Development economists spend their careers shifting paradigms and building financial infrastructure, including determining what incentives will help the impoverished achieve a level of income that extends beyond their basic needs. In crafting the appropriate interventions, the fundamentals of economics, including comparative advantage, scenario optimization and basic market theories, often overshadow the more human elements of what poor communities grapple with every day to sustain a living or how they define their own success and contentment. For example a smallholder farmer working toward his/her next harvest may be unable to think about whether his/her time is better used making honey when his/her family lives hand to mouth. Who is a development expert to come in and tell him/her to change his/her ways because they studied a theory around income diversification in a building 6,000 miles away?
In that vein, I found myself in a rich and uncharted conversation with the head of an organization that provides farmer technical assistance to rural, very poor communities. For the sake of this example let’s call his nonprofit, ABC.org. Our discussion turned to a conversation he had with a woman who was interviewed as part of ABC.org’s ongoing monitoring and evaluation. She was elated to report that her income had improved over the last year thanks to the help of ABC.org’s assistance and her family was able to save a bit of money for the future. Certainly that sounds like success in the most basic economic terms. Isn't sustainability defined as being better off tomorrow than today?
Then she asked a question: “When will I have enough money to buy a car?” In principal, this is not a silly question. Yet this woman barely had a roof over her head. Her family was considered among the poorest in her country and had virtually enough food to eat to ward off disease and malnutrition. Surely a car seems like a pretty far off scenario for her. The head of ABC.org was taken aback by this question and felt almost discouraged. “Why put so much work into ensuring a future for this family when all the woman wants is a car?” he said. “Is the Western culture so pervasive that a car is the ultimate sign of success?” This left me questioning a couple of things:
- Who defines success in development?
- Do development experts and economists have the right information and context to define success for a rural community in Africa when all the expert can base his/her theory on is experimentation? Without living in that scenario can a development expert truly determine what defines success in advancing a community out of poverty?
- Is incremental income advancement enough? Maybe success in development is unable to be defined since everyone has a different sense of fulfillment and gain. Maybe vying for a car is not such a pipe dream, although common sense would say that ensuring food security and income stability should come first (i.e. don’t put the cart before the horse).
- What are the real incentives to improving economic stability in places of poverty? Aside from being able to fulfill basic needs, do poor communities really need development experts to impose their ‘expertise’ and ‘capacity building’ to affect change?
Development is a massive business, and thousands of nonprofits work with budgets in the billions thanks to grants from governments, foundations and companies to improve the status quo in developing countries. When the money is spent and efforts have ceased, how will we know if we have been successful? Will we know when those who are living on $1 a day can afford to buy a car?
Ultimately it is up to the individuals themselves to determine what propels them to strive for more, to work harder, to identify the challenges they must overcome to live a better life. Some may be content without much, simply the basics. “Parity” may never be reached since there will always be someone who is better off than his or her neighbor. This does not mean that our efforts are for naught. It simply means that those of us working in development economics should be focused on helping the underserved find their value and contentment. That may be the best definition of success after all.