Why is promising a right to food more politically appealing than delivering that food?

In India, the system that delivers subsidized food and fuel to the nation’s poor is badly broken. Many people who are supposed to receive the subsidized fuel and bags of grain do not, and “studies show that 70 percent of a roughly $12 billion budget is wasted, stolen, or absorbed by bureaucratic and transportation costs.” This is according to a recent NYT article by Jim Yardley, which frames the current debate about what should be done as a struggle within the ruling Indian National Congress Party between Sonia Gandhi and her “left-leaning social allies” on one side, and “many economists and market advocates” on the other.

Sonia Gandhi wants to include a “right to food” in the Indian constitution, while expanding the reach of the existing distribution system to cover everyone, and increasing the level of benefits it provides. (For the moment, the Indian constitution directs the State to consider “raising the level of nutrition and the standard of living of its people” as “among its primary duties” but does not spell out a specific “right to food.”)

The economists and market advocates, on the other hand, are fed up and want to experiment with vouchers, food stamps, or cash instead of the notoriously leaky bags of grain.

We’ve hosted many heated discussions on this blog about the “rights-based approach” to development (see the end of the post for a list). I wonder if we can avoid rehashing these same debates and instead ask WHY it appears to be so much more popular for politicians to promise a “right to food” than to devise a system that might actually deliver that food to the starving and the malnourished.

It’s true, we don’t know for sure that vouchers or food stamps would reduce the corruption in the system and make sure that the benefits get to more people who need them. So why not run some pilots and test several methods?

But it’s pretty certain what the people of India will get if their politicians vote to expand a broken system: More of a broken system, more injustice, and less food reaching the poor.


Aid Watch posts on the rights-based approach to development: Poverty is not a human rights violation Amnesty International Responds to “Poverty is Not a Human Rights Violation” UN Human Rights and Wrongs Hillary illustrates perils of fuzzy human rights concepts Human rights are the wrong basis for healthcare Guest Post by April Harding on Health as a Human Right Seeing the Light on a Rights-Based Approach to Development Why are we not allowed to talk about individual rights in development?


Photo credit: chmoss

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A Lecturer answers The Big Question

Two of my favorites, Chris Blattman and Megan McArdle , recently had a great dialogue on "is aid depressing?" I don't have anything to add--read them! However,  their dialogue does remind me of  The Big Question that I and many others get whenever we give lectures on economic development. Inevitably, after every single lecture I have ever given, the first question is ... What Can I Do to End World Poverty?

How to respond? On one hand, I want to (and usually do) salute the questioner for their willingness to give of themselves for those less fortunate. I admire their idealism and commitment.

On the other hand, I find this question to be unproductive and frustrating. It sounds mean, but the honest response (which I have never given) is, "look, the biggest problem to solve in economic development today is NOT what you can personally do to end poverty."  Poor people do not perceive THEIR biggest problem to be that rich people are agonizing how to help them.

More constructively, I want to say: Don't be in such a hurry. Learn a little bit more about a specific country or culture, a specific sector, the complexities of global poverty and long run economic development. At the very least, make sure you are sound on just plain economics before deciding how you personally can contribute. Be willing to accept that your role will be specialized and small relative to the scope of the problem. Aside from all this, you probably already know better what you can do than I do.

But I do salute you again, and I do believe when there are enough people like you, you will cumulatively make a difference.

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IMF and World Bank Take On Istanbul: A Links Round-up

- Zoellick speech on the eve of Istanbul: Current upheaval = French revolution, Africa’s growth potential = Europe’s with Marshall Plan. Earth-shaking changes: "Bretton Woods is being overhauled before our eyes." - Impartial observers like Nancy Birdsall noticed more “the timidity of planned reforms” like glacial reform on quota/voting power at the IMF and the World Bank.

- A communiqué issued yesterday offered more of the same weak brew, and reiterated the World Bank’s imaginary new poverty numbers: “As a result of the crisis, by end-2010, some 90 million more people risk being forced into extreme poverty.”

- “To combat the staggering statistic,” reported the WSJ, the World Bank is now pushing for its first capital increase in 20 years.

- Everyone is squeezing on the World Bank to lend more money to poor countries without conditions. The UK said no more money for the Bank unless it could speed up loans to Sub-Saharan Africa. A group of African Finance ministers, represented by lavish aid recipient autocracy Ethiopia, asked for more money and more loans without conditions, like that tiresome governance crap.

- Should you need up-to-the minute updates on Zoellick's earth-shaking changes, you can follow the appointed World Bank/IMF “Tweeter-in-chief” who is live-blogging the conference, or try the tag #wbmeets for other tweets on the topic.

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Response from tourism operator to "Should starving people be tourist attractions"

Dear William, While it is generally a pleasure to get to know you, the circumstances are rather sad. I thank you, nevertheless, for inviting me personally to respond to your blog. I'm the Director of the Eos Visions network that got under fire here and - and I'm happy to admit it - the author of the brochure that you and several of your commentators criticize to a point that verges on insult.

I read Ms. Wade's article closely (and will post a response there as well). As a fellow entrepreneur, I can certainly understand her personal problem with the way she was apparently approached by an MVP representative. In fact, our tourism project is doing exactly the opposite - responding to a market demand as I will explain below and just as she does business herself. On top of that - especially as the part-time academic that I also am - I can also understand her general feelings about the MVP approach as a whole (I'll get back to this point later because it is also relevant to your own blog). I also have my doubts about the general sustainability, even though "having doubts" does not necessarily mean "being ready to judge". Where Ms. Wade goes totally wrong, however, is the jumping to conclusions when it comes to our tourism project and the related brochure. Josh Ruxin has already pointed out in his response above that Ms. Wade was totally misguided and misinformed, and used her personal grudge against the MVP to maliciously attack our tourism project and, thereby, our work as a whole.

And, unfortunately, I believe that your blog has taken this even further. Have you ever thought about the reasons why our brochure might display the rules that it displays? Have you ever even tried to understand what the entire tourism project is all about? Well, my first reaction to your blog was total disbelief and rising anger. By now I'm actually grateful for this opportunity to explain our concepts (and the results!) to an audience that - as several of the commentators have pointed out - is certainly not the audience we intended for the brochure. And I can already say at this point: I'd like to officially invite you (and everybody else who was happily throwing criticism around without ever having been on the tour or having talked to those involved) to join one of our tours in the future. You'd be surprised! We even talk about general MVP critics like yourself and their arguments on our tour...

But please allow me to provide a bit more information, adding on what Josh has already written above. When I first visited Mayange, the site of Rwanda's Millennium Village, in 2006, it was a totally desperate area. Among the many obvious problems, one stood out for me, the young social entrepreneur: There was not a single shop to be seen anywhere in the entire area. I was not able to buy anything. The mentality of the community members was entirely relying on hand-outs. My Rwandan (!) partners were equally astonished, and we vowed that we would try to play our role as a private sector company to contribute to a mentality change and allow the community members to help themselves. I then got to know Josh who invited our Rwandan team to get involved and to work with the community members so that they could essentially shape an experience that was, after all, in growing demand. Why? Well, a lot of people (both supporters and critics alike) wanted to learn more about the MVP and its concepts - if only to understand if they really make sense or not. This demand came to Josh and his team, and they basically took a variety of people to the Village, without any real structure and without any coherent way of allowing the community members to participate, to shape the visit and (!) to benefit from it! It was rather clear from the outset that our company as such did not seek any material benefits out of this work - but we were more than happy to become involved because we are a social enterprise and because similar projects are part and parcel of our daily (social) activities. Hence, there was a market (people interested in learning about the MVP approach) and there was a community that was in strong need of an experienced partner in order to help them structure the visits and benefit from them.

Over the course of various months, our Rwandan team facilitated a process of founding a tourism cooperative that now has over 200 members and is entirely managed and run by the community members themselves. We signed MOUs with the cooperative and with the local authorities who vowed to provide their support. We worked with the cooperative members, trained them on a variety of issues (general introductions, presentation skills, guiding skills, language skills, hospitality and customer care, hygiene, environmental management and so on) and also asked them to discuss in participatory ways what we should pass on to the visitors in terms of do's and don'ts. Well, the rules that Ms. Wade, you and some of your commentators are finding so appalling are actually a result of this. The community members found it important to discourage any kind of hand-outs because they knew that they would only encourage more begging and would never achieve the desired mentality change towards more entrepreneurship. They found it equally important to hint to the general cultural issue that it is contrary to local traditions everywhere in Rwanda (and specifically in this region because of the recurrent incidences of malnutrition) to eat or drink in public. You will certainly agree that we - and our clients - should respect the local culture and especially the express wishes of the community. You will hopefully admit that claiming that we do not look at Rwandans living in the MV as "individuals who possess rights and human dignity" BECAUSE of these rules, is outrageous. It would certainly have been better to inform yourself before attacking us and our reputation...

And since you and, even stronger, one of the commentators mentioned that the results are merely good intentions (our "self-proclaimed" 70% profit sharing etc), I'm happy to share the full statistics with you and to show that our little contribution has been well documented and is actually rather significant - contrary to what especially the commentator seems to believe. Over the first 18 months of the project, there were 488 visitors taking a tour of the MV, organized, run and guided by the community members (!!!), with our own guide facilitating the visit and providing additional introductions and information. The experience did expressly NOT include "viewing" the life of the villagers or anything related to poverty or the like. Visitors don't enter homes, and there are absolutely no "voyeuristic" elements involved anywhere. On the contrary, community members take the visitors to various interventions sites where they explain MVP interventions through their own eyes, how the situation used to be before the MVP arrived, what the MVP taught them and how the situation has changed since them. The "tourism product" (if you allow me to use this term) therefore becomes the set of interventions through the local eyes - nothing else, not "poverty porn", no "zoo" and so on. Back to the figures: The 488 visitors paid an average of just below USD 67, a total of USD 33,085. Roughly USD 17,540 were spent on various costs related to the tour, so that a profit remained of roughly USD 15,545. Of this, the community received no less than USD 12,328 or 79.3% (i.e. even more than our promised 70%). I don't know what you think about this, but I believe that over USD 12,000 in 18 months earned through entrepreneurial ventures by a local community that previously did not even have a shop to sell anything is a huge success!! On top of this comes another significant amount for the sale of handicrafts and food items. How was the money disseminated? Well, again we merely facilitated the decision making of the community. They decided that those villagers who are actively involved in presenting and guiding some of the interventions should receive individual remuneration for their service. Groups involved in the activities are paid as groups. Additionally, the community has installed funds for education, health care and general community development (the latter being used e.g. for the construction of homes for the most vulnerable members of the community). Everything is completely accounted for and I could give you exact figures broken down into all these various dissemination mechanisms. Equally importantly, we can see a huge amount of positive immaterial impacts. These include, among many others, the desired mentality change towards more entrepreneurship, stronger local ownership of the entire MVP approach, cultural benefits through a revitalization of arts, crafts, dance and music, and even reconciliation and peace building on a small level.

I truly hope, William, that you are now able to acknowledge that you based your judgment on false conceptions and missing information about our work. You will have noted that I did not attempt to protect or justify the MVP as a whole. As mentioned in the beginning, we have as many doubts as you have. But we still believe that the concept deserves a chance and that it has to prove itself right or wrong. The tourism project has nothing to do with Jeffrey Sachs and his team - they merely invited us to work with the MV community and provided some support (we especially worked with their own community mobilizers). Beyond this, the MVP concepts are not important to us and we ensure that the visitors receive an unbiased view that even talks about criticism from the likes of you. The tour is truly educational and informative - and it provides wonderful opportunities for the local community. I do hope that also the very critical commentators will have found a different perspective on what they call "poverty tourism" or even "poverty porn". Our project is anything but an excursion to the zoo. And calling us "condescending" is a real insult if you really understand our concepts and philosophies.

Let me finish once again by inviting you to visit the project with us. Who knows, you might even learn something yourself about the MVP approach. Apart from that, I strongly encourage you to keep in touch and to do more research on tourism related to development. I may add that I gained my PhD looking at the question how we can "maximize the poverty-reducing impacts of tourism in Rwanda". Much of our current work under the Eos Visions umbrella relates to this. I'd be more than happy to interact more frequently with you on related matters. I also plan to publish our experiences and related statistics in the future in academic journals.

Kind regards,


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Should starving people be tourist attractions?

millennium-village-tourist.gif Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade on the Huffington Post touched a raw nerve about condescension towards Africans. She noted that a tourism operator was marketing one of Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Villages (MVs) as a vacation destination and quoted from the brochure "Please do not give anything to the villagers -- no sweets.”

I decided to look more into the MV tourism project, not to pile on, but because I believe patronizing attitudes towards Africans is a BIG issue in aid. The web site gives this introduction:

The Millennium Village Tour is a unique experience that introduces the … poverty traps in south-eastern Rwanda and the successful intervention package of the UN Millennium Villages Project.

I agree with Wade that it is dehumanizing that the villagers are just exhibits for tourists teaching them about abstractions like “poverty traps,” and are also to be used as propaganda for the MVs’ “successful intervention.”

The brochure that bothered Wade really is cringe-inducing, including also this line:

Please do not eat or drink in public. Many people in Bugesera District are still suffering from malnutrition…

If the MV is so successful, why are people still starving? Instead of worrying about hiding their food, why don’t the tourists pitch in on some MV project that helps the starving get food and nutritional supplements?

The tourism company offering the Rwanda MV tour is called EOS Visions and is headed by some German professionals. They have country subsidiaries, and it was the Rwanda one (staffed by Rwandans) that offered the MV tour. There are some benefits for the villagers as the company advertises 70 percent profit sharing with the local community. Obviously, there were some good intentions here. It’s never easy to negotiate encounters between very rich and very poor people, and some might think that these quotes from a tourist project are a minor issue.

The real problem is that patronizing attitudes towards the African beneficiaries of the MVs follow naturally from the ideas that inspire the MVs – that the poor are helpless victims and it is up to foreigners with superior expertise and funds to rescue them. Condescension towards Africans is both offensive AND a sign of a counterproductive approach to development.

Try looking at the poor Rwandans living in the MV not as anonymous and interchangeable exhibits for a “poverty trap,” but as individuals who possess rights and human dignity just like us. Then we maybe we will understand that the most impressive, knowledgeable, and motivated soldiers in the war on poverty are usually poor individuals themselves.

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Response to "Does God Believe in Jeff Sachs"?

I invited Jay Lawlor, the head of Millennium Congregations, and Jonathan Denn, the head of CountingPrayers.Org to respond to the blog post. I have not heard yet from Mr. Lawlor, but Mr. Denn responded. His letter follows: Dear Professor Easterly,

Thank you for notifying me of your blog, and the invitation to respond. I was most sorry to hear of your severe crisis of faith, hopefully this will be of solace.

A couple corrections, I am the author of the The Counting Prayer {EDITOR INSERT: “The world now has the means to end extreme poverty, we pray we will have the will.”} As of this morning almost 1.5 million Counting Prayers have been offered in The Prayer Vigil to End Extreme Poverty and on the Billion Prayer March (endorsed by the United Religions Initiative, uri.org). I am not a clergy person but I have a deep and abiding spirituality about eliminating the suffering caused by abject poverty. I am, also, the author of the "sin against the Creator" quote. I believe we are unambiguously obligated to help our neighbors as evidenced by over 2000 mentions about alleviating poverty in the Bible. I also find common ground about poverty alleviation (if for slightly different reasons) with my secular humanist brothers and sisters.

I believe God believes in all of us, rich and poor, even economists with disagreements, and that God believes we will act to eliminate suffering. We may fail but we must not stop trying.

I live in a simple world. People trapped in poverty need a clinic so family members can stop dying prematurely of easily preventable causes. The next morning when they rise and illness is not crippling their family these folks can get on with making life better for themselves. To do that they need dependable access to fertilizer, seed, water, and then when they finally have something to trade, someone to do it with. Oh, and a road to get to market.

The world has long had the wealth and knowledge to lift up our disadvantaged brothers and sisters to clear this very low bar. We merely lack the will, and in the past the expertise.

In 2002, the United States entered into the Monterey Consensus to provide zero point seven percent of na tional household income to the poorest nations to help with developing these necessary infrastructures. Only Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands have kept their promise, the U.S. is tied for a distant last place with Japan. Relief work is essential but without development it is unfortunately eternal. Without development there can be no self-sufficiency.

I believe that if every person of faith (or conviction) made up their pro-rata share of their countries' shortfall, what I call the Millennium Tithe, that we would indeed soon see an end to extreme poverty, at least in the countries with relatively stable governments. And, that would be an incentive for other countries to enact stabilizing policies. I believe this to be a communion of humanity, secular and religious working together to end easily preventable, extreme poverty (misery).

Our Millennium Tithe would amount to about $15 per household per month (equal to two movie tickets), and I would suggest tithers find the highest yield development projects to fund, those with proven effectiveness and efficiencies and verifiable results. These are increasingly coming from secular NGOs, and there are most impressive results coming from the Millennium Village Project, of which I am a volunteer Ambassador. If I were to find an organization with a better poverty solution metric I would then volunteer my time to help them. If you have a better model, I would be happy to volunteer my time to you. For volunteer I must to the best action takers.

What is the theology of not vigilantly supporting and/or advocating the most effective poverty solutions available?


Jonathan Denn


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