Are We Really Helping the Poor?

Development aid programmes are there to lift people out of poverty.

But too often the staff of these aid programmes, including myself, find ourselves asking the same questions: Are we really helping the poor? Is the money really reaching the ones it is aimed for? Or are we just fattening the wallets of those who already make a nice living?

I am always trying to learn from successful projects what they have done differently in order to succeed and what they have learnt from their mistakes in order to do better.

I ran into an interesting development aid initiative currently running in Bangladesh. The project is coordinated by a Bangladesh based non-governmental organization Brac. Brac is the world’s largest development NGO.

For one of their projects they have used an interesting methodology. In order to start lifting people out of poverty, they have first given a person a cow and a goat and a cash stipend (roughly five dollars a month) for buying nutritious food.

This stipend will be given for two years, a time that Brac has estimated it takes for the person to have enough money to break out of the ultimate poverty trap.

The person receiving the stipend is not left alone – he/she is visited by a Brac programme staff member who is checking her livestock, teaching her about basic hygiene and giving her family planning advice.

The idea of these visits is to build the person’s confidence and inform her about her rights.

Brac is targeting its efforts to the ultra poor, meaning those who cannot be reached, for example, through popular microfinance schemes.

With their methodology they have started to observe positive results.

Of course this approach may not work for everyone. It is still a model which assumes that once people have the chance, they will take their own initiative in lifting themselves out of poverty, e.g. becoming small-scale entrepreneurs. Those are the cinderella stories we love to read. But it may not happen for dysfunctional families, disabled people or the elderly. It may not happen for a children who has been severely undernourished his or her whole childhood.

However, a few good lessons can be drawn of this success story: It takes a lot of time to see positive results in poverty reduction. It also takes money. And finally, it takes a lot of mentoring, patience and follow up. When working in ultra poor surroundings, it is easy to stop trying because the tasks seem too tremendous. Personally, I also believe it takes a lot of time for building team spirit and a common vision among the team working in the project.

Brac’s initiative is interesting from the point of view that it is clearly giving handouts to people – in many cases development aid projects are against these since they may create dependancy. In Brac’s case, however, they have figured that in order to strengthen and assist a very poor person that person needs to first build her confidence and have her basic needs fulfilled.

What are your thoughts? Do you have similar stories to share?

Photo: Pia Dubois

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