Founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, a leading antihunger organization
New York University professor, author of The White Man's Burden (Penguin Press, March)
Resolved: We can feed the world.
Shore: Americans can't feed the world, but can do much more to help the world feed itself. Some of the most effective anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs in developing nations are small-scale projects run by local or regional social entrepreneurs who would never think of themselves in such terms, but who are innovating in ways governments can't, and that are often not even on the radar screens of government officials. We saw this in Ethiopia with an organization called Action for Development that was introducing new crops, innovative farming methods and water projects into the community, and it is true in many other places. Targeted support, technical assistance, and investment in local entrepreneurs who have the potential to become influential "market leaders" in their community may be less glamorous than global anti-poverty programs, but in the long-run more effective. As a nation we'd be in a better position to advance such efforts if we'd close the economic gap that exists in our own country, one that leaves 35 million Americans living below the poverty line, and too many families with children seeking emergency food assistance. Hunger in the United States is one issue that is eminently solvable.
Easterly: Whenever I hear that a tragic problem is "eminently solvable," I feel the urge to reach for my intellectual shotgun. If hunger in the U.S. is so solvable, why didn't decades of anti-poverty campaigns already solve it? And you scare me with advocacy lines like "too many families with children seeking emergency food assistance." Is there someone who thinks there are too few hungry Americans? And what does this have to do with Ethiopians? I am sympathetic to your program to address the much more serious hunger problem in Ethiopia—it sounds like just the right kind of thing to do. Critics of official top-down global aid programs, which have indeed been a spectacular failure, are certainly ready for bottom-up people like you. Let the people who know the problem best—the poor people themselves—solve their own problems. However, I hope you are resisting the official aid agency syndrome—do lots of symbolic things that play well to the rich country public, but don't let yourself be held accountable for whether the intended beneficiaries are better off or not. Do you have a way to evaluate your programs, getting feedback from the local people themselves?
Shore: Before reaching for that shotgun, check with Dick Cheney. You're likely to hit a lot of innocent bystanders. When I hear a catch-all phrase like "decades of anti-poverty campaigns" I reach for my protective vest. But fortunately we're not debating anti-poverty programs. The anti-hunger programs in the U.S., that I suspect you are lumping into that broader category, have actually done an amazing job or reducing hunger, which is why school lunch, school breakfast, food stamps and the Women Infants and Children supplemental feeding program (WIC) are among the few to enjoy so much bipartisan support. It is those very programs that have convinced me that childhood hunger in the U.S. is eminently solvable. We're closer than most people think. And it's why former Senators Dole and McGovern are currently trying to take some of these same ideas to the rest of the world.
In the U.S. we are able to measure progress, hold ourselves accountable, and invite our stakeholders to judge us upon those results. I'm not sure how one would best do that globally. Are you?
Easterly: Don't worry, intellectual shotguns are much safer than the VP version. They only shoot down ineffective rhetoric that doesn't result in a single meal for a single hungry person. I'm glad you clarified that by "eminently solvable" you meant problems in America pretty much solved— I can certainly agree those kind are solvable. You take a much more productive direction when you talk about domestic programs featuring feedback from the hungry and accountability to those same hungry and those who care about them. You have put your finger on the problem with foreign aid- official aid agencies have virtually no feedback from and accountability to the voiceless poor of the world. I hope non-government organizations like yours can do better—such as subjecting yourselves to independent evaluation of the impact of a random sample of your projects by third parties. In short, if you want to know if you helped the poor, try asking them.
Shore: You've put your finger on what seems like a dilemma, which is that there are a lot of things NGO's can do that government cannot: they can innovate, take risks, and be closer to the people they serve (and therefore be more accountable to them) but it seems improbable that even the best NGO efforts will scale to reach all of those who need them without broader public and ultimately government support. And that's when things start to get muddy. I have been encouraged by the degree to which individual anti-hunger leaders in developing countries have been eager to access help on a one-to-one basis. On my last trip to Ethiopia, a young man whose agricultural project we visited followed our Land Rover for about two hours until we got back to our small plane. He walked over and said, "If you know of anyone who could give us just two weeks of training in marketing and communication skills, it would be a great boost to our efforts." You and I, in NY and DC, are only surrounded by about five thousand such individuals. Creating opportunities for people to share their strength this way seems like a huge opportunity.
Easterly: I love the idea of the whole skills assistance thing originating from the local anti-hunger leaders, contrary to the usual UN/World Bank approach of "us" deciding what "they" need and supplying it whether there is any demand for it or not. And of course I agree not everything can be done by NGOs - for example, it's doubtful that NGOs could do the road-building necessary for farmers to get their crops to the hungry at reasonable prices. Having reached agreement on all this, however, I still feel like I haven't gotten a straight answer from you on independent evaluation of your programs. Accountability has to be more than rhetoric-it will only help make programs work if it's concrete. Can you please answer the question: Are you willing to have (or do you already have) a sample of your programs evaluated by an independent third party?
Shore: Yes, of course our own programs have been subject to independent evaluations, most intensively in the case of our nutrition education efforts, which are most successful when they result in long-term and lasting changes in behavior. So we always welcome such evaluation and will continue to invest in it. The same is true for many of the organizations we fund. After all, Share Our Strength is primarily a grant maker, so we know how useful such evaluations can be. There is another type of evaluation also and it comes from free markets—stakeholders, donors and investors who believe we are having an impact and increase their support or believe we are not and decrease it. With greater transparency, and greater commitment to not only measuring outcomes but communicating them, the nonprofit marketplace could begin to act like a responsive marketplace, one in which high performing organization are rewarded and low performing organizations are penalized, and eventually winnowed out. We're not there yet, but the sector is moving in that direction. I'm guessing we can agree on free markets?
Easterly: Yes I think free market principles can be a great source of inspiration for designing aid programs (an approach for which I got pilloried by Amartya Sen, so I'm glad to find a fellow traveler). Of course, an academic always has to say "but…" The buts in this case are formidable but not impossible. The investors in a for-profit company in free markets know whether the company is a hit with the customers just by looking at corporate sales and profits (even then we need rules and honest accountants so that companies don't Enron-ize the books). Unlike private markets, there is no visible bottom line in aid that reflects customer (poor peoples') satisfaction. That is exactly why I am glad you are doing a lot of evaluation, and why I think there should be far more effort at eliciting feedback from the poor for both NGOs and official aid—if this is missing, on what could your angel investors base their faith in your efforts?
A version of this article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.