Monday, February 1, 2010

What do Sudanese goats and Carolinian lunches have in common?

Last month, the Lieutenant Governor of the great state of South Carolina made this argument about free and reduced school lunch programs for poor children:
"You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."
This is a misguided statement to say the least. Cutting off food to underserved children won't help anyone. But even if Lt. Governor Bauer's comments are ignorant at best and malicious and racist at worst, it does highlight the tension between helping others and letting others help themselves.

Part of social investment is finding the most efficient, easily scalable programs that can help the most people. But providing inexpensive and easily-replicated solutions always comes with a flip-side of creating a reliance on those services, never allowing the social investor's work to end.

A recent post on AidWatch from Diane and Dennis Bennett illustrates how a program that ultimately failed can decrease dependency. The Bennetts discuss their program to diminish the need for food assistance in southern Sudan. They gave three goats to different villagers, hoping to receive the offspring back as payment to reinvest in other community members. Instead, two of the villagers defaulted on the loans and gave the resulting goats to other villagers to start their own herds. The project failed financially and ended. But the villagers kept the goats and are no longer dependent on external food assistance. Thus, in the eyes of the Bennetts, it was a success.

I am not trying to compare goat loans in south Sudan to school lunches in South Carolina, but I think the juxtaposition of these two programs can teach us about the relationship between dependency and effectiveness. One, the goats in south Sudan, creates less dependency, but the other, the school lunches in South Carolina, is more effective. While the Bennets say their program was successful, other villages in south Sudan (or across Sudan, or in all of Africa, or across the world) could have benefited if the program was scalable. The South Carolina lunches provide more food for more children, but because of that, more people are reliant on the program.

One does not always have to sacrifice dependency for effectiveness, or vice versa. Free school lunches can be used as a part of programs aimed at poverty-alleviation. Agricultural microloans can be done on a broader scale. And, long-run dependency might not even be a concern for you.

Ultimately, what is most effective should be the priority. But ignoring dependency will ultimately ignore end-goals. When thinking about your investments, keep the long term in mind, even if it isn't at the front.


  1. I am so happy to have the subject of school lunches brought up! I won't even justify the aforementioned Governor with a comment.

    Here is my experience with world hunger and school lunches.

    Each semester I teach college students about nutrition and healthy eating. Our last subject is world hunger. We do a serious of case studies about hunger in America and the world.

    One of the case studies illustrates how school lunches in developing countries actually reduces long term and short term hunger.

    The short term results are obvious, the children eat lunch each day while attending school. The family benefits because they do not need to feed those children who are attending school, or at least not as much. The long term benefits are less obvious. Because children are attending school, they are educated and can obtain better paying jobs. The benefits are particularly better when girls attend school because they pass their skills along to their children. The better paying jobs provide sfor their family and the family that they will have as adults.

    If we, as a nation, built schools and provided school lunches to developing nations (we actually did do this about 10 years ago) the children would be attending "our" schools instead of the terrorists' schools.

    School lunches are absolutely, WIN, WIN, WIN no matter who receives them.

  2. Interesting post, Jeff. Good connection of the 1st world to the 3rd world (and the developing worlds in both).

    This post really makes me think about alternate forms of payment.

    My mom works with an organization that makes solar ovens. They are struggling to get people to pay for them, but they are getting people to make bricks, cut timber, and assemble houses in return for an oven. It's not a sustainable model in some senses, yet the bang for the buck is hugely increased by coming up with creative alternate forms of payment.

  3. The goal of school lunches is to improve children's nutrition and enable them to focus at school, thus improving academic performance. It's NOT, obviously, to try to convince people living in poverty to have fewer children or even to reduce 'dependence' (a misleading term, really, because it hides the many forms of assistance on which higher-income people are 'dependent' (meaning that it influences behavior)--mortgage interest deductions, anyone?). School lunches are absolutely effective, and efficient, in working towards that defined goal and, as such, are successful.