Don Eberly's The Rise of Global Civil Society (Encounter, 2008) is a book with not one but two subtitles: Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up, and Compassion as America's Most Consequential Export. Those subtitles show what is key in international poverty fighting and how the United States can help.
Eberly rightly scoffs at fashionable top-down programs: "Whether the issue is debt relief or increased government expenditures, money is presented as the answer whenever development officials gather. When money is key, the fate of many rests in the hands of a few, namely a handful of leaders from rich industrialized nations." He notes that "few would contest the evidence that the African continent is mostly worse off today than when foreign aid began pouring in." One reason is that "aid tends to shift skilled labor from the private sector to the public sector and drastically reduce incentives to produce goods for export."
Eberly sees the need to pay more attention to issues of "corruption, theft, waste, civil strife, and state failure." He positively quotes Thomas Dichter, a 40-year veteran of international development efforts, who says that "aid has not worked and is not likely to work in the future and cannot work." Dichter doesn't know a single colleague "with long field experience who believes wholeheartedly that aid has been effective." The problem is that poverty "is not just a material condition-something that is complicated enough-but it is also a matter of the social, cultural, and political position many poor people occupy in their countries."
Eberly does not suggest neglect, either benign or malign. Instead, he advocates starting with "the one big lesson in foreign aid over the past twenty years on which large majorities of experts and practitioners agree: For aid to be effective, it must be linked to broad reforms aimed at building strong institutions, rules of law, and sound government free of corruption." Without such reforms, much of the $300 billion in aid from Western nations to Africa since 1980 has merely created a bull market in waste and fraud.
Specific examples are gruesome. The $3.5 billion in aid to Nigeria from 1980 to 2000 (not counting World Bank loans) "is only slightly less than the sum that the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha reported as having been looted during his five-year rule . . . $836 million was poured into projects that were abandoned midway and never completed." Corruption and fraud, the journal Foreign Affairs concluded, have distorted markets, bred cynicism, undermined the rule of law, and eroded integrity.
Some giving is not destructive, just foolish. Eberly tells of a Peace Corps project to improve chicken production in Morocco by making the Moroccan chicken of choice one that is plumper and more nutritious. Americans brought in Rhode Island Reds, but it soon became evident that no one was buying: Given Moroccan cooking methods, the Rhode Island Reds took four hours to stew and then tasted like mush. The project collapsed.
Is there a way out? Eberly's fourth chapter, "From Aid Bureaucracy to Civil Society: Participation and Partnership," is key. Westerners who wish to help can be more effective by finding ways to bring churches, charities, professional and business groups, fraternal organizations and human-rights groups into the process. Instead of working with governments, Westerners need to work directly with those who will integrate altruistic help with the patterns of life shaped by religion and local culture.
Eberly's last chapter offers more useful recommendations, including: Focus less on charity and more on livelihood enhancement, demand sound governance, promote people-to-people diplomacy. Corporations, Eberly says, should take the lead in international disaster relief, and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations should honestly admit failings. Policymakers should organize a private-sector war on poverty, with each person, club, or church adopting a poor person, country, or poverty-fighting organization.