Project after project, organization after organization, working independently or complementing each others, came with an aim to help. At least that is the theme they use to defend their presence.
They all come to the “poor” nations to help. I surely agree that lots of these countries need the support. I met many of the employees, and volunteers of those organizations throughout my work in Africa and the Middle East, and some of the countries of what used to be known as the Soviet Union.
To be honest, most of those employees and volunteers I met had the purest of intentions. They agree on one thing at least, which is helping the needy, although they may have different views or approaches on how to realize those views.
The issue may be in the definition of poverty itself. They mostly all agree on one thing, being poor is lacking material possessions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty , http://www.yourdictionary.com/poor , http://www.thefreedictionary.com/poor ) However, no one seems to state what are those material possessions.
Poverty is the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/poverty )
Poverty is the lack of basic needs such as clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty )
I do consider the definition provided by Wikipedia to be the most complete among those I mentioned above, but how do these organizations or individuals involved in the fight against poverty view it?
Who determines the material possessions needed, and what is the standard? By far, basic needs such as potable water and food are the most important. In many countries I visited, there is no guarantee to have clean water, let alone the food.
However, in many cases, I did not see a focus on securing nutritional needs. Many organizations claim to help in the agricultural field. If you go a bit into the details, you will see them supporting the growth of Coffee, Cocoa, Cashew nuts, among other products, in a country where people consider rice as their main meal component.
I understand the logic when the definition of poverty is linked to material possessions. Grow coffee beans, sell it, and you will have the money to purchase your necessities. My approach however, would be different. Grow your rice, eat it and hence you already have your food problem covered.
In a country where rice grows easily, the focus of many programs is to help in growing what the developed countries want. It is us, who want to drink coffee, it is us who consume chocolate, and it is us who would enjoy having cashew beans. The poor African man who is looking for any means to feed himself and his family can care less about drinking coffee if he has an empty stomach. Why should he buy imported rice when he can grow it locally and eat it for less than half the price? Shouldn’t those programs focus on that?
On another hand, I watched perfect products turning into fully commercial ones without taking into consideration the benefits of the original product. Let us take honey as an example. In one of the countries I visited, honey was produced by bees feeding naturally. Instead of supporting such activity, one of the programs suggested adding sugar to the feeding habits and mixing the honey with another fluid to reduce concentration. Their aim was to increase the quantity produced. More money would be generated from the honey sales this way, yet they never thought of the limited market demand, neither of the unwillingness of natural Honey consumers to buy such products.
So where is the problem? I believe that the definition of poverty itself, by reducing it to a mere materialistic issue, is the problem. Let us focus again on what people need, and not what they want. Guaranteeing the flow of resources into the developed countries does not fight poverty.
For the price of a cup of coffee in the US, or Europe, I can help feeding a family for a day in Africa. For the price of the same cup of coffee for a month, I can help a farmer buy the rice seeds for his field, feeding him and his family for the whole season.
Lets us reduce poverty by redefining it according to the needs of the poor and not the wants of the rich.