A friend of mine sent me a link to Kiva.org the other day, which is an innovative organization providing a peer-to-peer lending conduit between first-world benefactors and third-world entrepreneurs. Individuals can learn about individual entrepreneurs and their loan needs, and decide to loan them money with the click of a mouse.
That got me to thinking about third world development, and what contributions NGOs and individuals can make that have lasting effects. Kiva appears to be an organization that can have an effect at the individual level, and perhaps in sum that can lead to permanent change. But a nation’s development path is obviously most affected by its own policies and priorities. Nations that choose to spend 50% of GDP on defense or that lose 20% of GDP to corruption will obviously have a much tougher road than those that spend that money on education and roads.
How can those of us with an interest in helping achieve anything from afar? Are traditional approaches like a focus on literacy, education, and health effective, or do post-internet charities like Kiva provide a new paradigm for NGO assistance?
I spent several months volunteering at an educational charity in rural India a few years ago, and in doing so pondered the impact of my work quite a bit. Was I really making any impact? Would the villagers around me, with little prospect for employment except marginal agriculture, really benefit much from the education provided by the charity? Given an education, some of the brighter students would eventually move to the city, where their prospects were brighter.
But what of the majority of the world’s poor, trapped (even in America) in rural areas dependent on agriculture? And what of the growing slums that surround most developing nations’ cities, and grow daily as the rural poor arrive seeking work?
I came to a realization that rural infrastructure was the lifeline the villagers needed. I visited a toy factory with well-regarded products that couldn’t get its products to market on time due to the lack of a paved road. I can think of dozens of farmers who lived near canals and other sources of water, but had no means to use it to effectively irrigate their fields. Infrastructure takes time, but at least connecting regional hubs into the national network would allow distributed growth, alleviating slum crowding.
Of course, individual donors don’t have many conduits for assisting in the improvement of third world infrastructure, as that’s the purview of government. Major international NGOs sometimes fund infrastructure projects, but in the end local governmental control is both necessary and inevitable. What’s a would be altruist to do? For now, I target my personal contributions to organizations like Asha and Kiva. And while I think their work is excellent, it doesn’t solve the conundrum of worldwide rural poverty.