The global aid industry is experiencing an unparalleled era of evolution and transformation. Globalization of media has increasingly brought the plight of the world’s poor, disadvantaged, and disabled before our eyes. A growing awareness of the chasm between the privileged and the poor has spawned a tremendous burst of creativity in efforts to end poverty.
At the same time there has been an increasing demand for heightened scrutiny over the impact of poverty programs. Do any of them really work?
New evaluation tools have been adopted by a generation of academic researchers keen to answer this question, and we now have an array of surprising results. In A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, husband and wife Nicholas Kristof (columnist for The New York Times) and Sheryl WuDunn (a business executive and former Times journalist) chronicle these exciting developments. This is the best new book for those with a passion for understanding the most innovative and effective ways to love their global neighbor.
The size of the charitable aid industry would surprise most people. The 1.4 million charities in the United States alone receive $1.5 trillion in revenues every year, mostly from private donations and government grants. Kristof and WuDunn point out that just in terms of its sheer mass, the charity industry is enormous, more than twice the size of the U.S. defense industry. The central theme of A Path Appears is how charitable endeavors are being transformed by a series of welcome innovations.
For example, until recently there has been very little understanding of whether dollars given to purported beneficiaries have translated into actual benefits. In many respects the aid and charitable giving industry has operated much like the medical and legal industries did centuries ago: Formal qualifications were minimal, and accountability structures were virtually nonexistent, resulting in an abundance of hucksters and snake oil.
Why has the charitable giving industry proven so difficult to straighten out? First, it has embodied a tradition of relying on emotion rather than rigorous, scientific scrutiny (the kind we expect, for example, from the food and pharmaceutical industries). And second, it has allowed a disconnect between the giver and the receiver of benefits, so that the natural feedback loop, which tends to foster accountability in other domains, is severed.
We may happily donate millions to an organization with smart-sounding ideas for working with the poor. But without a reliable way to measure whether the results are as promised, we might just keep giving based on where it feels good to give. In this respect the book’s third chapter (“From Anecdote to Evidence”) makes it worth the entire price, in that it shows the evolution of entities such as the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, which, along with its sister organizations (Innovations for Poverty Action and the Center for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley), have devoted themselves to rigorous, scientific analysis of poverty programs. With the presence of new watchdogs such as GiveWell.org and the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, no longer can organizations working with the poor receive people’s money without documenting the impact of their work.
A Path Appears is chock full of innovative ideas that help people in need, ideas that actually work. We read not only about effective programs to promote health, education, and economic activity, but about why these programs are effective. Early on, Kristof and WuDunn make the point—supported by a plethora of recent scientific evidence—that interventions are more effective the earlier they occur in human lives, even in the womb. There are a number of reasons for this: Stress to pregnant mothers and unstable environments for children are strongly linked to crime and dysfunctionality among these children in later life. Furthermore, an impoverished child hears about three times fewer words, before the age of four, than a child of suburban professionals, creating a vocabulary and IQ chasm that’s hard to bridge. Nevertheless, there are innovative programs that have successfully reduced this gap.
Kristof and WuDunn review successful programs, with compelling stories of the people who founded them and researched their effectiveness. We hear, among other ventures, of the Nurse-Family Partnership’s prenatal interventions, Cure Violence’s work to prevent inner-city homicides, International Justice Mission’s battles against international sex trafficking, Smile Train’s successful cleft-palate surgeries, and the efforts of Charity: Water and Unilever (with its Pureit filter) to provide clean water to households around the world. (Small disclaimer: The authors also provide a warm overview of the international child sponsorship study I co-authored on the positive impacts on Compassion-sponsored children later in life.)
There is much for Christians to learn from this book about the principles and methods of effective charity. It’s a must-read for any evangelical with a heart for the poor (which, according to the gospel, ought to be all of us). Kristof, along with fellow Times columnist David Brooks, is one of the most articulate and Christian-friendly public thinkers and writers, quick to praise the church where praise is due, yet also willing to administer gentle admonishments that are worth taking to heart.
Active Christians can learn much from scientific studies on effective poverty work. But after finishing this book, it also became increasingly clear to me that the church has much to offer our secular friends who share a passion for justice and helping the poor. Without a deep conviction that, rich and poor, we are all God’s children—and without his infusion of love, humility, and compassion—even the most effective poverty interventions can become mechanistic, devoid of deeper redemptive meaning. As much as programs and institutions need scientific forms of accountability and quality control, what they need most is a mission that radiates faith, hope, and love. Even Norway needs Jesus.
Bruce Wydick is professor of economics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. His novel, The Taste of Many Mountains (Thomas Nelson), is about fair trade coffee and the lives of coffee growers in Guatemala.
Photo credit: jbdodane, Flickr