Smart Samaritans

How can rich outsiders help the poor in places where nothing seems to work? Fresh out of college, I worked on a United Nations project to bring new farming methods to a remote and impoverished jungle village in Colombia. The first clue as to the difficulties we would face hit me as soon as I stepped off the bus and saw the moldy, abandoned headquarters of an earlier project -- apparently its only lasting achievement. Ninety minutes later came a second clue: guerrilla fighters massacred 18 people right outside town by firebombing the very bus route I had just taken.

As I talked to farmer after farmer, a landscape of challenges emerged. Which of many competing locals represented "the community"? Why should farmers listen to us when there were so many officials, indigenous leaders, businesspeople, traffickers, soldiers, rebels, and missionaries peddling different, and often conflicting, advice? And even if our UN team somehow got the agronomy and the politics right in this village, what would that matter if the four-decade cycle of civil war continued?

Three years later, I found myself on a World Bank mission in the office of a government minister in Guyana, one of the poorest countries in South America. The minister's telephone interrupted our conversation. On the other end, he explained after hanging up, was an anonymous voice hinting that his children might not arrive home safely that night. Earlier that day, the minister had announced plans for court proceedings against a powerful Asian company active in the same area as our World Bank project. "That's why I carry this," he said, hoisting a leg onto the desktop to reveal a revolver strapped to his lower calf.

As an outsider, it seemed to me that the minister was a hero engaging villains in a high-stakes showdown to which I was largely irrelevant. No matter how carefully we on the World Bank team did our work, what could it achieve if we did not somehow help this man? How, exactly, could we help him from Washington? And anyway, how certain could we be that he was in fact a hero?

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