Many people who have spent time doing humanitarian work are likely familiar with Loren Eiseley’s story, “The Star Thrower.” It begins with the narrator walking 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.
Recovering from COVID-19’s economic fallout
With potentially half a billion people falling into poverty as a result of COVID-19’s spread, it’s never been more important for the international community to work together and help poor communities recover. But decisive action shouldn’t come at the expense of a broader conversation regarding poverty alleviation. Let’s start that conversation with one idea many will agree upon: programs that perpetuate dependency do little to create lasting prosperity. Consider food relief programs.
In response to the coronavirus, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Food for Peace program in Tajikistan, in collaboration with Avesto and Resource and Policy Exchange, Inc., has delivered nearly 60,000 kg of food assistance to aid health and social protection facilities and vulnerable Tajik households. While providing direct assistance like this may be helpful and even necessary during an acute crisis, this approach to food assistance could be detrimental. How will low-income countries like Tajikistan develop productive, robust systems for agriculture, food processing, distribution, sales, and so on at home if they’re continually sent free food? Local farmers will find it increasingly difficult to develop market-based solutions that are critical to becoming prosperous.
Food relief programs are a microcosm of much of the activity that takes place in the development industry. Unfortunately, even though they often provide welcome relief in the short run, sending food to poor communities 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
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, 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 Babban Gona, a social enterprise that helps smallholder farms in Nigeria reach their potential by building mini farm cooperatives. Although farmers make up 40% of Nigeria’s labor force, producing food is complex and expensive, thanks to fragmented markets for things like seeds, fertilizer, and credit that farmers need to improve yields. Babban Gona’s mini cooperatives solve this problem by providing an integrated set of services including training, loans, and needed agricultural inputs. It’s a sustainable model that benefits everyone involved, helping farmers double their productivity and creating new jobs along the way.
Certainly, as the story of the star thrower teaches, it’s virtuous to persist in efforts to do good even when results seem insignificant. But that 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, the international community will not only undo the regression caused by COVID-19, but go far in lifting communities towards prosperity.