Reducing Hopelessness


Here’s an idea that I’ve been chewing on lately: reducing hopelessness. What do I mean by this crazy, seemingly idealistic concept? Before I go into the details, a little detour into the topic of poverty reduction is in order.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve thought a lot about the thesis of Jeff Sach’s, The End of Poverty. He argues that although poverty still exists, through further effort, extreme poverty can be eliminated within our lifetime. Since reading his book, I’ve also read other aid-related books: Bill Easterly’s, The White Man’s Burden, and Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s, Poor Economics.

Although I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of development economics, one emerging theme that I’m realizing is this: a lot has already been done to eliminate poverty. Until the Marshall Plan, the concept of aid did not exist. Today, thousands of professionals at a variety of institutions (IGOs, NGOs, nonprofits, agencies, etc.) are working daily towards ending poverty. Not to mention the academics who’ve studied and have raised countless perspectives on how to correctly end poverty.

Now, reducing hopelessness.

First, what do I mean by reducing hopelessness? By hopelessness, I’m referring specifically to two related things: depression and suicide. My concern is on how to address these two issues.

Second, where did this idea come from? Reading Kay Redfield Jameson’s Night Falls Fast made me realize that, in comparison to poverty reduction, there’s been much less discussion and action taken towards addressing mental illness and suicide prevention. Sure, the topic might be taboo, but why? Depression and suicide should not be simply swept under the rug.

Third, why does it matter? Though the magnitude might not be as huge as compared to extreme poverty, the facts concerning mental illness and suicide prevention are just as grave: every 17 minutes someone commits suicide. 1 in 10 Americans have experienced some form of mental illness. At the turn of the last century, poverty was a fact of life. Poverty was a huge problem, but given the global scope of the issue, addressing it seemed virtually impossible. Through advocacy and action, the world has taken significant steps to eliminating poverty.

If the world has done so much towards reducing poverty, why can’t the same be done with reducing hopelessness? It’s just as important of a problem, and affects many people, both in the developed and developing world.

Sachs vs. Easterly


After reading The Bottom Billion, I really wanted to get a grasp on the spectrum of perspectives development economists have towards foreign assistance. To this end, I just finished reading two more books on economic development: Jeffrey Sach’s The End of Poverty and William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden. At 350+ pages per book, both authors pack a lot of information. However, the crux of both authors’ arguments is essentially:

Sachs: Advocates for international development through an approach he calls Clinical Economics. Doctors diagnose patients to improve their wellbeing; Sachs argues international development professionals should similarly conduct a multi-pronged assessment of the conditions of undeveloped countries in order to prescribe and execute a comprehensive plan to promote economic development.

Easterly: Planners, folks who believe economic development can be solved through strategic planning and implementation, are not the solution to economic development. Believes the real solution to economic development comes from searchers – folks from the country in question – who learn through doing, in turn promoting economic development from within.

If simplified even further, Sachs advocates a planned-approach while Easterly believes in the power of a markets-based approach to economic development.

Both Sachs and Collier cite a huge problem if the development community relies on a market-based approach: the economies of the most undeveloped countries often don’t offer goods or services that the rest of the world is interested in trading with. Even if these countries have goods of interest, typically natural resources, a variety of issues, such as those cited by Collier, continues to hinder undeveloped countries from getting a foot hold on the first rung on the economic development ladder.

Both authors provide valid arguments; however, if I’d have to choose a camp, I’d have to side with Easterly. I’m not completely sold on believing that searchers and a market-based approach is the key to international development, but I do believe a more entrepreneurial-from-within approach is needed.

Ironically though, my experiences volunteering with Generation Enterprise has taught me that entrepreneurship already is happening everywhere in the undeveloped and developing worlds. Perhaps hustling or hawking might be a better descriptor, but nonetheless, what’s happing on the ground is entrepreneurship. If hustling is already happening, than it’s clear, at least in my opinion, that a complete market-based approach is likely not the final solution to promoting systemic change and widespread improvements in the economies of the undeveloped world.

Book Review: “The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier


In my quest to learn more about how aid has influenced global development, I recently finished reading Paul Collier’s, The Bottom Billion. Collier first looks at the reasons why the world’s poorest, which he calls the bottom billion, have not succeeded in climbing out of extreme poverty: conflict, resources, bad governance, and landlocked with bad neighbors. Collier then looks at the different tools he believes can be leveraged to eradicate extreme poverty: aid; military intervention; laws, statutes, and charters; and trade. Finally, he outlines how these four tools can address the challenges of each poverty trap.

Some points that particularly stuck with me:

  • By design, the international development community has been organized to use aid as the primary tool to combat global poverty.

The power of international trade as a tool towards economic growth (and consequently, away from extreme poverty) has been demonstrated throughout the world. Of course, not all countries have benefited from globalization. The development community needs to change in order to complement and collaborate with the private sector. Structurally, how can this be done?

  • Until a large enough wage gap exists between Developing Asia, it’ll take decades before the poorest countries can begin to compete globally in international trade.

Even if large wage gaps existed in Developing Asia, other aspects such as a lack of economies of agglomeration and poor infrastructure will ensure that it’ll likely take even more years before countries in the bottom billion can be attractive alternatives for manufacturing, or for commerce and trade. Aside from policies and charters, which Collier prescribes, what else can be done NOW to better incorporate these countries into global trade?

On “Stop Kony” Campaign


Earlier this week, an SD-based non-profit, Invisible Children, released a video highlighting the atrocities caused by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Kudos should definitely go to the IC team for putting together a pretty stellar marketing campaign and raising awareness about the issue. I’m sure that up until watching this video, millions worldwide had never heard about this issue.

Despite IC’s success in this regard, the non-profit has received a ton of criticism. This HuffPo article does a good job at summarizing just some of the issues: poor spending practices, military action support, posing with guns, and neo-colonialism.  The first issue, poor spending practices, is the focus of this post.

The notion of poor spending practices stuck a particular chord with me because it reminded me of how MUCH I think the International Development industry is in dire need of being restructured. Although notions of fundraising and development aren’t as important for development agencies as they are for non-profits, the whole campaign reminded me of the importance of raising money, even when it’s not necessarily the organization’s ultimate bottom line.  Here’s why:

Even at non-profits, “sex sells.”

For the absolute longest, I generally associated this phrase with for-profits. From DECA during high school, to flyers for activities at Penn, to everyday commercials, I learned (quite obviously) that sex sells. So how does this phrase apply to non-profits? Though non-profits aren’t necessarily “selling” a product or service, they do need to market their cause to drive donations in order to carry out their mission.

Perhaps “sex” isn’t the proper term when it comes to marketing at non-profits. Maybe “heart-touching” or “emotion” might be more appropriate. Whatever the word, marketing (re: development and fundraising) is clearly important for most non-profits.

However, that the bulk of IC’s spending isn’t on “direct services,” but on awareness and filmmaking, I think, is a clear example that demonstrates how awareness (and hence, presumably fundraising) may all to often be of more concern for non-profits than to actually conduct “on-the ground” actions that actually drive change. Of course, defining “change” is much harder when the bottom line isn’t as tangible as turning a profit for shareholders.

IC definitely did a great job at raising awareness this past week about their cause, but as a (theoretical) donor, wouldn’t I rather see my donation going to activities that are changing things in Uganda, rather than just raising awareness about the issue? Of course!

Sadly though, I think most non-profit contributors (myself included) pay far more attention and get much more joy in donating after seeing something heart-moving than to take the time to research how donations are being spent. If only there was a way to make it easier for donors to more easily figure this out. At the very least, it’d definitely provide much more transparency concerning the activities for non-profits, let alone raising accountability.