Thinking Small Won’t End Poverty

Decades of US-backed community development programs have left behind a disastrous economic and political legacy.

Illustration by Alexander Medel

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Customers at Whole Foods may have noticed new decorations adorning the registers a while ago: photographs of smiling inhabitants of poor countries. This is the work of the Whole Planet Foundation, the grocery store’s philanthropic arm, which is running its eighth annual “prosperity campaign” to achieve a “future without poverty.” Shoppers can donate their bag credits — the five-cent rebate they receive by forgoing plastic bags — to a microfinance fund.

Combining this with traditional donations, Whole Foods hopes to raise $5 million to fund forty thousand small loans to “impoverished entrepreneurs” around the globe. They say that these direct financial transfers, unmediated by government agencies, can “empower the poor and the communities around them.”

In many ways, this is the age of the micro, of thinking small and acting locally. Microloans are only one part of the broad move toward “bottom-up” development, which seeks to enroll the poor directly in anti-poverty campaigns.

The World Bank has invested heavily in this area. Its acting chief economist describes communal participation as “a central tenet of development policy,” and in the past fifteen years the institution has doled out over $85 billion for community empowerment and government decentralization.

In 2006, Muhammad Yunus, the public face of microcredit (and a partner of the Whole Planet Foundation), won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2009, it went to Barack Obama, who began his career as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago.

Much of the enthusiasm for tackling poverty in this way comes from the feeling that top-down, expert-driven solutions haven’t worked very well.

Big dams designed to provide irrigation and generate electricity have displaced millions of people (between forty to eighty million in the twentieth century) and created huge reservoirs that have proved ideal breeding grounds for disease-bearing mosquitoes. Family planning campaigns have devolved into state-sponsored forced sterilization sprees. Government attempts to jump-start the market with “special economic zones” have turned into land grabs as private developers seize peasants’ property and then hire those they have dispossessed at extremely low wages.

You hear one of these stories and it’s easy to write it off as a mistake. You hear fifteen and it starts to look like a pattern.

Development is a fiendishly complex business, with cultural, sociological, ecological, and economic aspects. Maybe relying on foreign experts, who tend to be drawn toward stark diagnoses and one-size-fits-all fixes, is the wrong way to go about things. Maybe it would be better to let poor communities themselves decide what would be best for them. After all, they’re the ones who can actually see what’s happening on the ground, and they have good reason to care about getting it right.

That is the thinking behind the recent embrace of small-scale, participatory projects. Local wisdom in the place of expert knowledge, many small projects rather than a few big ones, communities in charge of their own developmental destinies. It sounds refreshing.

What few realize, however, is that there is nothing new in this approach. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States, United Nations, and dozens of governments throughout the world launched a massive, global community development campaign throughout the Global South.

We are only now uncovering its history.

It Takes a Village

Community development as we know it today began in Etawah, a medium-sized district in northern India. In 1948, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru engaged an urban planner from the United States, Albert Mayer, to see what could be done to “build up community life” in India’s villages. Nehru offered Etawah as an experiment.

Nehru asked the right person. Like many of his compatriots, Mayer worried about what mechanization was doing to the United States, particularly to its community life. He appreciated what he saw in Indian villages. Rather than focusing on material outcomes (more abundant harvests, better livestock), Mayer concluded that he should solicit the “felt needs” of Etawah residents themselves. That way, they could come up with their own “folk-solutions.”

Remarkably, it seemed to work. Using only available technology and local resources, villagers built schools, roads, and sanitary wells. Etawah quickly became famous. President Truman praised it in his speeches, Eleanor Roosevelt visited it, and Mayer’s work was covered in Time, Life, the New York Times, and the Ladies Home Journal.

Building on Etawah, India launched a nation-wide community development program in 1952, on Gandhi’s birthday. The United States gave tens of millions of dollars, the Ford Foundation took a central role, and the UN sent over streams of experts to help. To encourage village communities still further, India’s government embarked on a campaign of “democratic decentralization,” replacing appointed local officials with elected ones and entrusting village councils with some of the business of economic planning.

By the mid 1960s, the community development program covered all of India’s villages. To fully appreciate that achievement, consider that those villages collectively contained around ten percent of the global population.

From India, community development spread outward. The United States set up a Division of Community Development within the State Department to help with funds and expertise. Later, it established the Peace Corps to send young people abroad to assist directly. By 1960, more than sixty countries had community development programs.

Surveying all of this, Nehru concluded that community development was by “far the most revolutionary thing” his government had achieved.

The Etawah Bubble

But there are two things that are surprising about the history of community development. One, which Nehru noticed, was how widely it was applied. The second is how little it seemed to do.

Progress can be hard to measure. Ask an economist whether a development project is a success, and she will point you to the numbers. Did incomes go up or down? What about life expectancy? Yet community developers insisted, time and again, that their achievements couldn’t be captured by cold statistics. Building a vibrant culture of communal participation was an all-round sort of thing, they insisted, not a matter of metrics. In place of numbers, they offered stories.

And yet numbers, for all their flaws, often correspond to real things that we want to know about. In the case of India, the numbers that were most pressing had to do with agriculture. By the late 1950s, it was clear that India was simply not growing enough grain to feed its rising population. “India faces a problem of overwhelming gravity,” warned the Ford Foundation. Although Ford had been a key supporter of community development, in the face of the numbers it changed its support. The main problem with India, the foundation concluded, wasn’t that it needed more communal spirit. It needed more food.

By the 1960s, it had become clear that community development could not stave off India’s looming agricultural crisis. In fact, it was hard to say what it could do. Study after study, in India and elsewhere, searched for the benefits of community schemes and came up short. The most high-profile report on the Indian program, commissioned by Nehru’s government itself, concluded that, for all of the heady talk, very little was done. In the end, few community groups had “shown any enthusiasm or interest in this work.”

A major problem, the studies emphasized, was that the communities in question were rarely democratic places. Funds intended for general use had a way of ending up in the hands of landlords and village headmen. Meanwhile, the most pressing problems — debt, patriarchy, caste, and tenancy — were rarely even discussed.

The famed economist Gunnar Myrdal concluded, after a careful examination, that community development’s “net effect” had been to “create more, not less, inequality.” The anthropologist Gerald Berreman put it more bluntly: to put village councils in charge of fighting rural poverty, he observed, was like putting Jim Crow school boards in charge of desegregation.

In India, community development died with Nehru in 1964. His daughter Indira Gandhi, who soon became prime minister herself, gutted the program and brought the Ministry of Community Development under the control of the production-oriented Ministry of Agriculture.

This was a common move. With food shortages looming throughout the Global South, the countries that had turned toward community development in the 1950s ran in the opposite direction in the 1960s, away from fostering communal solidarity and toward engineered seeds, improved livestock, chemical fertilizers, and large-scale agriculture. The Green Revolution was, in many ways, a reaction against community development’s unimpressive record.

In the 1950s, a Southern country without a community development program was rare. By the 1970s, a country with an active program was.

Napalm Values

The one place where community programs continued to grow was in the field of counterinsurgency. Starting in the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency had bankrolled the schemes in the Philippines as a way of quashing a rural insurgency, the left-wing “Huk Rebellion.” By encouraging peasants to identify with their “community,” which was controlled by their landlords, rather than with their class, the CIA hoped it could head off a revolution.

And it did. With a carrot-and-stick combination of community programs and napalm, the CIA and Philippine government beat back the uprising. From the agency’s perspective, this was a miracle. Community development, one of its officers giddily explained, could be a bulwark “against the leftist takeover of every hamlet in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.”

That was more aspirational than anything else. The one place where the United States did fully support community development as a counterinsurgency tactic was in South Vietnam. When Ngo Dinh Diem’s government, pointing to India’s program, unveiled its own set of village schemes on what Diem called the “community development principle,” the United States sent over its experts from the Philippines.

This culminated in the Strategic Hamlet Program, which sought to build community spirit among South Vietnamese peasants within fortified villages and establish a free-fire zone outside of them. The United States provided $10 million in funds, in addition to its seasoned community experts.

And yet, strategic hamlets became an emblem of the failure of the Diem regime. Despised by their inhabitants and easily infiltrated by national liberation forces, the hamlets collapsed quickly after Diem’s death in 1963.

Small Talk

Community, though, is once again in vogue. And the problems it faced in the middle of the century are cropping up again.

In 2013, two lead economists at the World Bank, Ghazala Mansuri and Vijayendra Rao, reviewed nearly five hundred studies on participatory development. The surveys they examined covered a hodgepodge of activities and places — participatory budgeting in Brazil, microloans in Pakistan, women’s access to water in Kenya, forest management in Uganda, post-conflict rebuilding in Liberia. Their review included ethnographies, surveys, randomized control studies, and econometric analyses.

What they found was not encouraging. Occasionally, they concluded, participatory programs generate creative responses to local conditions. But, more often, they get hijacked by a local elite. When community programs have yielded measurable benefits at all, those benefits (usually modest) have tended to accrue to those who are “the most literate, the least geographically isolated, and the most connected to wealthy and powerful people.”

If community programs have consistently floundered, both in the past and today, what’s left? A return to the rule of experts? Bigger dams and better seeds? If faced with two approaches — that of the development expert, asking “What can we do for the poor?” and that of the community developer, asking “What can we do with them?” — then the grassroots approach seems at least less condescending.

Yet there is a third question that inhabitants of the Global North might ask, one that would be far more productive. “What have we been doing to them?”

That question implies a different framework, one that proponents of participatory development rarely consider. It raises the possibility that there might be some causal relationship between government policies in the Global North and the continued poverty of the Global South. Rather than focusing merely on poor people in poor places, it zooms out, capturing the North and South together through a wide-angle lens.

The Burden of Guilt

Once the frame is enlarged to include both rich and poor within it, certain aspects of poverty become easier to see. For one, it’s clear that the current distribution of global resources depends on an architecture of international trade and finance that was built by the rich and for the rich.

The International Monetary Fund, for example, is ostensibly a public institution dedicated to the welfare of all. Yet it allocates voting power to countries roughly on the basis of their positions in the world economy. India, with four times the population of the United States, commands fewer than one-seventh the votes.

Similar mechanisms prevail at the UN, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank. Nationally, we aspire to live in democracies. Internationally, we inhabit a plutocracy.

Not surprisingly, rich countries use their power to press their advantage. They erect trade barriers against countries in the Global South while demanding, as the price of loans, that the same countries dismantle their own trade barriers. They subsidize their own agriculture and then stand aside as their farmers dump below-market-price produce into Southern markets. They demand that poorer nations adopt and enforce stringent protections on intellectual property, driving up the price of medicine and technology for those who need it the most.

All of this has created a significant headwind against global economic equality. So much so that it is the country in which a person is born — rather than her age, sex, education, work ethic, or even the wealth of her parents — is by far the greatest determinant of her economic destiny.

Well, if that’s the case, what about simply opening borders? Globalization has carried ideas, investments, and cultures across national lines, why not let people move, too? Yet one of the important ways in which rich countries have preserved their wealth is by locking foreigners out.

Or consider climate change. Its promise of hotter temperatures, fiercer and more frequent storms, and rising sea levels presents the worst threat that impoverished countries face. The poor have contributed little to the problem — the average Bangladeshi carbon footprint is about two percent of the average US one — and yet it is their livelihoods that are most at risk.

Climate change vividly illustrates the limits of attacking poverty by encouraging community spirit among the poor. Although it is an issue of profound local relevance (and no more so than in the Global South), it is not an issue that appears even remotely likely to yield to state-sponsored community action.

The more globally connected the economy has become, the less relevant community strategies — especially those funded by governments or the World Bank — are to addressing the structures that create poverty and exacerbate its worst effects.

Unfair trade rules, border controls, and ecological disaster — none of that is news. Yet it helps place small-scale development in perspective. If elites in rich countries truly wanted to help poor people and were willing to sacrifice some of their share of global resources to do so, they wouldn’t need to bother searching for the right blend of technical fixes and participatory openness in their aid policies. They could simply reverse their self-interested policies.

In a context in which rich nations continue to rig the international system to ensure that wealth accrues to certain places, lock poor people out of those places, and then consume resources at a rate that will probably render much of the planet uninhabitable, there is something bizarre about the current obsession with helping poor people help themselves. Fostering local solidarity seems beside the point.