One of the things that make blogs particularly interesting are series. The “series” series recommends series at related blogs. “Blue Collar Professor” Shawn Humphrey is the initiator of the student-oriented Month of Microfinance and the Two Dollar Challenge. He teaches a variety of development-related courses in most fascinating ways, among other things having his students sleep in cardboard box shelters and (for better or worse) roping them into the operations of a Honduran microfinance institution. 

Usually narrated in a personal, essayistic style, Humphrey’s blog offers candid and often bravely self-critical insights into the vicissitudes of trying to “do good” and “development” – and of teaching American students how/how not to do it. Even though they’re hardly always up my alley (as with the suggestion that “doing good” is a “market”) and not always palatable, Humphrey’s musings are ever thought-provoking, sometimes philosophical, and overall highly relevant given this blog’s consistent interest in ethical questions over social justice and philanthropy. It is my pleasure therefore (as the ninth instalment in our occasional series about great series on other blogs) to introduce “Do-Goodernomics / Do’s and Don’ts of Doing Good” with this reprinting of parts of some of my favourite posts.

We were just finishing up our conversation with Clementina when another van full of Gringos arrived. A middle-aged man in a ball cap and shades bounded over to us. “What are you all doing here?” he asked with a hint of accusation. I introduced myself and my students. I began a review of our microfinance program. And, somewhere between “no fees” and “no penalties” he lost interest.  “You know” he interrupted me. “Before we got here…,” there was a dramatic pause and a deep draw of breath “they had nothing.” He swept his hand over the small community of 30-plus families in makeshift shelters. “We built that meeting house. We built those two public restrooms. We are building that home.” He turned to place his eyes on my eyes. He removed his shades. He raised his cap. “You know without us I do not know whether or not they would have survived.”

It was my first do-gooder pissing contest. I lost. He kicked my ass. And, he did it right in front of my students. Ouch! But, he was good. The dramatic pause. The hand sweep. The good ole boy raise of the cap. The brush of the brow. The exhalation. The consternation. Hell, if I was a mission-trip-virgin his hero’s narrative may have captured my heart. It’s a good thing that I carry protection. Not the kind that fits in a wallet. I carry a copy of Ivan Illich’s “To Hell with Good Intentions” in my backpack.

He and I had very different understandings of our role in the story of poverty’s end. Yet, we were both in the business of selling poverty. He and his group had cameras. My students and I had cameras. They had a videographer. We had a videographer. And, every good (social) entrepreneur knows that packaging is everything. A picture of a few women wrapped in brightly colored saris can infuse the rather boring process of giving out loans with the golden glow of female empowerment! A nicely tied ribbon of logic can credibly connect the building of schools with the fight against terrorism! No more flies on the face. Abandon distended abdomens. Get rid of the emaciated cows. Turn those frowns upside down. Today, you can sell poverty to a Western audience with a smiling child. Or, even better, how about a bunch of smiling poor children running towards the camera?

We would all return home to sift through our photographs and edit our videos. We would package their poverty, transform it into a commodity, and deliver it to our respective audiences. And, since consumption is an emotional process, we would infuse these images with a narrative. We would speak for this community. We would share our respective understandings of their story to our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow classmates. I know the story that my students and I told. Having visited his organization’s homepage, I am sure that he stuck with the “they had nothing” story.

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I think it is fair to say that there are two dominant worldviews that guide our attempts to understand poverty:

– Poor People are Poor because of Personal Choice

– Poor People are Poor because of Other People

The former seeks an understanding of poverty in the choices that the poor have made: Do they take advantage of the opportunities that are present? Do they work hard? Do they plan for the future? The latter seeks an understanding of poverty in the role that others have had in creating another person’s poverty: disenfranchisement, segregation, colonialism. Of course, an accurate understanding will not be found in either alone. It is somewhere in their overlap.

However, I can understand why the former worldview is so tenacious. It’s intoxicating. If the poor are solely responsible for their own poverty, then we are solely responsible for our own success. To entertain the alternative worldview would be to entertain the possibility that others had a hand in our success.

I can imagine that this challenges a lot of personal narratives. And, we like our narratives. I know.

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I’m calling bull#@%. For years, we have been told that we can be the generation that will end global poverty. Glossy non-profits with kick-ass graphic designers and artsy videographers have promised that poverty will fall to its knees when our pretty faces arrive. Agents of change with catchy Linked-in headlines touting their unparalleled power to do good have forcefully argued that poverty will collapse and crumble under the weight of our enthusiasm. Social entrepreneurs who have fashioned legendary tales of their accomplishments at moving families out of poverty have told us that poverty will retreat when it comes face-to-face with our metrics, expertise, and consultants.

How do I say this without being blunt? Well, I can’t so here it goes.

We will not end poverty.

We may make a scratch. We may even make a dent. But, we will not end poverty.

Why?

It is not our process of economic development.

[…]

The real “agents of change”, the real “change makers”, the real “serial social entrepreneurs” are the women and men advocating for change in their community, holding their politicians accountable, challenging the status quo, and taking on vested interests.

While some of us are chasing likes, they are finding ingenious ways to feed, clothe, and educate their children.

While some of us are tweeting celebrities, they are building a foundation for a better future for themselves and their families.

While some of us are putting the final touches on our latest video, they are taking on gangs, local monopolists, and inefficient bureaucracies.

They will end poverty. We will not.

Do we have a role to play? Can we make a difference? Can we be of assistance?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

It will not, however, be the role we were led to believe that we would play.

How do I break it to you?

We are not the heroes of this story. We are the side-kicks.

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I was three days into the Two Dollar Challenge. I had been limiting my income to $2 a day, sleeping in a make-shift shelter with my students for the past two nights, and adhering to a number of other rules meant to assist us in gaining a deeper understanding of the economic lives of the poor.

Over the years, I have had numerous occasions to question the appropriateness of the Two Dollar Challenge. Suyapa’s surprise visit to my classroom is the most indelible. My students and I were reviewing the rules when she opened the door. After an exchange of smiles and a hug, she took a seat and I continued on with the review. About half way through, my eyes caught her eyes. I fumbled my words at the “inappropriateness” of the situation. Suyapa was a young woman from Honduras. More than likely, someone very close to her was living on $2 a day. And, here before her sat a group of students groaning about having to boil their water before consuming it. The heat of my embarrassment made me perspire. I raced through the review to bring it all to an end.

Suyapa and I never talked about her feelings regarding the Two Dollar Challenge. Honestly, I was too scared to bring it up. Did it insult her? Did she think it was inappropriate? I thought I could run away from those questions. I was wrong.

[…]

I am still not fully at ease.

Is the Two Dollar Challenge appropriate? I do not know.

Does it have the ability to insult others? Yes.

Does it have the ability to give participants a necessary dose of empathy, humility and doubt? Yes.

Maybe, just maybe, being at unease with the Two Dollar Challenge is where I am suppose to be and should always be.

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You have $100. You want to move people out of poverty. What are your options?

You could put the $100 towards the purchase of a pair of Tom’s Shoes, a “Red” product, or some handicraft from Ten Thousand Villages. You could also buy brand-name products from manufacturers who have a reputation for using “sweat shops”. While not the most palatable way to move people out of poverty, they do provide employment opportunities for the poor. You could invest the $100 with MicroPlace or a hedge fund committed to Socially Responsible Investments. Or, you could give the $100 directly to someone in poverty.

[…]

Let’s go with give it away. All right then, you have three steps to take and lots of questions to answer:

Step One: Go find a poor person

Do you focus your efforts on domestic poverty or global poverty? If you focus on global poverty, do you choose to give your $100 to someone living under $1.25 a day, $2.50 a day or $5 a day? If you choose $2.50 per day, do you give it to someone who promises to send his or her child to school, buy a mosquito net, or take another action or no action at all?

Step Two: Settle upon a terms of trade

What do you expect in return? Just a handshake, something else, or nothing at all? What is the total price of your benevolence? What do you walk away with? What do they have to give up? Is there an imbalance between what you give and what they get?

Step Three: Enforce the terms of trade

You give away $100 immediately. In return, you get a promise that particular poverty alleviating steps will be taken…in the future. How do you know that they will follow through? What steps will you take to make sure that they do? Is it even your place to decide when and how your $100 is used?

Congratulations! You have just created a market. It is a small market with only one supplier (you) and one buyer (the poor person). Nevertheless, it only takes one exchange to make a market.

In general, doing good is hard. Doing good is complicated. Doing good is messy.

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So, you may find yourself asking many questions. Does she have enough bargaining power in her household, extended family and community? Does she have a safe place to store $100? Does she have enough self-control to follow through on her promise? Does she have the strength to turn away others in their moment of need? Questions, questions, questions. All of them erode your trust. All of them make you question the credibility of her promise. How can they not?

We face similar trust and credibility issues when buying a car and hiring a plumber. However, when buying a car we can turn to Consumer Reports. When hiring a plumber we can turn to Angie’s List. And, when a seller does not follow through as promised we can report them to the Better Business Bureau, write a scathing review, or take away one of their stars on e-bay. Knowing that the seller knows that we have this recourse lends credibility to seller’s promises and helps us get to “Yes” in these markets.

In the market for good, however, you have no Angie’s List, e-bay rating system, or Consumer Reports. And, the poor have no Better Business Bureau Seal of Approval with which to signal their credibility to prospective do-gooders. The poor only have their promises, which as we have discussed lack credibility. So, in turn, we create conditions, attach strings, and transfer goods in kind instead of cash, if we decide to give at all. In other words, we delimit choices and curtail their freedom to choose. Paternalistic? Yes. Understandable? Yes.

Who knows, she may welcome some conditions and strings. Indeed, they may empower her to say “No” to herself and to others whether they are in need of her assistance or not. I know I welcome them sometimes.

So, does paternalism deserve its bad image?

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Our IAP [indoor air pollution] Project had two objectives. First, provide a direct benefit to participating households in the form of reduced exposure to indoor air pollution. Second, publish the results of our study so as to provide additional support for the role of improved cook stoves in minimizing IAP and quite possibly lead to the pursuit of similar programs in other communities.

That was 2008. Today, I think it is safe to say that few if any of the 30 households who purchased an improved cook stove (at a steep discount) continue to use one. Most families reverted back to their traditional cook stoves, a problem symptomatic of all IAP projects. Moreover, the results of our study continue to languish unpublished.

Even so, for years I viewed this project as a personal and professional success. How? That discussion is left for another post.

Now, today, at this moment, it makes me feel uncomfortable.  And, just having previewed this post before hitting publish, a voice in my head is telling me “Do not hit publish. It’s embarrassing. It will damage you professionally. Who is going to trust your judgement after reading this?”  Yet, I feel compelled to go forward.

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Please keep up the interesting work!

(phil)