Greg Adams, Director of Aid Effectiveness, Oxfam America
The challenges, dilemmas and frustrations of the Kenyan citizens featured in Good Fortune will be familiar to anyone who has been moved by the struggle of those in poverty and felt compelled to try to help. There are plenty of stories of how such help has worked or failed. Although a child born today in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America is more likely to survive her birth, go to school, earn more money, give birth safely, vote for political leaders and die of so-called “old age” than her predecessors were, 1 billion people are still left behind, their prosperity, dignity, security and lives curtailed by the scourge of poverty.
This poverty is not an accident. It is the consequence of deliberate decisions by numerous actors, both wealthy and wanting, and of deliberate actions, whether legal or illegal, socially acceptable or shameful. Responsibility for these decisions and actions is hard to pinpoint; there’s plenty of blame to go around. But the key lesson is that if poverty is a human-caused condition rather than a natural one, humans can change the rules and systems that prevent people from lifting themselves out of poverty.
When poverty is viewed this way, we are forced to accept that poverty is not a lack of wealth, but a denial of rights. Money cannot buy happiness in Kenya any more than it can in the United States. Development aid cannot “buy” development; people and societies develop themselves. Aid can often be a useful and necessary resource for people investing in their own development. However, as with any investment, someone will choose the investment methods and locations, and the identity of the party choosing those things ultimately will influence the identity of the party reaping the returns. This we hear loudly in the voices amplified in Good Fortune.
The crux of the problem is that we, as donors, even donors with the best of intentions, too often impose solutions that are simply wrong for their context. How are we, sitting in air-conditioned offices in Washington, D.C., to know how to best improve the living conditions in Kibera or the livelihoods of Kenyan farmers? The least we can do as donors is let the people on the receiving end decide what role aid should play in their efforts to build a better tomorrow. Simply put, we need to be better listeners and genuine partners. And for that to happen, the various components of our aid system — from those handling the decision-making process in Congress to our “frontline” aid professionals — need mandates and resources to listen and respond to the voices of the people they are trying to help.
Anything less is simple charity. It might make us feel good, but it will accomplish little change in the lives of people living in poverty.
Gregory Adams is Oxfam America’s director of aid effectiveness. In this role, he is responsible for leading Oxfam America’s efforts to increase the effectiveness of U.S. foreign aid by placing the voices and priorities of poor people at the center of aid policy and practice. He has over 10 years of experience covering national security and foreign affairs for members of the U.S. House of Representatives. He most recently served as legislative director for Representative Diane E. Watson of Los Angeles, who is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and vice chair of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health. In this role, he helped to craft Watson’s positions on the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the F process and other aspects of U.S. global development policy. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois at Chicago.