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 is because they are: they are some of the so-called Millennium Development Goals, which the UN announced in 2000 and never really had a chance of achieving by its deadline of 2015. Other organizations have adopted similarly broad agendas. USAID, for example, promotes things as diverse as an independent media, government transparency, cookstoves, ecotourism, and political reconciliation forums.

In all fairness, it is true that the causes of underdevelopment -- the market failures leading to persistent poverty -- are many and interrelated, so tackling just one problem is highly unlikely to lift villages out of poverty, not to mention regions or entire countries. There are no silver bullets, which is why many development specialists were skeptical of the microfinance fad after Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006: even if one could completely eliminate credit market failures by making small loans to the poor, many other market failures would remain that would constrain development. A loan to a poor single woman might allow her to buy a sewing machine and start her own clothes-mending business, but in the absence of insurance markets, she still faces the risk of having to sell off all of her assets (including her sewing machine) to pay for the medical treatment of a sick child.

Many, if not all, of the aims pursued by development policymakers are laudable in and of themselves. The developing world would no doubt be better off with gender equality, and there may even be some poor people who would welcome the arrival of recycled soap, teddy bears, or clowns. But it is more than a stretch to categorize such efforts as part of development, which should focus on generating higher, more stable incomes. Indeed, many of those lofty development goals were attained by rich countries as a byproduct of such higher, more stable incomes -- as individuals get wealthier, they demand better things from both the market and the state. It is hard to argue that environmental sustainability and establishing a global partnership for development, to take the most egregious examples among the Millennium Development Goals, are really part of the process of development -- or that the world’s poorest people would rank them anywhere on their list of priorities. As the Swiss scholar Gilbert Rist put it in his History of Development, “ ‘development’ -- previously regarded as a complex but relatively coherent phenomenon -- has been broken up into a set of objectives whose links with one another are scarcely explained.”

How did this happen? A large part of the problem is structural. Bureaucrats in large development organizations, such as USAID, or the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, face conflicting incentives, and although they are certainly rewarded for helping the poor, they are also rewarded for being entrepreneurial within their own organizations. The more pies they have their fingers in, the more sway they carry within their organizations, and few of their colleagues will stand in the way of someone wanting to do just one more thing for the poor. In nongovernmental organizations, there are also fundraising incentives at play. Seeing that there is money to be had from development agencies, an organization already focused on, say, environmental sustainability in the United States might start making the case that environmental sustainability is in fact a development issue. Enough issues have been brought under the development umbrella over time, with the result being widespread mission creep. “I can’t even have a road construction project without explicitly including a nutrition component,” a former student of mine who works for one of the world’s biggest aid organizations complained to me this summer. “ A nutrition component -- as part of a road construction project!”

The problem is more than semantic. Most developed countries spend a paltry portion of their income on helping developing ones -- the United States, for example, spent just 0.19 percent of its GDP on foreign aid in 2010 -- and the fraction is shrinking. When development agencies and nongovernmental organizations try to do too many different things, not only do they suffer from the policy equivalent of attention deficit disorder; they also spread their already scarce resources ever more thinly.

Instead of being a mile wide and an inch deep, the practice of development should be narrower and deeper by focusing on those things that matter most to the poor. The political scientist Kim Yi Dionne has found that in Malawi, people who are HIV-positive or who have lost a loved one to HIV/AIDS ranked improved HIV/AIDS services very low among their priorities. They were much more concerned about access to clean water, followed by agricultural development. Yet most public donors don’t seem to care. And private donors, often heralded by free-market proponents as knowing better than public donors, are not much better: in August, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to deliver Internet access to the five billion people who are not yet online -- a priority that Bill Gates called “a joke” when compared to eradicating malaria.

In the spirit of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, ensuring that basic needs are met by focusing on boosting incomes would be a good place to start. Many of the things promoted nowadays by development -- breastfeeding, the use of cookstoves, gender equality, environmental sustainability, an independent media, Internet access, and so on -- fall into place naturally once people have met their basic needs, such as clean water, plentiful and nutritious food, and found a steady source of income. In other words, many conditions targeted by idealistic development goals arose in wealthier countries as byproducts of higher incomes, and trying to provide them at the same time as more fundamental things puts the cart before the horse. Paul Collier made a related point in The Bottom Billion when he advocated focusing on the extreme poor (such as people who live in Madagascar, where GDP per capita was less than $1,000 in 2012) rather than on the merely poor (such as people who live in Bhutan, where GDP per capita was $6,700) and on those fortunate enough to live in middle-income countries (such as people who live in Brazil, which has a GDP per capita of $11,900). Yet development agencies seem to have a hard time focusing on the poorest countries: USAID is active in almost all of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, as well as in such places as Barbados.

Mission creep ends up materially harming the very people it is intended to help: the extreme poor, or the roughly 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day. So it is high time for development agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and philanthropies to reconsider what kind of activities they are promoting and to ask themselves whether they are directly contributing to improving the lives of the extreme poor or merely watering down development efforts. They might look back to the history of rich countries, to see which development achievements came first and which came last. And then they should reallocate aid money to those activities that directly, rather than indirectly, lead to higher, more stable incomes.

It is no secret that development policy is all too often subordinate to foreign policy, and that development activities are usually undertaken to further one’s foreign policy objectives. Even from such a realpolitik perspective, development policy can become a much more effective instrument of foreign policy if it can focus once again on what really matters to the poor and deliver results. Otherwise, development policy will remain an ineffective and expensive way for countries to feel good about themselves.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • MARC F. BELLEMARE is an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.
  • More By Marc F. Bellemare