U.S., but without much grounding in a local economy or culture. Rwandan farmers, for example, are more likely to own goats than poultry, so they had to be taught to raise chickens. (Many had never eaten chicken.) More important, this small, landlocked central African nation lacks the physical and economic infrastructure needed to support a modern chicken industry. So it’s hard to see how the farmers will be able to raise chickens for profit once aid money goes away.
What’s more, the entire undertaking is expensive — it will cost more than $2,300 per farmer, assuming that the target of reaching 750 farm families can be met. Nearly halfway through its three-year lifespan, the project has signed up about 170 farmers.
The story is the first of several that I researched during a 10-day visit to Rwanda in April and May. All the stories are designed to explore the effectiveness of philanthropic and government-funded efforts to alleviate poverty. While it’s impossible during such a short trip to reach definitive conclusions about what works and what does not, my hope, at the very least, has been to learn more about how foreign aid and philanthropic projects are evaluated. What do we know about alleviating poverty and how to do we know it? My travel expenses were kindly funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
Back to chickens: The Rwanda project has so far managed to train farmers to raise backyard chickens, about 100 per flock, which doesn’t take a whole lot of time and so can be carried out alongside whatever else the farmers are doing to generate income or food for their families. Rwanda’s temperate climate is well suited to chicken farming, and farmers seem to have embraced the project. So long as USAID and Donnie Smith’s foundation are involved–this is a three-year project, but it could be renewed–the farmers will be guaranteed a market for the chickens. That’s the good news.
The difficulty is, Rwanda lacks both a reliable supply chain for broiler chickens and robust markets where they can be sold. Currently, the eggs of a fast-growing, super-efficient breed of chicken known as the Cobb 500 are flown in from Europe. (Whether so-called improved breeds make happy chickens is a different question. See my 2016 blogpost, The next frontier for the animal-welfare movement? Broiler chickens.) To provide high-quality feed for the chickens, Smith’s foundation built a feed mill that also functions as the hub of the USAID project. Selling the chickens has been a challenge. It’s hard, for the moment, to see how this project will survive on its own.
USAID isn’t known for doing rigorous evaluations, and this project is no exception. The agency commissioned a baseline survey to measure the income and nutrition of the farmers, and it will do another survey after the project ends. Those studies will provide insight into the immediate impact of the project, which is important, but they won’t tell us much about its sustainability or, importantly, about whether the aid money could have been better spent.
That’s a fundamental question about any philanthropy or government aid. It’s also the reason why we need more than good intentions. With limited money available to help the global poor, governments and NGOs need to spend what resources they have as wisely as they can. One option, always, is to give money to extremely poor people and let them decide how to spend it. That’s what GiveDirectly does, and why it remains my favorite charity. I’ll take a look at their work in Rwanda in an upcoming story.
All that said, I hope Donnie Smith and his partners at the University of Tennessee, who are implementing the chickens project, find ways to overcome the obstacles they face. Poverty in rural Africa is worse than most people imagine. (I’ll always remember meeting a mother with a newborn baby who lives in a home with no electricity or running water. Take a moment to contemplate the future awaiting that child.) Smith could be enjoying a comfortable retirement, after working for 30 years at Tyson, and instead he’s putting his time and money into helping some of the neediest people in the world. That’s commendable. By email, after the story ran, he told me: “Truly great accomplishments are rarely achieved when there is a clear line of sight to success.” He’s in this for the long haul, and so I hope to take another look at the Tworore Inkoko Twunguke project in a couple of years to see how it’s going.
You can read the rest of my story here.