The Road To Where?

Why do good intentions so often fail?

It happens all-too-often. A new approach to poverty is announced, there’s excitement, there’s publicity, tens—no, hundreds of millions of dollars are raised, and it’s declared that the end of poverty is in sight. Such hope! Such vision! But when plans hit the ground, things are more complicated, systems collide with systems, and often people end up worse than they were before any of this help ever arrived.

Some development experts went to Africa looking for “quick wins”: innovations that could dramatically improve people’s lives. One idea was to give people fertilizer so they could produce more food on their farms to reduce malnutrition. Bang, the villages they worked with grew so much corn they had a surplus—yields tripled. But then a funny thing happened. The roads were so poor the surplus couldn’t be marketed. So some farmers discarded their surplus, but then rats arrived. In the end, most of the growers sold their corn for less than it cost to produce it.

This is the tragedy of development. Plans look good on paper, but the world is more complex than we think. People resist change, sometimes for bad reasons, but sometimes for good ones. Self-help, micro-enterprise, and small, sustainable solutions are possible, but we need to be humble. Africa’s landscape is littered with rusted tractors, broken water pumps, and neonatal incubators that can’t be plugged in because there’s no power.

Good intentions fail when big money funds grandiose plans with no accountability. Small initiatives grown little-by-little do better.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA

Chief Investment Officer

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