The Best Ideas in International Aid

This past week I posted an article on Facebook where the title was “7 worst ideas in international aid ideas”. As a friend quickly pointed out it is much easier to criticize than it is to come up with better solutions which is a sentiment I certainly agreed with. As I shared in my post, I didn’t post the article because I agreed with the list but because there are hundreds of articles talking about the worst ideas yet nothing talking about the best ideas. Is it true that there aren’t any good ideas? Since that post I have been thinking the same thing: what are the best ideas in international aid?

As someone who is only concerned with aid as it pertains to the broader idea of development there are many ways to look at that question though the most common way would be to limit the scope to free distribution of goods as we commonly think of aid. In that framework there are far more bad ideas on the bunch. Immediately comes to mind a recent article I read about Roundabout Water Solutions. It isn’t the worst idea I have heard of but a laughably bad one nonetheless. The idea is that children play with a merry-go-round and that energy is then transferred to pump water into a water tower nearby. It would then be operated and sustained by advertising revenue put on the sides of the water tower. Kids have plenty of energy so sounds like a cute and innovative idea right?

Roundabout Water Solutions Grand Idea

Roundabout Water Solutions Grand Idea

Well as you guessed it has been a massive failure for a number of reasons. The biggest and most obvious that makes you scratch your head is that rural areas need water pumps not urban areas. Why would companies advertise in rural areas where very few people will see them? They wouldn’t. These structures are quite expensive so of course they fall into inevitable disrepair. This wasn’t the only issue but all Roundabout Water Solutions did was find a cute and innovative idea to waste a lot of money. Sometimes in aid that is success. They build water pumps and made money themselves while doing but I digress.

It really is a cute and innovative idea

In academia the answer would be Conditional Cash Transfers. This is where the poor receive a payment upon their compliance with certain actions. You mean bribery? No! Conditional Cash Transfers! Ok maybe bribery. Usually it involves the payment to a family upon them sending their children to school as CCTs first gained notoriety through the Oportunidades program in Mexico. Is it effective? Actually yes. It isn’t like the poor don’t want to send their kids to school but free schooling is often still too expensive because of supplies, transportation, and most importantly when the kids get older, lost income from the kids not working.

So CCTs may well be the best idea in international development but does that mean it is a good one? I’m not so convinced. All people respond to incentives so yes you can get people to do just about anything for enough money but it that really development? Perhaps the biggest issue I have with it is that CCTs basically are the rich telling the poor “You are not doing what I want you to do so I will pay you to do what I want you to do”. It assumes the rich know what is best for the poor more than the poor themselves do. Sounds very elitist, though not much more than other aid solutions in truth. So I have a tough time endorsing CCTs and thus you get a world where there are hundreds of articles criticizing aid and not much supporting it because aid is tough to support.

If we are still talking about aid, my answer would be to donate to an organization like Mango Fund. Mango Fund invests in small and mid-sized businesses (between $5,000 and $50,000). But that isn’t aid! Sure it is. It is incredibly tough to invest in small businesses because it is very costly to do so. Organizations like Mango Fund usually lose money on their investments not because the businesses are profitable but because they will never be profitable enough. Your aid subsidizes profitable business that will create jobs that sustain families on their own efforts. Your money will be put to much better use in the hands of Mango Fund than through what you usually think of as aid.

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There aren’t a lot of great options out there which is exactly why I am in Africa. Things like child sponsorship are good as they have shown to increase educational attainment and overall well-being of children but there are far too many children for them all to be sponsored. There are certainly better forms of aid than others but we should be concerned with development, not aid. In regards to development there certainly are good ideas though there will be a lot of disagreement about those.

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