Many people who have spent time doing humanitarian work are likely familiar with the story of “The Star Thrower.” Originally part of a 1969 essay by American author Loren Eiseley, the story has been retold and adapted many times by motivational speakers in the years since.
It begins with a scene in which the narrator walks along a beach littered with starfish that have become stranded after the recession of high tide. The narrator encounters a man pacing across the sand while periodically bending down to pick up a starfish and throw it back into the sea. Pointing out the many miles of beach ahead, the narrator skeptically asks what hope the man has of making a difference when there are more starfish than he could possibly save.
“I know I won’t make a difference for all of them,” the star thrower responds, crouching once more to pick up another starfish, “but I can make a difference for this one.”
It’s a lovely story that teaches that no act of service is truly insignificant and inspires people to continue trying to do good even when their contribution seems small.
But there is a danger with this story too. If we’re not careful, it can teach us to feel satisfied by any effort to do good, such that we stop pushing ourselves to find better solutions that have a longer-lasting effect.
Take wells. Digging wells has become a popular project for many humanitarian organizations across the globe during the last few decades. Unfortunately, even though they often provide welcome relief in the short run, wells eventually break down and remain broken unless the organization can step in again to fix it. This process is not only inherently unsustainable, but it also builds a dependent relationship that can hinder poor communities from finding a more sustainable solution to water security. In 2009, The International Institute for Environment and Development estimated that, in Africa alone, more than 50,000 water points installed by humanitarian organizations no longer work, representing $360 million in expenses.
Donated wells are a microcosm of much of the activity that takes place in the development industry. Too often those in wealthy countries frame poverty as simply a lack of resources, and therefore seek to solve it by transferring resources, like wells, clothing, or even school buildings directly into communities that lack them. However, without a sustainable mechanism in place to maintain and produce those resources, these efforts effectively only provide a short-term treatment for the problem, rather than make any meaningful progress towards prosperity.
Digging a well is quite a lot like throwing a stranded starfish back into the sea. The star thrower does momentary good for the individual starfish, but his effect is limited, and there is nothing to prevent the next high tide from replacing the starfish on the drying sand. Significantly, by devoting all his energy to tossing individual starfish into the water, the star thrower will always be too distracted to sit down and devise a way to help the starfish not get stranded in the first place. Understanding and solving that underlying problem may require more time and resources up front than simply continuing to toss starfish back in the sea, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore it. After all, when it comes to people living in poverty, it matters greatly that they all make it to the proverbial water.
A better way
Many organizations continue to focus on short-sighted solutions because the conventional system for helping the poor incentivizes it. People who donate money to a nonprofit often want reassurance that their contribution will directly help those in need. The unintentional outcome is a system that prioritizes quick, visible results, even if they come at the expense of long-term progress. Sustainable development is a longer, more complex process, but it yields powerful results that will help people live better lives indefinitely, not just during the lifetime of a well.
In our research studying the causes of prosperity, it has become clear one of the surest avenues for sustainable, inclusive growth is what we call market-creating innovation. Market-creating innovations transform previously expensive, complicated products into ones that are simple and affordable, such that new populations of people can begin to consume them. In so doing, as their name suggests, these innovations build new markets. And in contrast with donated solutions, the innovations supported by these new markets are inherently sustainable, since both the producers and consumers have a vested interest in ensuring the market succeeds and continues to function in the long term.
Take Drinkwell, an organization that’s creating a new market for affordable, clean water in Bangladesh. Unlike donated wells, Drinkwell sells water filtration systems to entrepreneurs, incentivizing them not only to provide water to as many people as possible, but also to ensure the machinery stays in working order. And it’s not just water; just look at the impact market-creating innovators like Inyenyeri, Earthenable, or Aravind Eye Care have had in the communities where they operate. By focusing on sustainable solutions to clean cooking, affordable flooring, and eye care, respectively, they’re creating lasting prosperity.
Certainly, as the story of the star thrower teaches, it is virtuous to persist in efforts to do good even when results seem insignificant. But that also shouldn’t become an excuse to accept inadequate results and stop striving to find and implement better solutions. By taking the time to understand what causes prosperity and then implement it where it’s needed most, we’ll not only be doing good, but doing it better.