Politics of Poverty

3 notable “new” storylines in the aid effectiveness conversation

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Catch up on what you missed in August!

From debates about “good” and “bad” charity, to David Letterman hammering Hugh Evans on how charity concerts end poverty, from Africa’s evolving philanthropic discourse, to trepidations about impact investingnon-profit CEO salaries, and aid prizes, August was far from slow for those of us who care about aid effectiveness.

If you were on vacation, here’s what you might have missed:

1)     A celebrity does more good than harm?

The soon-to-be Batman advocates that local, community-based organizations (CBOs) are the best option for enabling lasting change in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though a partnership with USAID, Ben Affleck’s Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) has created and expanded a database of Congolese NGOs to help people donate money directly to them. ECI has highlighted the large number of competent and effective CBOs that already exist in the Eastern Congo that have the ability to absorb funds and expand their work—offering a solid alternative to people’s usual associations with celebrity activism.

“…[W]hen I did research around Congo and other countries, what I saw, what I found, was that the people doing the best work, with the real expertise, who understood what was needed intuitively, just like they would in my neighborhood…were community-based organizations.” ~ Ben Affleck via humanosphere.org

Oxfam agrees that aid is most effective when it: empowers local change agents; unleashes “people power,” i.e. the ability to take action and change the circumstances that place or keep people in poverty; and responds directly to people’s needs. At Oxfam, we are keen to see this indication of USAID’s willingness to partner with local leaders and to challenge ways of thinking to enable both greater risk and greater rewards.

The storyline to keep following? There is an enormous amount of creative and enterprising problem-solving skills that individuals and local groups employ around the world. Perhaps it takes a celebrity to draw attention, but isn’t it always time to invest in this?

2)     Just give people the money already!

Photo: Creative Commons via Flickr
Photo: Creative Commons via Flickr

Reporters David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein from NPR’s Planet Money had a series of pieces, including in the New York Times Magazine, Fixes column, and This American Life last month, highlighting the effort of a relatively new charity on the scene. GiveDirectly gives money to people in poor areas of Kenya to use as they please. Giving cash directly is seemingly straightforward and there’s initial evidence that it works. (Two good “sift through the hype” articles are found here and here.)

As I wrote earlier this year, cash-based programs are not new. They are in line with Oxfam America’s view on aid reform, which is that poverty-reducing aid must be led and designed by the people who need it most. New initiatives like GiveDirectly are welcome in the dialogue because too often still, large amounts of aid funding are too bureaucratic and fragmented for 21st century problems, often failing to reach vulnerable communities.

Regardless of the modalities of moving resources from rich to developing nations, we at Oxfam must note that effective development is not just about cash. Ultimately, aid must strengthen the voice of the citizens and the responsiveness of the state if it is going to have a lasting impact on development.

The storyline to keep following? How can this idea, as well as other current US reform efforts intend to allow countries to lead in their own development, make the US a better partner in the fight against global poverty?

3)     Shaking up philanthropy

Photo: peterbuffett.com
Photo: peterbuffett.com

Peter Buffett called out the charitable industrial-complex, philanthropic colonialism, conscience laundering and inequality in a New York Times op-ed this month. The reaction it garnered created quite the rich and engaging ensuing dialogue in August. Wayan Vota’s letter to Buffett, “Time for a Moonshot,” was a call to bypass “safe decisions [that] beget the status quo.” (See also Bill Schambra’s speech on the “problem” of evidence, based strategic philanthropy given to the Hewlett Foundation, which added to the stir in philanthropic circles this month.)

Because structural inequalities, political capture and fragile states are tough challenges facing the development community, Oxfam sees an explicit focus on governance, politics and power as a necessary counter balance to purely economic growth-fueled ways of defining development. These are a welcome addition to a philanthropic discourse too often focused on “innovation” and “going to scale,” which are often a direct result of narrow ways of thinking. (See Oxfam’s Chris Jochnick’s earlier post, which offers eight questions to help unpack the “philanthropic appetite for structural change” here.)

The storyline to keep following? Are the market moguls that drive philanthropy capable of the imagination for which Buffett calls? Even if they’re willing to call structures into question, what’s their incentive to change the status quo? Could more pressure for transparency help?

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