The GiveWell Blog

Aid is not the only thing that reduces poverty

Earlier this month, a Gates Foundation representative (Mark Suzman, Acting President of the Global Development Program) made a post epitomizing what I feel is a key fallacy in the world of giving: that any and all progress in struggling countries can be attributed to aid.

The thesis of his post is that “A greater focus on results and accountability means that overall aid spending has been getting smarter, more focused and more effective. Increasingly, taxpayer dollars are spent on proven interventions that are saving and improving lives.” And the only support given for this thesis is observations about aggregate improvements in health, wealth and education (drops in childhood deaths, drops in the number of people living under a given poverty line, etc.)

Mr. Suzman concedes that “Economic growth in China and India has been the primary engine of this improvement,” but in his discussion of other regions including Africa, there is a strong implication (difficult to convey in an excerpt, but clear if you read the piece) that the mere fact of improvement points to the effectiveness of aid.

There is no mention of possible non-aid-related factors behind the improvement in these regions, such as:

  • Improvements in government programs and government accountability, which could happen because of aid to governments or for other reasons
  • Improvements in technology
  • Local people making progress on their own problems, even if such progress isn’t visible in national-level GDP statistics

This fallacy is one that we see often. People often ask how we can recommend that donors not support certain areas, such as water or education, saying things like “If we don’t support these areas, who will?”

The answer may be that no one has to. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the first countries to emerge from poverty didn’t receive any aid from wealthier countries, and there is no easily discernible influence of aid in many of those that have emerged since.

People can and do solve their own problems. Rather than giving ourselves responsibility for everything they’re struggling with, we should focus on the areas in which we’re most likely to be able to help.


  • Allie on June 30, 2010 at 2:20 pm said:

    Thanks for this post. Many times in aid situations, we (meaning wealthy countries, organizations or individuals) see ourselves as the heroes, the ones who can make a difference and cause change. It is important to remember that we are not the only ones who can make a positive impact on development. Others have valid knowledge, ideas and motivations, and many times they can work better than ideas coming from the outside.

  • Gordon Strause on July 1, 2010 at 10:15 pm said:

    I strongly agree with the main point of this blog post: that most of what happens in the developing world (or elsewhere) has less to do with aid and more to do with all the other factors that influence people’s lives.

    That said, to be fair to Mark, I don’t think his blog post really suggested otherwise. And I say that only partly because I went to school with Mark and think he is a very good guy and a rigoruous thinker (or at least was 20 years ago). 🙂

  • Dyann Brown on July 6, 2010 at 6:26 pm said:

    I read Mark’s blog and I would suggest that you all read Dr. Dambisa Moyo’s book, Dead Aid, which deals with the folly and misuse of foreign aid to African countries. Why don’t we question why wealthy countries investment in China and India while foreign aid goes to Africa. We need to change the paradigm. African countries like Ghana, Botswana and SOuth Africa are doing very well without foreign aid. We wealthy nations need to look at investing our dollars and not simply offering continued well-meaning charity.

  • Julian Brelsford on July 12, 2010 at 10:22 am said:

    Two of the most important questions to ask ourselves as we try to help underdeveloped countries are:
    1. Is this work cost-effective?
    2. Are we helping people to move beyond dependence on aid?

    There is no one catch-all solution, but I’d encourage you to read Dead Aid and to be thinking about question 2 above.

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