A few weeks ago Christianity today published an article with the title, “Cost-effective Compassion: The 10 most popular strategies for helping the poor“. The linked article is discussed in the interview below(click the play button). You will also find two responses. One by myself and the other by my friend Schalk van Heerden – these are our own reflections and not the official stances of the organizations we work and partner with. The interview and the articles are responses to the Christianity Today article. We would suggest that you read the Christianity Today article first and take it from there. Both of us are for transparency and good stewardship but find the terms and metaphors that are used in the article troublesome.


Schalk’s written response

Once I realised the title was not a sarcastic or ironic joke but yet another expression of the linear managerialism technocrats seem to be addicted to, I started reading the words of the article with much grater care.

The type of care that that is accompanied by sadness, irritation and intellectual indignation. The author revels in a feeling of cleverness, but his cleverness is merely the incorporation of economic and engineering terms into a field of which he has very little contextual experience, or it seems academic background.

That an article about the poor, written by and American starts with a deification of the US Dollar is perhaps typical. That it is not recognised as an absurd starting point by readers of a Christian magazine is surprising. The superficiality of the picture painted is affirmed by the narrow list of ‘americanised’ help channels: all of which are quick and clean. Its a pity American church goers have not learnt from the rich vain of anthropological knowledge and experience which recognised contextual richness. Let us be clear from the start, using the Dollar as yard stick is just as silly as the list of helping options supposedly under scrutiny. That “best” is unashamedly qualified by “bang for your buck” explains why movies like Avatar is made in a last ditch effort to educate wealthy North Americans.

The author creates a big category he calls self-studies and continues to point out the flaws of the bad ways many NGO’s conduct their reporting. We have to pause however and point out that there is a fundamental difference between an American NGO working writing his own report and scientific evidence based qualitative research. Does the author and readers know that it is now assumed best practice to value downward accountability, meaning the poor tell their own stories that has to be approved by their fellow community members. Filling in form and sending it ‘up’ the ladder to those with deep pockets is old-school for those well acquainted with development theory and practice. It is much more powerful for the poor to reflect on and assess their own efforts, rather that being policed by a fresh academic who bought new outdoor gear and a Macbook. The bad studies that are currently being done is often a result of the very pressure articles such as this tries to enforce. The control group comparisons, the before and after impact indicators, are all systems of a sick system enforced by those who give away money but who are not willing to give away control. Problems of ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘illusory superiority’ are not mechanical problems of how, but are symptoms of a disease. The disease that is held as some magic wand is the very illusion of ‘impact evidence’ which the author chooses not to question.

The author explains the error in over optimistic and positive representation by NGO’s and Donors, yet does his economic evaluations that are normally quantified encouraging of failure stories, does reflecting and learning from failures fit into his ‘bang for your buck’ philosophy? Or is it perhaps not cost effective for poor people to learn from mistakes? That “love, understanding and knowledge is deeply intertwined” is probably the first smart thing I read in the article. The critique against mindless giving accompanied by feelings of self-righteousmnes is valid. The author shows remarkable perception with the example of staying next to a dying person- no life change, no bang for the buck there! Economists like to mention ‘tangible impacts”, again ironic that this goes down unchallenged by a spiritual community like the church. I dedicate my life to affect the tangibles affecting poor people, and in that I have learned that the impact we are after is not the tangibles, not the things that can be easily numbered and counted.

Development Economists indeed feel ‘privileged’ to carry such a title and the experts from the World Bank left a glorious trail of the type of work done by these development economist experts… How many development workers or poor people are equiped to conduct high level social research like randomised control groups? I’ve seen Master’s students masacre programmes and communities with clumsy ‘research’. Before deciding on the bang for your buck, consider the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and research burden and cost that experts are demanding! Could these experts be carving out a niche for themselves in a food chain that could really do without another group of vultures? These experts specialise in creating universalisms, giving names to categories they create, they standardise because contextualising is smply too expensive and time consuming. The need generalisation so they can produce more and climb their very own success ladder. Let’s do a reality check: the author (and eager white Christian readers) ask how to help ‘the poor’? All my friends who are poor will frown when they hear this question. My smart academic friends smiles and shakes their heads when they hear this question! What is ridiculous about the central question that seeks answering in this article? The arrogance of labelling thousands of unique communities and individuals into a single category. If we cant resist the temptation to arrogantly label, we will never create a good bang, whether cost effective or not. The question should be what does Chikwa, Zambo or Maria need as they live in Manica…which is different that what Sipho and Thandi needs living in Katlehong. THe author succumbs to the same temptation of intellectual massagng that he criticises American donors for.

Is this survey scientific or the very same self-reflection we were warned about at the start of the article? Results of ‘greatest estimated impact’? So we are dealing with estimates? Generalised estimates of privileged career academics? Is this the academic rigour the author was calling for, or does the fact that he does not include his own opinion prove his bona fides cancelling the question of how these 16 researchers were chosen? Here the man on the street really has to employ the grey stuff in his or her head and have the tomatoes to call dung dung (this sentence could look very different from a literary point of view).

Water, deworming, malaria, education and health sponsorship, stoves (!), small loans, cleft surgeries, farm animals, coffee and laptops… wow. So this is ‘the list’… who chose the list? the author or his fellow experts? Again I see the frowning, shaking of heads and smiles of disbelief from my friends… in Africa.

“organizations working with the poor must subject their programs to rigorous, scientifically based evaluation by impartial third parties.” I f rich NGO workers and their donors want to play this game, it is fine. But for all those good intentioned readers of Christianity Today that’s out there, please be aware that this burden of rigor will be passed down to the poor. This demand for paper where there should be trust will erode the very bang your buck is after. Prevention over cure… thank you for this insight! But I’m slightly confused because if the goal is for the poor to lift themselves out of poverty, then the top three items of donating wells, mosquito nets and de-worming, although preventing disease and suffering are still reactionary and dealing with the effects of poverty, not the causes… and to look at the causes of poverty is something rich Americans are not accustomed to do. Nope, the beef, cereal and sugar eating nations feel better about these short term handouts that keeps the poor far away than they do about honest self reflection.

Financial transparency… again easy to demand, and not the start and end of everything, but how many net and cow donors bother to help youths to learn accounting software packages? Transparency and accountability are two words no-one would dare to challenge. Bot transparency and accountability should be firstly downward. Is the author of this article willing to publish his personal bank statement showing us what money he spends on what? how much he gives away, to whom, how much he saves for his pension, how much he spends on books and restaurant? Can he give us the same expenditure for his children? Can he measure the efficiency of how he spends every US Dollar his Lord has placed under his care? The aid industry, with focus on industry should be scrutinized indeed, as should academics. But the reality is that in the end the poor will be the ones scrutinized, the ones having to change their lives so it fits in better with ‘rigorous third party evaluation’ forms and logframes. Not even the readers of Christianity Today can complete the output, outcome, aims, goals, objectives, impacts, vision, mission, etc forms that is part of these pseudo measurements of paper loving economist developmentalist experts.

At least this article, after juggling a couple of development hand grenades returns to sense with the simple advice to get personally involved. NOt personally involve in writing a cheque, but to make friends and get to know realities different to your own. But be warned because emersion into the poor is scary, it asks question that you might not want to hear when you decide on the brand of your pram, car or coffee machine. In the end the author moves to words that is much different from the marketable title and introduction of his article: ‘friends’, ‘organic’, ‘network’, ‘tiny’, ‘relationship’, etc. The author gives a convincing account of the reality he end his friends encountered, affirming they found now magic bullet, they did encounter difficulty. They go there twice a year. They started it… all very interesting, and fair play I suppose.

I concluded my reading in utter confusion: either the author got tired and wanted a brief landing for his article, or he is schizophrenic. I dont mean it bad, but it seems that this article was written by two different people! Where is the rigorous third party evaluation of his efforts in Guatemala? How much money did he spend on that and where is the link to this research? The author tries to keep it all together with a thread that becomes much more tolerable towards the end of the article: ‘the effect of our actions’ substitutes the extreme demands of evidence based impact gained through expert led control groups.

Has the author measured his bang for his buck? Could it be that our academic does not practice what he preaches? And if not, lets consider why not?

Tom’s written response:

I read an article in Christianity Today’s poverty issue and it disturbs me greatly. It strikes me that the article subtly shifts the focus from the poor that should be helped to the donors and the projects they can fund. Help gets equated with “a plethora of attractive options”, “effectiveness” and “bang for your buck”. Furthermore, the article describes statistics, ratings and scientific methods that dangerously flirt with reducing “the poor” to nameless recipients of the donations and options for rich benefactors living overseas. The article’s title sets the tone, “Cost-Effective Compassion: The 10 most popular strategies for helping the poor.”

By describing most NGO’s methods of evaluations as biased the author argues for the methods developed by certain experts (of whom he is one), ” In recent years, development economists have made remarkable progress in measuring blessings to receivers. I have been fortunate to belong to a generation of development economists who are borrowing tools from the field of medicine. For example, the use of randomized controlled trials to evaluate development programs has helped us understand the relative merits of different approaches to poverty alleviation. Other new methods that mimic the impact-identification power of the randomized controlled trial have also proven fruitful in this area.”

The author asks, “… what are the best ways to help the poor in developing countries? To answer this question, I polled top development economists who specialize in analyzing development programs. I asked them to rate, from 0 to 10, some of the most common poverty interventions to which ordinary people donate their money, in terms of impact and cost-effectiveness per donated dollar.”

It strikes me as odd that the people who decide on the effectiveness of these programs are not the poor themselves but the “top experts” sitting over the sea in some of the most prestigious universities. These top experts use “scientific methods” that are quantitative rather than the biased reporting of the NGO’s. They know how to “rigorously assess.” The experts decide, “The experts who were polled are not anti-laptop, but given the more basic needs in poor countries, they said donating computers was highly cost-ineffective compared with the alternatives.” What do the poor themselves say?

The way in which these experts test whether a program is effective is through, ” rigorous, scientifically based evaluation by impartial third parties.” I think this is dangerous because it is really difficult to plot a person into a scientific method, a program maybe but who still thinks that development is about programs! Apparently the experts do. The expert continues, “…[L]arge donors have begun to insist on scientifically based evidence of positive program impact as a condition for giving. Small donors should do the same. Aid and development organizations soliciting donations should be prepared to provide credible third-party evidence that their work actually helps the poor.”

The problem with this kind of thinking is that the “scientifically based evidence” provided by the third party usually becomes some external measure that gets projected unto the poor. Why can’t the third-party become the poor themselves where they get to tell their own stories (which will not muster the quantitative scientifically based methods of the experts)? Thankfully the article ends with some hint towards relationships with the poor themselves … but it must be scientific.