Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. It’s a popular analogy in any discussion about foreign aid. There are many ways to fight poverty and just about as many views and opinions about the poor. But the main question, what it always seems to bore down to, is whether or not development aid works.

On one side of the argument, you have the Zambian born, international economist Dambisa Moyo. In 2009 she published Dead Aid, a New York Times bestseller, about her views on development aid in Africa and the rest of the world. In her book, Moyo explains that it doesn’t work, because it makes people dependant and only promotes corruption.

In Moyo’s view, you shouldn’t give people fish and you shouldn’t teach them to fish either. Let people learn to fish themselves. In other words, she thinks we should stop foreign aid altogether.

Big problems, small steps

But on the other side of the argument, you have people like MIT Professor Esther Duflo. She’s theCo-Founder and Director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), and Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in April 2011.

Duflo has an entirely different approach. She thinks that part of the problem is that the general tendency is to look at the major questions and problems of poverty in general, instead of taking small steps and thinking in terms of concrete problems, which can have specific answers. Instead of fixating on questions such as the role of foreign aid or the ultimate cause of poverty, we could also discuss how to fight dengue or diarrhea.

Duflo’s research focuses on smaller, tangible problems. And that’s not because they’re easier to solve, but because they’re easier to measure scientifically. It’s what she calls randomized control trials.
By doing a lot of small scale projects in for example Africa, Asia or South America, you’re not only tackling immediate problems for the locals, you also get scientific data. That means that, while you’re out making a difference, you also figure out in a scientific way which policies and projects work, so the next round of projects are more effective and so on.