By Eric Ahearn Contributor February 3, 2014

In 2007, Muhammad Yunus framed the goal of eradicating extreme poverty as being able to create museums for future generations to go view it as a relic. Like other artifacts, it would belong there rather than in everyday life. As the international development community begins conversations about its agenda for the post-Millennium Development Goals era, there has been much reflection on progress and postulating on what might be possible moving forward. In 1990, 43% of people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty. The cover story from the June 1, 2013 edition of The Economist asked, “If extreme poverty can be halved in the past two decades, why should the other half not be got rid of in the next two?” But eradicating poverty is no simple task. In order to do so, the development community will need to diligently reevaluate some of its own practices.

The last 65 years of policy primarily consisted of top-down, prescriptive approaches that were far from optimally effective. The infamous Washington Consensus caused macroeconomic conditions in many countries that diminished domestic competition and actually set them back in terms of economic and social progress. This also meant dysfunctional aid programs. For example, regulations requiring food aid to be purchased in the donor country and shipped on do-nor-flagged vessels often means that aid money does not arrive where donors claim it is going. Even if a project has a certain budget, a large percentage is being paid to domestic producers and businesses rather than entering the recipient economy. It is impossible to divorce aid from politics, but the overlap between assistance and foreign policy is a major hindrance to achieving effi-cient poverty alleviation.

However, in the last several decades there has been some momentum to reorient the perspective of development actors on the relationship between donors and beneficiaries. A more bottom-up approach that recognizes the capacity and knowledge of recipients, who are tradition-ally excluded from decision-making processes, has a better chance of leading to sustainable solutions. It incorporates those who have the best understanding of the situation and works from their perspective to address their needs.

For example, the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) is a donor that promotes what it calls grassroots development by exclusively supporting the work of already established community groups to address the challenges that they have identified themselves. This responsive approach acknowledges that the funder is not the expert and creates a partnership relationship in-stead of a hierarchical one. Currently, IAF works with a foundation in Ecuador that is supporting the recovery of cultural and historical traditions of African descendants in order to encourage better integration and acceptance, and therefore improved livelihoods, for participants.

Governments are also empowering citizens by implementing cash transfer programs. These improve the economic mobility of individuals while promoting development from below. Giving small amounts of supplementary income can stimulate a virtuous cycle of demand, in-vestment, and growth. Brazil and Mexico pioneered these kinds of programs in the 1990s and they have steadily spread to more than 30 countries.

Continuing to promote more of these bottom-up solutions will be critical to creating sustainable change for the people coming out of poverty. The recent series of agreements from Paris, Accra, and Busan lay a sound foundation for this from a governmental perspective. Promoting country ownership of objectives, priorities, and activities is a good first step. Encouraging donor coordination is another way to increase efficiency. But holding parties accountable to these commitments will be a more difficult task.

This bottom-up approach will require donors to accept a new role in the field: that of service providers, not superheroes. If they are truly interested in poverty alleviation and not just their own commercial interests, they should be willing to work in a way that will lead to the most sustainable results. This will not be an easy change, though, as there are stakeholders who have an entrenched interest in the status quo.

It will also require changes in how donors operate at sub-national and community levels. Organizations like the IAF that work in response to needs and requests rather than independently making decisions about what should be done merit greater support. Similar organizations should be created and supported. Over the next few decades, development strategy will need to include a stronger focus on cooperation for the benefit of recipients than on protecting individual interests.

There is no single solution that will work in every situation to eliminate every cause or manifestation of poverty. With that in mind, practitioners and policy-makers must remember that continued work at the macro-level is also imperative for development success. Community groups need legal recognition in order to operate successfully. Individuals and businesses need functioning banks in order to borrow and save. These require capable governments. It is im-portant not to confuse these high-level activities with a top-down approach that is an imposition rather than collaboration.

Making this shift in perspective will be crucial if extreme poverty is to be confined to museums in the next few decades. If development results are going to be sustained, they must be the ones that the people affected by them want. Approaching these challenges from the bottom up – recognizing that no one knows everything and that all perspectives are necessary to create the best solution – will be the best way forward.

Eric Ahearn is an M.A. candidate in the International Development Studies program at the Elliott School where he focuses primarily on community and economic development. He previously earned his B.A. in Economics and Spanish from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH.

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