Hans Rosling gave a very interesting TED talk this year about poverty. The entire talk is excellent and well worth checking out. One of his most interesting points is that to help people out of poverty it is important to separate the goals from the means. The means are the things that will actually help get people out of poverty. The goals are the reasons why they want to get out of poverty. From what I’ve seen so far, this is something many charity organizations get wrong.
Hans Rosling lists seven dimensions of development:
- Human Rights
- Economic Growth
Generally speaking, governance, economic growth, and education are the means by which people get out of poverty. As people get richer they will spend their own money on culture, health, and the environment, and they will find that human rights become more important to them personally.
The flipside of this is that if you don’t provide people with the means to get out of poverty, no amount of effort in the goals area is going to have much lasting impact. This is the part many organizations get wrong. For instance there are lots of organizations doing health work in the developing world, and they do some wonderful things. But in the long run many of them have very little lasting impact. At the end of the day a poor farmer who is cured of an illness is still a poor farmer. But a poor farmer who is taught to read and write might become a shopkeeper who can afford to pay for a visit to the doctor himself. If he is taught how to treat his water, he might avoid getting sick in the first place.
There is nothing wrong with supporting organizations that work on the goals end of development. Health, human rights, culture, and the environment are the things we care most about. They make life worth living, and it is in these areas that we can show our compassion and ease suffering. But I personally feel that it is important to look at goals-based organizations with a critical eye. It is easy to get so excited by easing suffering that you stop trying to prevent it.
Take environmental organizations for example. The environmental organizations that will have the biggest impact are first and foremost poverty reduction organizations, or organizations that try to improve governance. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is a great example. According to their website they “provide assistance to local communities through education, health, training and economic development initiatives.” Education and economic development are the means by which they hope to get local populations wealthy enough so that they don’t need to eat Gorillas.
There are a lot of things we can do to make the world a better place. But over the years a lot of time and money has been spent of feel-good initiatives that have had little impact. We need to spend our money wisely, and make sure that the organizations we are supporting are going to have a lasting impact.