The Elusive Poverty Line

The $1 a day measure is a standard catch phrase for development and aid practicioners. It’s also a hotly debated issue – while some argue that it’s a useful measure that allows us to objectively assess levels of poverty in a country, others say that it’s meaningless, as a person living with twice the amount (or a 100% increase…) is still trying to make ends meet with only 2 bucks a day.

Grossly, that’s the concept.

I was just reading this interesting post on the CGD blog, about the World Bank’s re-evaluation of the poverty line to $1.25. I can just picture the half dozen World Bank experts, slaving over this report, analyzing data, running regressions….to come up with that brilliant conclusion: $1.25 is a MORE accurate delimitation for absolute poverty than just $1. They also had this insightful conclusion:

Second, Ravallion and co-authors suggest that differences in different countries’ choice of poverty line indicate that the definition of poverty is in fact subjective and depends on the social context.

Oh, is that so? I’m glad that we figured this out in 2008 – surely, no one previously had put forward THAT notion. So, finally, I suppose, this means that from now on the $1 a day measure is going to be used in a more nuanced way, by integrating qualitative analysis and contextual substance. A step in the right direction that should be acknowledged, in spite of the fact of the fact it’s a realization that comes into the game a few decades late.

While I understand that objective, quantitative indicators and economic measurements are necessary to the development and analysis of policy and its effects, that $1 day a day measure (sorry, $1.25 now) really doesn’t sit well with me. Particularly when I stumble across ideas such as these, ie. that people living on between $2 and $10 a day represent a “middle class” in developing countries. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve only read the abstract of that paper, but regardless, while I see the rationale behind trying to understand

” the importance of relative prices in shaping consumption decisions or the power of norms/fashions in determining consumption”,

it seems to me that this type of discourse demeans (for lack of a better word) the experience of people struggling in the developing world.

Sure, people who live with $10/day ($3650/year) have infinitely more opportunities than those who live below the absolute poverty line – but they still do not have the type of opportunities available to a genuine middle class, like we have in the West. $3650 per year doesn’t allow for a lot of consumption choices, or choices in general, and definitely doesn’t allow people to save up for their retirement for instance. These people won’t get bank loans to get their kids to college, or a mortgage on their house, or have a credit card (or ten) that would deepen and broaden their horizons, their possibilities. I sure hope that a real middle class will emerge in the developing world – and here I’m thinking of the LDCs (least developed countries), since the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) of this world are already experiencing this.

For families struggling across the developing world, whether they have $1, $2 or $4 to spend every day makes probably makes a difference in the short run – you can buy more food, pay for your child’s school supplies, etc. However, in the long run, I believe these differences make only a marginal difference – and the lines between absolutely poor, relatively poor and “middle class” remain blurry.

They Come in the Name of Helping, reloaded

This article popped up in my Google Reader – 3 times.

The article itself, from The Washington Post, casts a critical eye on the affluence that foreigners live in while working in Liberia.

As this impoverished country climbs its way back from 13 years of civil war with the tiniest of steps, a boom is underway in the industries that cater to the rarified tastes of thousands of mostly European and U.S. expatriates who have come to help since peace arrived in 2003. The increasingly visible splendors available to this relatively wealthy group have left some Liberians wondering whether the foreigners are here to serve the nation or themselves.

I blogged about this topic a couple of months ago, after watching Peter Brock’s “They Come in the Name of Helping” – if you haven’t yet watched it, please do.

This story about sushi in Liberia popped up twice more in my reader – Chris Blattman and Rupert Simon both reacted to it (and, according to Blattman, it seems that a LOT of people picked up on this story)

Simon seems to side with the opinion expressed in the article:

… If only the sushi were made from local fish (fresh and delicious), I wouldn’t mind. But importing tuna and salmon to serve to aid workers, when the rest of the population can barely get enough rice (let alone fish), seems a little absurd.

Blattman, on the other hand, says – what’s the problem with a couple good restaurants?

My opinion is somewhere in the middle – I still believe that, in general, to have such a discrepancy between the way foreign aid workers and locals live is a problem – it distances the foreigners from the realities that they’re supposed to work on, and from the people they are supposed to assist. But that’s essentially the problem with development work that isn’t grassroots based.

On the other hand, I appreciate Blattman’s straight forwardness in the matter. Because when you work in difficult settings, far from your family and the comforts of home, sometimes, it’s nice to take a break. And that’s just the reality of it – aid workers are not super heros, they are human beings with needs and desires, and some people in Liberia know what those are, and are taking advantage of it – how entrepreneurial! (This is only half sarcastic)

In a lot of post-conflict settings and generally poor places where NGOs and IOs are active, aid workers always inject cash into the local economy. Some say it’s good (it boosts local economy, creates jobs, etc.), some say it’s bad (unsustainable). Whatever the case may be, it’s definitely a reality that needs to be contended with. Perhaps the negative effects of foreign affluence juxtaposed to local poverty can be mitigated by developing an approach where locals would benefit from in a sustainable manner – through job creation, using local resources (think local instead of imported fish for the now (in)famous Monrovia sushi restaurant mentioned above), etc.

If I end up traveling to Liberia this summer for The Niapele Project (fingers crossed), it will be interesting to see the reality of this juxtaposition.

Give a Man a Line, Not a Fish (but what kind of line should you give him then?)

Fishing boats in Kokrobite, Ghana

It sometimes seems like the mantra “give a man a line, not a fish” summarizes the approach taken to development by most practitioners who wish to move away from hand outs and towards breeding sustainability. It makes perfect sense, right? If you give him the fish, he will eat now and be hungry tomorrow, and you’ll have to give him another, whereas if you give him a line, he’s going to start fishing for himself, and you can move to the next guy who needs help.

This trip to Ghana, I actually saw this motto written on some buildings, and it just kept popping up (both in my head, and in real life) – but thinking about it, I started to become slightly uncomfortable with it. Of course, it would be naive to say that this “line and fish” proverb is actually used as a strategy, but, for the sake of the argument, let’s extrapolate a bit. The whole idea behind this concept is that you want the beneficiary of your help to no longer have to extend his or her hand out for assistance, and that, instead, he or she will become self-reliant and empowered by this new found freedom.

While this is a laudable goal in theory, in practice, it seems to fall short all too often. When you give someone a “line” (could be a tractor to plow the earth, a sewing machine or oven to become more efficient, etc.), it’s not necessarily the “line” that he needs, or would have chosen freely. It’s not necessarily the most sustainable tool either – for instance, the sewing machine example : while the person you are giving it to may be ecstatic at the thought of having her own, the problem is that there 100 other people like you giving 100 other people like her a sewing machine. Which means that there will be insane competition between small scale sewers – and, unfortunately, if you haven’t given her (and the others) an effective marketing and sales strategy, you pretty much wasted your sewing machine.

This article discusses the preponderance of cooks in Monrovia – and the effects on the local economy:

NGO skills-training programmes that typically focus on skills such as soap-making, hair braiding, baking, tailoring and pastry-making have turned out far more people than there is demand for, the report found.

“The majority of [skills training] projects lack direct links to current or emerging market demand,” the report says. “Hairdressing, cosmetology, baking, tailoring, soap-making and tie-dye are offered in location after location.”

I’ve seen this in Buduburam – there are dozens of training programs for women that offer the aforementioned activities. The goal is to empower these women – the means to this end is to help them learn a trade that will enable them to generate income and sustain themselves. But when every one of your neighbors is getting the same “line”, you’re going to end up going after the same fish, right? The training skills programs don’t work together – in fact, they compete. In Buduburam, the Chrissetta Institute is where you want to be – they have the best reputation. Women of Glory churns out the most graduates, and is highly visible. It almost seems like the real point of these training programs is to empower the people who run them, rather than the people who benefit from them.

I made the mistake of sponsoring one lady’s training as a pastry chef – there are absolutely no jobs for her, and the women who already do this don’t want anyone to help them (because they can’t really scale up their activities, if they work with someone else, it will only marginally increase their productivity, while requiring them to share the profits).

So, yes, let’s give a “line”, and help people shift from dependency and inactivity to freedom and enterprise. But if we’re going to go down that road, we have to be ready to do more than just give the “line” – we also have to help them gain market access, help them develop a PLAN for the short term and the long term, give them the tools necessary to repair the “line” if it breaks or needs mending…. The “line” is just not enough, and while I admire and respect people who manage to break their own cycle of poverty with a simple “line”, if we want to create real, profound and lasting change, we have to do more than hand out these “lines”.

The word “holistic” always sounds a bit naive – so let’s say that we need to have multi-dimensional approaches to human development. The tools that we use in our own societies need to be made available – equalizing access to marketing and organizational resources, for example, is one of the ways in which this can be done. The “line”, in and of itself, can sometimes cause more harm than good, as people will harness all their hopes on it, even though the benefits it yields are marginal.

This video shows a group of village fishermen in Ghana – I watched them for over 2 hours, as they were manually reeling in their net. Involved in the process were not just the fishermen, but their pregnant wives, children… Essentially, the entire village participates in this.

(I realize that there is a white woman’s butt in this video – she was just passed out on the beach during the whole process – right after I shot this, I did in fact wake her up…. )

Point is, these people spend HOURS every day reeling in this net – and their catch is hardly worth the effort. It’s common knowledge that West African coastal waters are overfished, and commercial trawling has made the problem worse. So in this net, they had a lot of garbage, seaweed, plastic bags, and some small fish, that they share amongst themselves. Now, this is the main economic activity in this village – and the benefits they reap are measly. I kept thinking that they would save so much time and energy if only they had a machine to reel in their net – this would allow them to engage in other activities, and make the enterprise worthwhile.

I’m not saying that development practitioners should jump in and give them a motor powered reel – in fact, it’s obviously up to this community to define the need and search for the solution. I’m not even sure that NGOs (local or international) operate in this village – the point is, the “line” these people are using is clearly not to their advantage, and a big difference could be made if the process was modernized, streamlined…

There is a real opportunity for progress here, and it’s not that complicated. I too often read about or see instances where development falls just short of actually helping – and this applies to both endogenous and exogenous initiatives. The skills training programs that are being replicated all over the Buduburam refugee settlement are an example of the inappropriate “lines”.

The lack of investment in “un-sexy” dimensions of development (a motor reel, the elaboration of a marketing strategy) also handicap the overall impact of initiatives who end up failing to completely address the problem they are trying to solve. In fact, these incomplete solutions can exacerbate the issue, by making it seem like things are progressing. But appearances can be deceptive, as the hundreds of women in their skills training center’s uniform have made me realize.

They Come in the Name of Helping – part 2

If you have read my previous post concerning the movie by Peter Brock “They Come in the Name of Helping”, then you might be interested in reading his response:


I am excited to see that my film provoked such a response from someone as devoted to development as yourself. Interestingly enough I completely agree with all of the critical points you have made. To be frank, the film was not so much intended for veteran development types like yourself, but rather for concerned yet inexperienced western students. But still, your charge of oversimplification is a valid one.

While making this film (and even now) I laid awake in my bed at night wondering if there was a better way to express the need for respect without such generalizations. As you can probably tell, the film is more about human interactions than development. I was seeking to capture the in a convincing way the reality that development deals with real people’s lives, and furthermore that those ‘people’ are not merely passive sufferers waiting to be saved by the west (think ‘SAVE DARFUR’). I wanted to capture some articulate young Africans expressing their critical opinions as a (perhaps overstated) warning against the type of objectification of the poor that is so common in the west. I wanted to make a counterpoint to the countless images of emaciated African children that appear as advertising for major NGO’s such as World Vision, Save the Children, or CARE. I wanted to shatter this objectified conception of the poor African because I see it as extremely harmful and detrimental to the very cause of development.

My intention was to make the viewer wary of simple solutions. I wanted to complicate the picture of development that is given by the internet ads reading “Click here to save a child!”. I wanted to make people reflect on why the help others and the way that they do it. I wanted to show African’s who were not hesitant to DEMAND respect from those coming to help them, not to deter them from coming, but to make sure that they come in the spirit of sincerity and cooperation. Hopefully you saw that the main message of the film was that we need a respectful dialogue.

Also, if you listen closely, you’ll see that I never said that we shouldn’t help people that we don’t fully understand. I simply said that we have to recognize that it is inherently harder to help people and communities which are foreign to us. There a tons of ways to help people abroad, but the path towards each of these solutions begins by recognizing the limitations of our own ‘expertise’. Perhaps I was too harsh in my iteration of this point, but I feel strongly that the battle against the mentality of the savior (a re-incarnation of the colonizer) is extremely important.

You are quite correct that there are huge differences between humanitarian and development work, but the point about respectful interaction still remains. You are also right to point out the diversity of the NGO world. However, I think that you’ll find that the smaller more grassroots NGO’s that you refer to posses the commitment to sincere and respectful interaction that my film tries to articulate. There are many aspects of development work that are simply beyond the scope of the film. My film is not about ‘development’ (which is a pretty ambiguous and loaded term in itself), rather, as I stated above, it is about human interactions in the context of development. The reality is that most of the particulars about development and development NGO’s are beyond the scope of the film. It is really about people. I make no claim to treat the subject of ‘development’ in its entirety. To do so would be just plain silly. I tried to identify one small but important aspect of development (the need for respectful and sincere interactions) that I felt transcended specific contexts.

I hope that my comments have helped you understand the intentions behind the film. I greatly appreciate the attention you devoted to the film. The development community would be better off if more people had the type of experiences and convictions that you do.

In Peace,

Peter Brock “

I wholeheartedly agree with this: I wanted to make a counterpoint to the countless images of emaciated African children that appear as advertising for major NGO’s such as World Vision, Save the Children, or CARE. I wanted to shatter this objectified conception of the poor African because I see it as extremely harmful and detrimental to the very cause of development.”

Seriously – is this necessary?

I’m curious to hear if others agree or disagree with this – feel free to leave comments and/or email me!