Development Bloat

How Mission Creep Harms the Poor

A shipment of aid to the Philippines, November 17, 2013. Damir Sagolj / Courtesy Reuters

Efforts by wealthy countries to help their poorer counterparts began in earnest after World War II with the Marshall Plan. By the early 1960s, Western powers were busy helping former colonies develop their agricultural and industrial sectors. These plans appeared to work; in the decades that followed, global poverty plummeted. But along the way, economic development morphed into something else: a multi-billion-dollar industry characterized by mission creep. Today, development has come to mean too many things -- so many things, in fact, that development has become all things to all people so that by all possible means it might save some, to paraphrase the apostle Paul. The resulting scattershot approach, which dilutes resources, is harming the world’s poor.

The development landscape has never been more cluttered than it is today. International organizations such as the UN and the World Bank work side by side with national agencies such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID), nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam and World Vision, and philanthropies such as the Clinton and Gates foundations. As the number of actors has grown, the definition of development has expanded, leading many in the field to emphasize peripheral goals far removed from the concerns of the world’s poorest. On the New York Times blog edited by Nicholas Kristof, a post titled “Three Things the Development World Could Do Better” put promoting breastfeeding at the top of the list. Some groups even specialize in sending leftover hotel soap to Africa (the Global Soap Project, a partnership with the Hilton hotel chain), teddy bears to tuberculosis-afflicted children (Teddies for Tragedies), and clowns to people in crisis areas (Clowns Without Borders).

But it is not just pundits and those working for niche charities who are shoehorning extraneous goals into the category. Many experts and policymakers consider the following goals among their top priorities: providing universal primary education; promoting gender equality; improving maternal health; and developing “a global partnership for development.” If those aims sound familiar, it

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