Do Something! Or, What Helps: Part II

A few more articles suggest that giving money directly to those who need it may be a very good way to improve their lives. This is the opposite of the advice that’s often given, which is to channel money and other assistance through organizations that can ensure the money is correctly distributed and best used.

In Newsweek: “A New Fix for the Needy: Patronizing the poor is proving to be a deadbeat strategy. Trusting those in need may be the answer” (25 Oct. 2010),  by Christopher Werth:

“At first glance, simply handing out cash to the poor may seem naive. … [H]owever evidence shows that even modest payments grant the world’s poorest the power to make their own decisions; it also indicates that they make smart choices, especially on matters of health and education. … ‘It changes the dynamics of the way people conceptualize welfare,’ says John Hoddinott, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. ‘Both parties have rights and responsibilities.

From “Cash-Transfer Programs Show Remarkable Success in Fight Against Global Poverty” (1 Nov.  2010) at Feministe, Cara comments on the Newsweek article:

“The strategy is rooted in a simple idea: people generally know what’s best for themselves. A whole lot better than those on the outside, who often don’t recognize or understand those needs, let alone the cultural and structural barriers preventing those needs from being met. “

I’m not much a feministe. I don’t think people — Western of not — know what’s best for themselves; or, I think we can know what’s best for ourselves but we tend not to pay close attention to our own wisdom, and even when we discern what seems best (or helpful, or good, or skillful), we often don’t act in accordance with those values, beliefs, feelings, instincts. On the other hand, I don’t think, generally, that anyone else knows any better than we do what’s best for us (or for themselves). So point taken.

Why, Cara asks, is there resistance to cash-transfer programs? The answers aren’t pretty:

1. “Western nations have pervasive stereotypes about poor people being lazy, irresponsible, and to blame for their own poverty. If only they made better choices … they could lift themselves up out of poverty and join the ranks of the middle class.” And until then, the middle class doesn’t want to share the fruits of its hard work.

2. Cash-transfer programs look like socialism; “they are, after all, wealth redistribution.”

3. Imperialism: If the reasons for global poverty actually lie in injustice, colonialism, oppression, etc., then  acknowledging these causes would lead wealthy nations to lose their sense of superiority over others, and to lose their noblesse oblige to ‘save’ others. And, “if we, as Western nations, don’t attach strings to foreign aid, then we have no control over what recipients do and can’t make them listen to what we say.”

Of course,

giving funds to individuals doesn’t solve structural problems. No one’s claiming it does. … There is no magic bullet to a problem as encompassing and multifaceted as global poverty. There’s no way to undo centuries of colonialism, imperialism, all other kinds of -isms, and capitalist damage overnight with a single course of action. The point isn’t that structural change is unnecessary, but that trying to change structures without giving individuals resources tends to not work as well as we’d hope.”

(See previous posting on this topic.)

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2 thoughts on “Do Something! Or, What Helps: Part II

  1. Interesting article,thank you for broaching the subject
    But if you look up The Abecederian Project on the net, you may change your mind about Structural change. Essentially they provided underprivileged children with all kinds of support at the beginning of their education, although expensive up front, after high school these kids were found to achieve as well as the more privileged, and it turned out cheaper in the long run.
    Also see the book “On War” by Carl Von Clausewitz, Indexed edition page 8 and 9. Of course if you seek only to create post after post without seeking to demonstrate what can be done to change things that’s another story.

  2. Joseph, I think there are multiple solutions to inequities, injustice, and poverty, and structural change is certainly one of them . And I think the gist of this post and the one before it are precisely about specific effective actions.

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