By Maja Čavlović Contributing Writer April 27, 2015

“All cultures, ethnic groups, and religions will flourish to their full beauty and creativity, contributing to the magnificent unified orchestra of human society”.1 This wish is one of the guiding ideals for humanity without poverty from Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Laureate and Founder of Grameen Bank. Such an exalting statement is certainly noble, but it does not offer any insights into how a world without poverty should be reached. The poverty alleviating mechanisms, tools, and policies currently in place are not as successful as they could be because there is little understanding between the aid providers and the aid recipients. Aid providers are often surprised by how many aid recipients understand the subject of cooperation and aid.2 This type of neglect displayed by international donors illustrates their lack of faith in the people they are working to help. Even though the international community has been delivering many different types of aid with relative success for centuries, there must be a more substantial effort in placing the decision making process into the hands of aid recipients.

Many scholar-practitioners have brought to the attention of aid providers that it is important to recognize the needs and interests of persons in need of aid. The Inter-American Foundation and Development GAP are both successful examples of a bottom-up and grassroots approach to providing aid. These organizations allow aid recipients to dictate the type, duration, and amount of aid provided. Conversely, Timothy Schwartz describes multiple failures within the field of international development in his book “Travesty in Haiti,” where institutions have taken on a top-down approach to aid distribution. Schwartz describes a countrywide fraudulent system of orphanages in Haiti that was serving everyone involved but the orphans themselves. The founders of these orphanages were over-reporting the number of children they had and using the difference given to them in aid to sell for a profit or keep for themselves. The institutions providing the aid rarely visited the orphanages or monitored what was occurring on the ground.3

Another pitfall in the development mechanism today is believing that food aid is always the most desirable initiative–after all, what could be more useful in a poor country than food? However, Schwartz explains how giving food destroyed the local economy in Haiti and pushed local food production into complete disarray. Schwartz cites research from Webster, U.S. Department of Commerce, and Georges, stating: “By 1996, 2,100 metric tons of U.S rice arrived in Haiti every week, an annual loss to impoverished Haitian cultivators of about 23 million dollars per year.”4 The chief mistake made was timing the food distribution incorrectly. Food was distributed in the midst of peak farming season, during which the local community hoped to gain enough profit from their produce to sustain themselves for the rest of the year. However, with an abundance of non-locally sourced food given to the communities, there was little incentive to buy local produce. Farmers and merchants were not able to sell their produce, leaving them profitless. To make matters worse, international donors were unable to provide food when there were severe droughts, and people in some parts of Haiti were in danger of starving.5

In the “Portfolios of the Poor” by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven, the authors offer a two-year study of 242 households from Bangladesh, India, and South Africa that live on $10 or less per day.6 Each household dealt with financial challenges common for families around the world: putting food on the table, paying bills, dealing with medical expenses, financing education and so on. Each household managed to stay afloat financially as well as to save money, even though there were days when nothing was earned. In order to do this, the households had to resort to their own financial management inventions and diversify their financial tools as much as they could, using both formal and informal banking systems. Such inventions included hiding money from family members in various places of the home and instituting money guards that “guarded” the money for a fee and went around neighborhoods to collect savings. Their plans took shape within a particular set of economic, societal, religious, and cultural circumstances that would not have worked in any other community. The fact that it came from within their communities was the very reason it was successful and has important implications for all aid providing institutions.7

Even though most have very little in the way of resources, financial education, access to financial tools and opportunities, the world’s poor are able to manage their financial assets and responsibilities. Western society has been adamant about making decisions in terms of aid distribution and the type of aid given, as the above examples have demonstrated. That aid providers are determining aid allocation and distribution is not what is best for donors or the recipients. The decision should be put into the minds and hands of those who will benefit from the aid provided. The argument here is not about morality or empowerment of the poor and marginalized parts of society, but about reaching the possible outcome for everyone in the process. Aid providers are able to deliver aid more cost effectively through harnessing the ideas of aid recipients. Projecting one’s will onto others rarely results in sustainable, locally recognized, and supported poverty alleviation initiatives. In order for poverty alleviation to be successful, the decisions that are made about a specific development initiative need to be based on what the local population is in need of and what they would prefer to be done. For this to occur, the population must be included in the decision making process.

1. Muhammad Yunus with Karl Weber, Creating a World Without Poverty, Public Affairs, New York, 2007, pg. 227.

2. Anderson, Mary B., Brown, Dayna, Jean, Isabella, Time to Listen, Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2012, pg. 16.

3. Schwartz, Timothy T., Travesty in Haiti, A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, food aid, fraud and drug trafficking, 2008, pgs. 125-164.

4. Ibid. pg. 109.

5. Anderson, Mary B., Brown, Dayna, Jean, Isabella, Time to Listen, Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2012, pgs. 94-106.

6. Collins Daryl, Murdoch, Jonathan, Rutherford, Stuart, Ruthven, Orlanda, Portfolios of the Poor, How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day, Princeton University Press, 2009, pgs. 191-195.

7. Ibid. pg. 21 & 47.

Maja Čavlović is from Karlovac, Croatia, and a Master’s candidate in Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs. She is a former Croatian military professional with three volunteer deployments to Afghanistan during which she discovered her passion for International Development. She obtained a M.A. In European Studies from the University of Zagreb, Croatia, and a B.A. In International Studies and Spanish from Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, VA. Maja believes that security and development are always mutually re-enforcing, and hopes to continue fusing them in her future career.

Photo taken by the U.S. Coast Guard and is in the public domain under U.S. Copyright Law. Image cropped.