On the way into work last week I passed a man seated atop a pile of gravel. He was holding a larger rock in one hand and striking it with a tool, breaking off small shards and pieces that formed the gravel heap beneath him. He did not even look up as we drove by, intently focused on his painstakingly slow task.
Sometimes I feel like that in our work here, little by little seeing a difference made, little by little building up the communities. Attempting to make a change, to lift people out of poverty and help them to build a better future.
What does it really take to tackle poverty effectively?
A recent article by Martin Kirk questions the vision of NGOs to eliminate poverty. He argues that whilst NGOs contribute hugely to saving lives across the developing world, they are failing adequately to tackle the root causes of poverty, and what’s more, questions if NGOs really can do both effectively at the same time.
Essentially he posits an argument on the effectiveness of aid and the effectiveness of advocacy.
Kirk challenges the assumptions that many NGOs make, in that viral campaigns or mass events such as Make Poverty History, that they will somehow, indeed change the course of history, transforming the attitudes of the general public and resulting in real political change.
I was there in 2005 for Make Poverty History, proudly brandishing my white wristband and marching through the streets of Edinburgh with the tens of thousands of others, all hoping that our presence would capture the attention of the world leaders meeting at Gleneagles.
Years later I find myself sitting in a stiflingly hot office in Haiti, typing up reports for distant donors and trying to ensure staff members return from the field sites before the forecasted tropical storm hits this evening. I find myself more cynical than those heady optimistic student days where I believed that by buying a white wristband I could directly challenge politicians to change their priorities and put poverty and justice issues on the table.
However, I am not disillusioned with development. I have spent time both in suits attempting to woo politicians to make policy changes, as well as out in rural disaster-afflicted communities here in Haiti delivering tangible projects that are reaching the most vulnerable. I still see the value in tackling poverty from all angles; challenging the decision makers who can influence top-down development, as well as working to empower communities to bring about sustainable bottom-up development.
Perhaps ‘ending poverty’ is too optimistic. Perhaps we will only see small changes in our lifetime. It is often like the man on the gravel heap – it feels like a lot of hard work for very little impact. As NGOs strive to inform their supporters about the realities of relief and development in a way that will inspire them to take action, as well as comply to donor requirements in their field programmes some may argue that they are spreading themselves too thin, and cannot possibly effectively deliver aid and advocacy.
I would argue that as the development discourse continues to evolve there is a need for NGOs to do both, to continue to challenge the structural causes of poverty as well as to address immediate needs, taking a holistic approach to relief and development.
So as the man continues to chip away at stones, I can see small differences being made here in Haiti. It is often a hard struggle, but the little victories make it all worth it.