I recently read this: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/14/out-of-poverty-family-style/?scp=1&sq=poverty&st=cse about an organization called the Family Independence Initiative (F.I.I.) which assists people in finding their way out of poverty. F.I.I. turns on its head the usual social services model, which is very similar to the foreign assistance model frequently used in developing countries. These models offer material goods and services to people deemed in need of them, whereas F.I.I. encourages people to use their strengths and those of their communities to find and develop resources to solve their own problems.
This approach is something in between the idea that money and people with good intentions are the best way to make things better, and the idea that people should be required to lift themselves up by their bootstraps with no help at all. Small amounts of money and very limited advice are offered by the organization, but essentially the community is required to find its own path forward. So far the results have been impressive. You can find the details at fiinet.org or just by searching online.
I was delighted to see this, because my biggest frustration during my time in the world of international development was seeing large amounts of money being thrown around by the big agencies on projects that were nearly useless but which provided a huge incentive for people with initiative to orient their energies toward participating in these lucrative projects rather than finding more creative, and in the long run more effective, ways to solve the problems their countries faced. I will be thrilled if the F.I.I. model becomes the standard one.
This is not to say that impoverished people, no matter what country they live in, shouldn’t be able to receive direct benefits, particularly very basic things such as food and essential medical care, but people with more material advantages tend to discount the skills of those with fewer, no matter how good their intentions might be. We would all do better to encourage each person, each family, each community, to find and capitalize on their strengths. I hope the work of F.I.I. is replicated all over the world, because the whole world could benefit.