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Poverty Unbound

April 21, 2009

(Tony Pipa's twenty years of executive leadership span nonprofits, foundations, and global NGOs seeking to alleviate poverty. In his last post, he questioned whether nonprofits' eagerness to import methodologies and metaphors from the business world undermines the characteristics that give the nonprofit sector its value and meaning.)

Image-bridging As someone with an interest in both the domestic and international dimensions of poverty, I'm struck by the sometimes limited crossover and dialogue between people working on the issue here and those working abroad. It's especially painful to hear a U.S. congressman who sits on an influential foreign relations committee declare in conversation that there's no comparison and to watch executives of international nonprofits nod in assent, or to be visiting the Gulf Coast region and have local activists grumble about government funds going overseas.

Those examples suggest a potentially unfortunate scenario: having a sort of development protectionism develop, where the pressure to divert funds to local rather than international causes builds over time. There has been speculation that the recession is prompting private donors to rethink their priorities along these lines, though -- because of lags in the data -- it's still too early to tell. Recently Gary Becker and Richard Posner, two University of Chicago faculty members, debated whether donors should receive a tax benefit at all for supporting global causes.

On the other hand, the mindset of international development acolytes sometimes suggests a sort of moral high-handedness. When 40 percent to 50 percent of an entire city is given over to slums, they'll say, you can't chalk it up to bad choices. Living on less than a dollar a day or fleeing to a refugee camp to escape a civil war is fundamentally different than someone struggling to make ends meet in the United States, and donors get a much bigger bang for the buck in the developing world, helping scores more people with smaller investments.

Whatever grains of truth are contained in the attitudes on either side, they distract us from a substantive conversation with the potential to be immensely productive. The forces behind poverty in both contexts have more in common than not, and there is much to learn from successes and failures that can be adapted and applied across silos.

Take emergency response. International humanitarian organizations -- many responding to a domestic crisis for the first time -- were some of the most successful in reaching low-income survivors after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Just think what the U.S. could learn about disaster preparedness from Bangladesh, which experienced a cyclone in 1991 that killed 138,000 people, then in 2007 experienced another of similar magnitude that killed less than 10,000. Will we be able to demonstrate such substantial improvement if another Katrina hits in twelve years?

And what might international philanthropists and NGOs learn from the approach of the Jacobs Family Foundation in redeveloping the Diamond neighborhoods of San Diego? With the foundation's support, community-led development is being coupled with patient capital and a commitment to transferring financial ownership in a way that is -- pardon the cliché, but here it’s apt -- truly empowering. As a result, more than four hundred local residents have ownership stakes in the $23.5 million Market Creek Plaza commercial development; 120 residents were involved in its design; new housing, a park, and a community center are on the drawing board; and by 2020 the community will own it all. It’s a project that is successfully building local governance, a perennial challenge for international development.

Certainly cross-pollination does occur, but often it’s the exception rather than the rule -- and more unnatural than it needs to be. You won’t find many members of InterAction at Independent Sector's annual conference, and I wonder how many foundations or think tanks that run both domestic and international programs structure regular and substantial learning interactions among those different staff teams.

It’s heartening that Jeff Sachs, Angela Glover Blackwell (of PolicyLink, a leading organization advancing economic equity in the U.S.), and David Lane (of the ONE Campaign, which fights extreme poverty in the developing world) will share the stage at the upcoming Mobilization to End Poverty conference. It will be interesting to see if they discuss where their separate advocacy agendas might mesh and complement each other. In addition, this year’s Global Philanthropy Forum (see PND's interview with GPF president and co-founder Jane Wales) will focus on both the domestic and international implications of five transnational issues. Perhaps the next step would be for GPF and the Neighborhood Funders Group -- the affinity group of foundations working to improve economic conditions in U.S. communities -- to co-sponsor a conference on solutions to poverty.

Global development advocates argue that efforts to reduce global poverty should play a more prominent role in U.S. foreign policy, because improving human security abroad enhances the standing of the U.S. in the world and helps to alleviate socioeconomic conditions that give rise to violence and terrorism. While it's not often presented this way, philanthropic investment that seeks to create opportunity and stability, and better position our citizens to compete and prosper in a global economy, is also about strengthening human security. Both are about creating a better, safer world. Working across boundaries will help us get there faster.

-- Tony Pipa


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Posted by The Nonprofiteer  |   April 22, 2009 at 12:57 PM

What a thoughtful and helpful post! Without thinking about it, I'd been accepting as inevitable the competitive attitudes of international and domestic poverty-fighters. Thanks for pointing out the ways in which they might instead be complementary.

Posted by Mitch Nauffts  |   April 22, 2009 at 09:43 PM

Tony, I agree with the Nonprofiteer -- a helpful and thought-provoking post! That said, there are some areas related to poverty alleviation -- job creation, support for small-biz development, access to health care come to mind -- that transcend borders. But there are others that seem stubbornly local (regionally or nationally) for reasons of history, culture, etc. I would love to see another post (or comment) that goes into more detail about areas where the international development and domestic-only partisans might find common ground.

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