Helping people or helping to help people?

In which the author discovers sustainable development

One of the things I hear quite a bit from people who are interested in (or indeed, who work in) the nebulous ‘international development’ is about their desire to help people. This has always vaguely bothered me, and while I am still not entirely sure why, I think that I have put my hand on one of the reasons.

Putting people at the center of development is nothing new, but it is a concept that I believe has proven its worth both in policy and in terms of actual effect. This holds across areas, from environmental considerations to industrial policy to security. Besides, if the goal of a country in developing is not the betterment of its people we may as well give up right now.


The problem for me comes when it is framed as a question of ‘me’, the individual, helping people (usually in other, poorer countries). People and organizations that put forward this idea a little too strongly are perhaps not entirely self-aware as to the development work they do. But if you look at it from a societal level, aid organizations, development programs, people in beige jackets and SUVs are not natural. I’m not at all convinced that they are part of the natural topography of a society. They are tacked on, informed by foreign aid dollars, by policy decided at USAID, at DfID, by global visions for a world without poverty, for xyz development goal, and more. Not that these things can’t be good, not that they can’t be effective; they’re just not natural.

What is natural then? It isn’t as though organizations and systems to help people and solve problems in a society are all unnatural- the state is usually accepted as natural, legitimate. Associations of people in society are natural. Different types of media are natural. These things come out of the natural development of a society and out of a locally-assessed need.

OK, a compromise is needed. We don’t live in the 19th Century where societies can be easily shut off from one another and where identity is a simple question of geography. What moves and contributes to the natural development of a society is not only that which is intrinsic to that society. But it certainly still means a local interpretation of things. That which moves and shapes a society is the collection of people, institutions, ideas and common places whose existence and behavior (on the aggregate) is not predicated on next year’s funding. It seems to me that the state and civil society, but also local organizations, community groups, music bands and others are deeply invested in their society as a whole, and not on whatever development the society may have. They will be around even after a society becomes ‘developed’ enough to see the international aid agencies leave.


Because they make up the society, they are necessary to it. Shouldn’t efforts by those interested in the development of societies be more focused on these sorts of social components? Shouldn’t the help be to make sure that the state, that local government, civil society and businesses be able to effectively deliver better goods and services to the society’s people and guarantee a minimum standard of living? Isn’t this better than coming in and attaching an unnatural extra temporary support beam to the structure?

This is about basic sustainability. Sustainability of development, when it comes from outside the society in question, doesn’t really sound all that sustainable.

‘Inside’ vs. ‘outside’ a society isn’t a distinction between foreign and domestic aid per se, or even one between centrally planned or ‘liberal’ aid- I think this debate comes before Sachs and Easterly. In other words, if the road for developing some dimension of a society is effective with market-oriented, ‘outward-looking’ action, then why not? As long as those in control are the same who make up the society (this would get too long if I got into inequality within a society, so I will leave it at that for now).

Helping Societies help People

Every aid program should contribute to turning the keys of the development they work on over to the people for whom they are working. Of course new ideas can come from people overseas, from people from somewhere else, from people who are just passing through. But I think that they should mold these new ideas into the society they wish to help, through participation, joint brainstorming, ownership and understanding of the implications of their work at all levels.

Sustainable development is not about how best to continue a specific project, and not about how to ensure any one organization’s continued effectiveness. It’s first about how to make sure that the projects that will be worked on are worthy of being continued, and it’s then about asking if society can continue them.

Helping societies to help people seems to me a much more freeing and rewarding goal.

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Chris Blattman

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