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Ending Poverty, But Only on Paper

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Millennium Development Goals actually increase rural dependence on knowledge and skills from urban areas—at the expense of community empowerment.

chileOn the 14th September 2005, when heads of state gathered in New York to endorse the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—eight targets, intended to improve the lives of people in developing countries, that are supposed to be achieved by 2015—I wrote a column in the International Herald Tribune arguing that the program would not work. Two years later, there is no change in the handout approach to which I object, and the quality of life of the very poor has not improved.

This is not because the billions in aid money they the UN has called for is missing, or because of a hard-to-predict obstacle like climate change hurting the poor. Rather, it is because the MDG strategy has two fundamental flaws.

First, these goals were set by international donors, governments and academics, who are speaking and acting on behalf of poor communities instead of being answerable to those communities. The people on the ground have no sense of ownership and must rely on knowledge and skills from outside.

For the cost of one UN Millenium Village, 100,000 families living below the starvation line could receive two square meals a day in 50 villages. When that sort of money is available, it is foolish and absurd to spend it on one village.

Second, the goals are broken up into compartments to suit donor agency and government ministry specializations. They ignore the integrated nature of life as seen by the poor and the interdependencies among the problems faced by the poor. The “end of extreme poverty and hunger”, which is the first of the goals, means in practice the growth of aid bureaucracies who live and feed on keeping the poor poor. These bureaucrats are not likely to solve the problems they work on, since doing so would put them out of a job.

Tackling poverty requires a fundamentally different approach: one that starts with people themselves and encourages the initiative, creativity and drive from below that must be at the core of any transformation of their lives if it is to be lasting.

In 1978, when Robert McNamara (then president of the World Bank) and McGeorge Bundy (then president of the Ford Foundation) visited us at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, India, for 24 hours, McNamara asked the head of a poor family living on much less than a dollar a day what he looked forward to in life. He answered very quietly, “Two square meals a day.” I remember the stunned silence of officials around us even today

The eradication of extreme poverty will never be achieved so long as, in developing countries, there are corrupt village level politicians and bureaucrats pilfering food aid and cooking oil worth millions of dollars that was meant for poor women and children. Evidence of this was handed over to UNICEF in India for instance, but they expressed total helplessness—said it was a government responsibility. It is still happening, blatantly and openly. Adulterated food—wheat, rice, cooking oil—unfit for human consumption is being distributed at subsidized rates to the poor and hungry at 300,000 Fair Price Shops, through corrupt private contractors whose hold is nearly total. Hunger is only being eradicated on paper.

The second goal, universal primary education, is in the hands of a bloated UNESCO bureaucracy, which reports only on the performance of formal educational structures put in place by international donors and national governments. These structures are largely exhausted, too over-stretched to ensure quality and captured by vested interests. There are still 60 percent of the very poor rural children who have no time to go to school in the daytime, because they have to help their parents with domestic chores. Other outside-the-box innovative solutions have to be found.

Running schools at night for the convenience of the children and training semi-literate but unemployed rural youth in villages to become part time “barefoot teachers” in these night schools is one such simple answer. The Barefoot College in India has started these night schools. This is an approach that could be applicable all over the world.

Quietly, many imaginative and innovative ways of promoting gender equality and empowering women (Goal 3) have also been initiated by community based organizations. At the Barefoot College, semi-literate rural women have been trained as solar and water engineers: repairing handpumps, constructing rainwater harvesting tanks, solar electrifying their villages, and feeding data into computers with no ongoing technical support from the outside.

Traditional midwives are a fundamental human resource largely ignored by officials aiming at infant mortality, maternal health, and the communicable disease situation, goals four through six. They know their communities infinitely better than doctors and nurses in big towns and hospitals. David Werner’s book Where There is No Doctor, based on his work in Mexico, shows how simple and inexpensive it is to upgrade midwives’ skills , improve their confidence and build on their traditional knowledge, with the result that child mortality can be reduced sharply, maternal health improved, and water-borne diseases tackled. In the case of AIDS, we need only look at what Mechai Veravaidya’s work in Thailand, that was recognized by the Gates foundation in 2007, as an example for replication everywhere.

To meet goal seven, providing drinking water and sanitation, all it takes is to follow the solutions of the elders--collect rain water.  There is no school roof in the world that doesn’t receive rain that can be collected in underground tanks for drinking water. By collecting rainwater, the pressure on groundwater is eased and more is available for irrigation and food production.

To really “end poverty”, the last goal (strengthening partnerships that support development) should focus on south-to-south exchanges between poor communities so that they can learn from each other, sharing traditional, practical knowledge and skills rather than those which focus on alien, expensive ideas and equipment and consultants from the global north.

Rather than working within the existing indigenous institutions, using traditional knowledge and the practical wisdom of the elders, the MDG project has chosen to promote a colossally expensive, non-replicable idea of Millennium Villages, installations that are friendly to globe-trotting celebrities and have been imposed on the presumed-to-be-grateful poor. Rather than just facilitating and providing the mental and physical space for the poor to develop themselves, the drivers of this project make the poor puppets, not equal partners. They have earmarked US$400,000 per year for five years for each of a dozen villages in ten African countries.

For the same amount of money, one could electrify 15 whole villages of 800 houses annually with solar power; collect 20 million liters of rainwater in 40 remote rural schools; or run more than 300 night schools for a year for over 4,000 dropped-out children anywhere in the world. For the same amount 100,000 families living below the starvation line of 50 cents a day could receive two square meals a day in 50 villages. When that sort of money is available, it is foolish and absurd to spend it on one village.  

The “bottom up” approach is about living and working with the poor, listening to them with humility to gain their confidence and trust. It cannot be bought and manipulated with money, which in fact may destroy existing workable low cost structures. It is about respecting and implementing the ideas of the poor, encouraging them to use their skills and knowledge for their own development. It is about taking a back seat and providing the space for them to develop themselves. So long as governments in the global south are powerless to break the hold of corrupt vested interests on whom many of them depend, the poor will never be free from want, poverty and hunger. 

Bunker Roy is Founding Director of the Barefoot College. He has been identified as Outstanding Social Entrepreneuer by the Schwab Foundation (2002) and the Skoll Foundation (2005). He is presently Chairman of the Global Rain Water Harvesting Collective.

Image credit: Photo by Flickr user Carolonline.

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