Nothing, something, and more

Bad development work is based on the idea that poor people have nothing. Something is better than nothing, right? So anything you give these poor people will be better than what they had before. Even if it’s your old clothes, technology they can’t use, or a school building with no teacher.

But poor people don’t have nothing. They have families, friends – social ties. They have responsibilities. They have possessions, however meager. They have lives, no matter what those lives look like to Westerners.

The “it’s better than nothing” argument is meaningless. No one is starting from nothing. If you find yourself saying, “our program/charity/intervention is better than nothing” that’s more than just damning faint praise, it’s a sign that you have a problem.

Good development work is based on the idea of more. Identify what people have already, and what they value. Work with them to figure out how they can get more of that. More education, or more money, or more food. More control over their lives. Whatever it is, the focus should be on getting more of what they need – not some of whatever we can find.

(photo credit: Turkairo)
Chosen because the look in this girl’s eyes and her carefully tied scarf prove my point.