POV, the PBS web portal for discussion of documentaries, invited me to write a comment on Good Fortune, a film about problems with top-down development efforts in Kenya, which is to be broadcast on PBS affiliates tomorrow evening (Tuesday). Below is my comment, which is also available on POV along with a variety of other interesting responses. At noon (Eastern) Wednesday a live online chat about the film will be available at POV and syndicated here.
My POV Comment on Good Fortune
Director Landon Van Soest and producer Jeremy Levine have made a provocative documentary that raises tough questions about top-down approaches to development. The questions this film poses are not new to development types: The filmmakers’ views (top-down development efforts are misguided at best and sometimes downright destructive) fall squarely at the Easterly extreme of the Easterly-Sachs debate. Still, even development policy wonks who are tired of this debate will find plenty to chew on in Good Fortune’s moving depiction of the struggles of two Kenyans — a midwife in an urban shantytown slated for demolition and a livestock herder whose land is flooded out by a foreign-backed rice farm.
The film will nicely discomfort two groups who are normally at odds. Supporters of increased development assistance will squirm at the seemingly tone-deaf U.N. bureaucrat, who announces that Kibera, Africa’s largest slum and home to 1 million people, "should not exist." Those who rail against aid and see private sector investment as a pro-poor alternative, such as African economist and media darling Dambisa Moyo, will wince at Calvin Burgess, the callous representative of Oklahoma-based Dominion Farms Limited. Burgess’s supreme confidence that he knows what is best for others — including people who are about to lose their land and homes to the rising water behind a Dominion dam — makes him seem like a cardboard cutout of a Hollywood villain.
Documentary filmmakers are not obliged to come up with alternative approaches to the problems they describe. Indeed, after watching the film one of my stronger emotions was a sense of gratitude to the filmmakers for capturing these moving stories.
But many who watch the film will want to know whether most efforts to foster development are similarly ill-starred. Is there nothing that works? Is a sort of benign neglect the best that the rich world can offer people in developing countries? Below I offer a few tentative answers.
First, helping people is hard. Many actions have unintended consequences. This is perhaps especially true of outside support for development that at its core involves extremely complex processes — in other words, not only economic growth, but social transformation. Still, many projects do work. My colleague David Roodman, an expert on (and sometimes critic of) microfinance, recently returned from Nairobi, where he visited projects run by Jamii Bora, a donor-supported microfinance organization that performs a variety of services, including slum resettlement. Roodman didn’t do an in-depth study of Jamii Bora, but he is an astute observer, so when he tells me he believes Jamii Bora is helping people — and that it helped to calm the waters during Kenya’s post-election violence — I’m inclined to believe him. As part of a broader initiative, my former colleague Ruth Levine (now in a senior policy job at the United States Agency for International Development) led a study group to discover what has worked in global health. The resulting book, Millions Saved: Proven Successes in Global Health, documents 17 cases in which large-scale, long-lasting programs, many of them top-down, improved the health of millions of people, often literally saving their lives.
But projects — and foreign aid to support them — aren’t the only way to help. Rich world policies in many areas — think trade, migration and climate, to name just three — have a profound impact on poor people in developing countries. The Center for Global Development’s annual commitment to development index measures the level of development friendliness in 22 high-income countries, adjusted by the sizes of their respective economies. In 2009, the United States ranked number 17.
Good Fortune offers a valuable and moving critique of two efforts to help gone badly awry. It deserves to be seen and discussed widely, especially within the development community. Some who see it may be tempted to use it as a stick to beat foreign assistance, or even to justify inaction in the face of extreme global poverty and inequality. I think that would be a mistake. This film poses a simple question to all of us: Is this the best we can do? Surely not.