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 we can do much more to help the world feed itself. Some of the most effective antihunger and antipoverty programs in developing nations are small-scale projects run by local or regional social entrepreneurs innovating in ways governments can't. We saw this in Ethiopia with an organization called Action for Development, which was introducing new crops, innovative farming methods, and water projects into the community. Such local programs may be less glamorous than global antipoverty programs, but in the long run, they're more effective. But we'd be in a better position to advance such efforts if we closed the economic gap that exists in our own country, one that leaves 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 antipoverty campaigns already solve it? 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. 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.
Shore: When I hear a catchall phrase like "decades of antipoverty campaigns," I reach for my protective vest. But fortunately, we're not debating antipoverty programs. The antihunger programs in the U.S., which I suspect you are lumping into that broader category, have actually done an amazing job of 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. 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: You have put your finger on the problem with foreign aid: Official aid agencies have virtually no feedback from, or accountability to, the voiceless poor of the world. I hope nongovernment 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've helped the poor, try asking them.
Shore: You've put your finger on what seems like a dilemma. There are a lot of things NGOs can do that the government cannot: They can innovate, take risks, and be closer to the people they serve. But even the best NGO efforts probably won't reach all of those in need without broader public and government support. And that's when things get muddy. I have been encouraged by the eagerness of antihunger leaders in developing countries to access help. On my last trip to Ethiopia, a young man whose agricultural project we visited followed us back to our small plane. He said, "If you know anyone who could give us just two weeks of training in marketing and communications, it would be a great boost." Creating chances for people to share their strengths this way seems like a huge opportunity.
Easterly: I love the idea of skills assistance originating from local leaders, contrary to the usual UN/World Bank approach of "us" deciding what "they" need and supplying it whether there is demand or not. Clearly, not everything can be done by NGOs—for example, it's doubtful that NGOs could build the roads necessary for farmers to get crops to the hungry at reasonable prices. On that, we agree.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.