Show me the money!
February 2, 2008 7:37 PM   Subscribe

With all the charities/organizations in the world doing wonderful things, why isn't the world getting any better? Or is the developing world better off?

Disclaimer: This is NOT a knock on charities or other similar organizations. I am a big fan of philanthropy and look forward to the day where poverty and other suffering will be eradicated.

There are a lot of charities and organizations doing a lot of good things in this world. There are also a lot of good people sending their hard earned money to these charities.

I would think that there are a lot more of such organizations today than there were 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Yet it seems that people of the world still continue to suffer.

Today I heard that an amount equal to 25% of the money spent on bottled water would be enough to provide drinking water to all the people of Africa who need it. A few years back, I heard that if we spent the same amount of money on the 3rd world as we do on cigarettes, poverty would be eradicated.

I would think that over the years, billions if not trillions of dollars have been sent with the best intentions to those who need it.

So where has all the money gone? Are lives actually getting better overall? Are conditions improving? Or does it continue to get siphoned off everywhere? Why do things seem to be getting worse rather than getting better?

somewhat off topic, on the other hand, I heard that due to the advances made in cancer treatment, if Terry Fox lived in the present time, he never would have lost his leg and pehaps might have continued to live for a long time. In this case, at least all that money spent on cancer research is showing some measurable results!
posted by bitteroldman to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've always heard that corruption in developing countries tends to prevent aid from getting to the people who truly need it. The people in charge keep themselves in power and their populations under control by ensuring they stay inpoverished. Send them the aid they need to overcome the poverty and the people in charge lose their power.
posted by Octoparrot at 7:43 PM on February 2, 2008

Why do things seem to be getting worse rather than getting better?

Key word is "seem." The man-made threats to the environment, and the threat of nuclear war, are the two examples I can think of of things getting worse than they were in the past.

Just about everything else is getting better all the time. People are living longer, healthier, better-informed, happier, and more interesting lives right now than at any point in human history.

A lot of people enjoy trading in cheap cynicism. Insomuch as I believe in "human nature," this seems to be part of it. Hamlet spends quite a bit of his play complaining about the shortcomings of "his age," just to name one famous example.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:53 PM on February 2, 2008

I've been impressed with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's work to rid Africa of malaria. Amazing stuff. He could have just dinked around with his billions, buying sports teams and the like, but he's making a difference in the arena of life and death.
posted by GaelFC at 7:56 PM on February 2, 2008

I would say that conditions worldwide are tremendously better than 50 years ago by most measures.

Without asking a more specific question, it's hard to demonstrate how. You'll definitely get into the realm of global statistics-keeping. Why are the problems of the world not completely solved? Partly because even all the aid that is applied is still not enough. Partly because distribution systems and corruption and inequalities within societies mean that aid does not reach everyone. Partly because philanthropy is subject to trends and fads - some causes and regions are unpopular at some times, while others become celebrity causes or trendy concerns. Partly because the world's population continues to grow, and unevenly, generating overall need and local pockets of need because of the new human beings in existence. Partly because the distribution of wealth available for giving in the world has become far more consolidated among fewer people than in the past. Partly because church funding and church attendance, formerly responsible for much of the world's social service aid, has become a less powerful force, at least in the Western world.

But before you ask why the problems of the world haven't been solved in the last 50 years, you also have to think about what the world (wither regard to poverty, education, the environment, any cause you name) would be like today had there been no philanthropic efforts in the last 50 years. A few moment's meditation on that makes it clear that charitable work has been deeply influential in shaping today's world.
posted by Miko at 8:03 PM on February 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've all but given up on large charities and government grants. You can directly help a real actual person in the third world for tiny amount using microloans.
posted by sanka at 8:28 PM on February 2, 2008

Criticisms of microcredit
posted by Miko at 8:33 PM on February 2, 2008

Well, turn the question around: do you think things would be worse if all these people and programs were to vanish during the night? I know, I know, big picture, long term. Still, it bears thinking about.

The claim that our annual cigarette bill would wipe out poverty, backed I'm sure by some sort of numerical argument that might not even be predominantly false, still misses the point that the root problem is an endemic inequality in the fundamental way goods are distributed and the sort of disparity between, say, what an American pays for a pack of cigarettes versus what an impoverished sub-Saharan African pays for food is an illustration of that disparity.

I saw this case presented in a discussion of medical research a few years ago: everal decades ago the virtual eradication of cancer, at least as a leading cause of premature death, was widely predicted. It didn't happen, because it was discovered that cancer represented an extremely broad spectrum of diseases, each requiring its own "cure," and many presenting exceptionally difficult and resistant problems in their pathology. Is there something fundamentally wrong with medical research? No, of course it has flaws but is developing, and it must adapt to an adapting problem. You're still likely to be better off today if you have the misfortune to get cancer.

I think you will get less broad-brush answers about where charity succeeds and fails by thinking of the problems of the world as a divergent spectrum of ills, many of which are extraordinarily intractable, e.g. what to do about two autonomous groups of people who are sincerely intent on killing one another. Take a specific issue, like hunger, and you can get some practical ideas about why it is so persistent, although the simple, concrete resources required (aside from the real issues of distribution) are relatively small. Yet still, if charity and relief work were not done, would more people go hungry? Absolutely, there's no question.
posted by nanojath at 8:36 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Sri Lanka has halved maternal deaths (relative to the number of live births) at least every 12 years since 1935. This has meant a decline in the maternal mortality ratio from between 500 and 600 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1950 to 60 per 100,000 today. In Sri Lanka today, skilled practitioners attend to 97 percent of the births, compared with 30 percent in 1940." [emph. mine]

This doesn't exactly demonstrate that charities = good, since the article makes clear that the Sri Lankan government has been the push behind this. But they probably had a good amount of assistance from NGOs and charities over the years, helping them train midwives and setting up the infrastructure.

It does demonstrate that sanka shouldn't entirely write off government grants, since I don't believe it's possible to make that kind of impact on a nation's health through microloans.
posted by rtha at 8:41 PM on February 2, 2008

I've read some stuff asserting that basic improvements in public health, such as a clean water supply or the eradication of malaria in a geographic region, save more lives at present than almost any other form of aid. That kind of systemic, impactful change supports what rtha: change on a governmental or large-charity scope has the potential to alter conditions more than small loans which may (or may not, see the link) improve one person's or family's lot.

'Maybe someone can Google for that public-health study, I'm headed for bed.
posted by Miko at 8:45 PM on February 2, 2008

According to my trade and development class, extreme poverty as a % of population has decreased slightly, but I'm going to take a wild guess this has a lot more to do with advancements in technology, not because the world's becoming a better place.
posted by whoaali at 8:47 PM on February 2, 2008

But what has produced advancements in technology? People often forget to credit donations to universities, hospitals, and other research centers who do the work that makes technological advancement possible. The web we are talking on owes its existence to money flowing through the public and nonprofit sectors.
posted by Miko at 8:49 PM on February 2, 2008

The short answer is that things are getting better, in most places, most of the time. To get a feel for where and when check out the work of Hans Rosling.
posted by Canard de Vasco at 8:50 PM on February 2, 2008

This site offers some interesting stuff, though you have to scroll down to hit some facts relevant to this discussion.

Especially interesting:
Consider the global priorities in spending in 1998:
Global Priority in $U.S. Billions
Cosmetics in the United States 8
Ice cream in Europe 11
Perfumes in Europe and the United States 12
Pet foods in Europe and the United States 17
Business entertainment in Japan 35
Cigarettes in Europe 50
Alcoholic drinks in Europe 105
Narcotics drugs in the world 400
Military spending in the world 780

And compare that to what was estimated as additional costs to achieve universal access to basic social services in all developing countries:
Global Priority $U.S. Billions
Basic education for all 6
Water and sanitation for all 9
Reproductive health for all women 12
Basic health and nutrition 13
So billions are indeed being spent - but not enough billions.

The site seems to lean toward global imbalance in wealth distribution as the central culprit in why things aren't perfect yet.

Also, check out the footnote links. They are links to a number of studies about global aid and funding that could lead to a clearer understanding.
posted by Miko at 8:55 PM on February 2, 2008

Whoops, that would be this site.
posted by Miko at 8:56 PM on February 2, 2008

Think up some metrics for how you would judge things to be getting better or worse and then check them up. A few you might want to look at are: Life Expectancy, Infant Mortality, GDP at PPP per heard, literacy, number of global wars, number of deaths from war.

Then go and look at them. People have done this. You should find that the life of a sub-saharan African today is better than the life of most people in the developed world say 120 years ago.

Overall, right now, we're going through the greatest increase in living standards in human history. The growth of India and China is so fast and they are both so large that more people are leaving poverty than ever before in history.

Check out gapminder and play some of the stats over time to see the improvements.

Things are not getting worse, it's just that the media reports more about things getting worse. Things get better slowly, they tend to get worse much rapidly and spectacularly. Can you imagine how much people would watch the news if most days the international news was about families buying fridges in India and China? And yet, that's probably the most important thing that is happening in the world right now.
posted by sien at 8:56 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Things ARE getting better. In fact we are living during the most peaceful time in history.
posted by bigmusic at 9:02 PM on February 2, 2008

I was going to say roughly what Miko has said. There are over 6 billion people in the world, and the rate of population growth to be pretty much inversely proportional to per capita wealth for any given population. This means that even though the number of places in need of help may be declining, the number of people in need of help keeps growing. The trends cancel each other enough to give the impression that little ground has been gained.

Cynics may reason that all our problems are simply a result of human nature, but that line of reasoning is faulty. We are fundamentally social animals. The need to have positive interactions with each other is built into the DNA because the ability to cooperate and learn from each other is what has made us so prolific.
posted by zennie at 9:05 PM on February 2, 2008

The percentage of people in extreme poverty has declined by roughly half since 1980. Check the wikipedia page on Poverty.

Since the world population has increased by about 50% since then this means that the total numbers extreme poverty will either be about the same or will have fallen.

Malthusians of one kind or another have been saying that humanity will get poorer and run out of food for about 200 years. They have been consistently wrong.
posted by sien at 10:59 PM on February 2, 2008

The effort to eradicate guinea worm disease worldwide has been a pretty huge success. From about 3.5 million cases in 1986 to about 16000 cases in 2004.
posted by teleskiving at 1:01 AM on February 3, 2008

You might want to read Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. He returned to Africa 30+ years after he was a Peace Corps volunteer. In his estimation, most everything had gotten worse, and he largely blamed well-intentioned do-gooders for introducing foreign solutions mismatched to the culture. In one example, he describes how a particular section of road would regularly wash out from rocks sliding down an adjacent hill. Local men would spend a week or two shoveling out the rocks, backbreaking work but also gainful employment. An outsider saw this situation and decided to contribute some heavy equipment to clear the road. The result: the men had to move away from the village to a city, since they were not needed to clear the rocks, resulting in more impoverishment; and the equipment eventually broke down, leaving the road blocked.
posted by Wet Spot at 7:00 AM on February 3, 2008

Don't trust the naysayers.
posted by greytape at 7:53 AM on February 3, 2008

World population is skyrocketing. All those basic public health improvements Miko is so proud of? They've enabled billions of babies to grow to adulthood and have babies of their own - whole generations that would have been lost to infant mortality and epidemics 50 years ago.

Infrastructure like housing, transit, and development to allow employment of those billions of people has lagged the public health improvements tremendously. So those people live, but without the resources you or I would take for granted as necessary to live a normal First World life.

I'll stop short of suggesting that this aid strategy has therefore not been an unqualified success, although that is an argument that has been made. Personally I tend to feel that where there's life, there's hope.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:48 AM on February 3, 2008

Another thing to keep in mind is that even though aid has grown over the last few decades, the heavy burden of debt repayment by developing countries also increased massively over that time, especially during the 1980s. Here's a 1989 NY Times article: "Despite record foreign aid disbursements by the World Bank and large donor countries like Japan, developing countries were so encumbered by debt obligations last year that they paid $50 billion more to creditors than they received in new aid, the World Bank reported today."

There's been some debt written off since that time, so the exchange isn't as lopsided, but poor countries are still paying billions.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 12:04 PM on February 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

ikkyu2, I see no reason to attribute the skyrocketing world population to misguided charitable endeavors, unless you would consider the discovery of hand soap to be in that category. Once we had billions people in the world, which was back in the 1800s, it was more a matter of mathematics to arrive where we are now. Growth continues to accelerate even though most charitable endeavors are more focused on sustainable economies and birth control than ever, and even though the AIDS epidemic is ravaging the centers of the largest population growth. The improvements in public health don't only affect the number of babies who survive to be adults; they also affect how long adults live and the quality of their lives.
posted by zennie at 8:10 AM on February 4, 2008

I'll stop short of suggesting that this aid strategy has therefore not been an unqualified success, although that is an argument that has been made. Personally I tend to feel that where there's life, there's hope

That's good, because while what you've said is true - more people are alive because of charitable aid of the past - it does not follow, for me, that we should enact policies and aid programs designed to cause more death in order to remove conditions for the remaining lot.*

The problem is one of addressing that infrastructure lag. The more I think about it, the more it seems that the international economic issues are a huge part of why aid is not more effective. Debt forgiveness is a pretty powerful tool, to start with, but there are political repercussions.

*You know who else tried THAT....
posted by Miko at 9:06 AM on February 4, 2008

er, not remove "improve." So yeah, I wouldn't say that the current results of past aid are an "unqualified" success. They are a qualified success. There's also a hierarchy of need approach that global aid tends to take: first, save lives. Then, feed. Then assure housing. Then assure education and/or jobs. The saving lives part may have proven itself very effective, pushing the need along the pipeline to the next issues related to poverty.

Part of the chaos of global aid is caused by the fact that at least a million organizations are working around the world on various target issues, and other than a few giant NGOs, there are not many organizing priniciples at work. This is where more support for the UN and its global programs for nonprofit support and aid prioritization would be a great help.
posted by Miko at 9:10 AM on February 4, 2008

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