Nicholas Kristof’s recent front-page article in The New York Times Magazine, “The D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution,” highlights Americans who, struck by poverty in the developing world, dash off to do something about it.
The stories are inspiring. But Dave Algoso, a graduate student at New York University, writes on the Foreign Policy Web site that they don’t convey a key message: Alleviating poverty is a lot harder than refurbishing a basement, fixing a leaky toilet, or repairing other problems for which this “fix it” attitude is appropriate.
A community’s needs are often too complex and nuanced for outsiders to really understand, Mr. Algoso writes. Moreover, outside money and volunteers can distort local economies, politics, and culture, he says.
For example, local businesses lose out when charities provide donated goods for free, and local governments can face less pressure to provide high-quality services if schools, health clinics, and other services are offered by nonprofits.
Mr. Algoso also writes that it’s often local people who are finding ways to improve their communities, yet those people are absent from Mr. Kristof’s article.
But Mr. Algoso isn’t entirely critical of the Mr. Kristof’s story. “Despite all my complaints, I think Kristof’s article does some good if it convinces more people to pursue international development as a career,” he says. “We all start as amateurs. The difference is whether we seek to learn more or assume that we can just start doing something, muddling through as we go.”
What’s your view?