Thursday, August 18, 2011

In Defense of Aid

Someone asked me the other day if I believed in aid.  "You have been so critical of the aid system," he said. "Why don't you just do something else?" In response, I related the following.

In the 1970s, a combination of factors left a ten year-old boy living on and off below the poverty line, with four siblings at home and a single mother.  His mother stayed at home to take care of his pre-school age sister, because child care would have cost more than any salary she could make; she did not have a college degree and had few marketable skills.  The small city he lived in had few economic opportunities; it once had been prosperous, but its main industry (textiles)  had moved away, and the city was down at the heels and felt grim.  The boy delivered newspapers and scooped ice cream to make a little money, but it was not enough to make a fundamental difference to his circumstances.

Fortunately, there was a school lunch program that enabled the boy to get reduced price meals at noon.  He had to stand in a separate line with a separate color ticket, which he found humiliating, but there was nothing he could do if he wanted lunch.  As the impact of inflation reduced the real value of the family's fixed income, the school system even allowed the boy to get free lunches.  Free lunches involved yet another color ticket with even greater stigma, but the boy used them when he had to, and he ate decent lunches.

In a couple of years, when the boy's youngest sister was able to go to school, the boy's mother enrolled in a government-funded job training program.  It was not particularly well run, but it did give her some basic skills, and provided a structure for her to search for a job.  Eventually she got a few jobs, not great ones at first, but she kept at it, and after a time she found an excellent employer with whom she eventually stayed for many years. Her paychecks helped stabilize the family's income, and helped make up for the effects that the big inflation of the '70s had taken on it.

As the boy moved up through the grades, he was determined to make something of himself and he studied hard.  But he also got lucky.  A private school thirty miles away offered him a full scholarship, including room and board.  This was a big break for him.  The school was good academically, and it made the boy much more worldly by introducing him to networks that would make it easier for him professionally in the future.  He was not the top student in the class, but he did well enough so that a private foundation offered him a full scholarship for four years at an excellent state university.  The foundation was so open-minded that they even gave him a grant to travel around the world one semester to study international development.

When he decided to go to graduate school, that school offered him a generous scholarship funded by a private donor.  And the school helped the boy (well, he was 24 years old by then), take a year off to work in the Philippines to get some real experience, so that he would be more marketable on the job market.

At age 25, after finishing his graduate degree, the boy got a real job - a good job - where he was able to pay his own way.  He spent the next 25 years in international development, (hopefully) doing some good in the world.

That boy received a lot of aid along the way.  Some of it was public aid, and some of it was private aid, some in the form of loans, but most in the way of grants.

That boy was me.  And that success story is why I remain optimistic about aid, despite its many failures and disappointments.  I think that if we try hard, think critically, and work together, we can make aid as effective for millions of others as it was for me.