Poverty, disease, famine. If we were to ask you which places would you associate with these three simple words, most likely African nations would be the first ones to come to your mind. However, these problems are not by any means limited to this group of nations, but rather to those whose economies are underdeveloped, where many people live under the poverty line. As such, significant efforts have been made in the past decades to try and overcome these issues, generally through foreign aid mechanisms aimed towards struggling nations. Nevertheless, a consensus is yet to be reached on what is the most effective way to help develop these economies.

Sachs – the foreign aid enthusiast

There is a school of thought, defended primarily by Jeffrey Sachs, an American economist, which argues that it can indeed be through Official Development Assistance (ODA) that impoverished households and developing economies can improve their economic paradigms. ODA is what is commonly referred to as Foreign Aid, which is defined as “a set of flows that are concessional in character and are administered with the promotion of economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective”. Sachs argues that developing nations frequently fall into a “poverty trap” where households only have enough income to cover for their basic needs, which leads to them both not increasing their household savings and not paying taxes. The absent supply of loanable funds to the loan market and the low amount of money that can be funneled into public investment lead to a situation where there is not enough invested capital to sustain economic growth. This is where ODA can play a vital role. By providing ODA to households their savings can increase and, if there are also other funds that can support public investment and microfinancing to firms, the capital per person can increase and this poverty trap can be overcome (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - The importance of ODA in breaking the poverty trap

Figure 1 – The importance of ODA in breaking the poverty trap

Now, it is easy to quote all these theoretical assumptions, but to verify their veracity in the real world is a whole different story. Fortunately, there have been examples where Sachs’ framework has proven to be effective in developing impoverished economies, the most famous of which being the Green Revolution that occurred in India between 1965 and 1990.

In 1975, 59,1% of India’s population lived in poverty and in 1970 only 18,4% of India’s agricultural area was irrigated, the other part being composed of less sophisticated agricultural technologies. As such, the Indian Government, in collaboration with its International Development partners, launched a massive investment campaign to modernise this sector of the economy and support its struggling population. The adoption and development of irrigation techniques were subsidised, which alongside the creation of new credit and microfinance mechanisms aided the lower-income population (Table 1). These policies allowed small farm owners to have access to cheap inputs that improved their financial situation and, in turn, India’s economic position: in the 1990s the percentage of population that lived in poverty fell to 43,1% and 31,8% of the agricultural area became irrigated.

Table 1 - Decrease in the number of poor people per million Rupees spent in India

Table 1 – Decrease in the number of poor people per million Rupees spent in India


Easterly – the foreign aid skeptic

On the other end of the aid debate spectrum is William Easterly, an American economist specialized in development economics. Easterly believes that the current system to provide foreign aid is neither working efficiently nor achieving its goal, since it’s not being well structured to obtain real effects. He further states that, if not provided correctly, it can be a disincentive to the economy.

The “poverty trap”, first introduced by Sachs, predicts growth per capita of the poorest countries to be zero or negative. However, data tells us another story: according to studies (Table 2), many poor countries verify, in fact, a positive per capita growth.

Table 2 - Testing the poverty trap for long periods

Table 2 – Testing the poverty trap for long periods

Furthermore, one of the characteristics of the “poverty trap” is that savings are very low for populations, leading countries to need large receipts of aid. In fact, in 1990, more than 15% of Africa’s income was from foreign donors. However, as shown in the graph below (Graph 1), as aid increased, per capita growth didn’t necessarily increase, contrary to what would be expected. Furthermore, some infer that it is not the increase in foreign aid that causes a fall in the growth rate, but rather a fall in growth that incentivizes increases in aid.

Graph 1 - Aid and Growth in Africa (ten-year moving averages)

Graph 1 – Aid and Growth in Africa (ten-year moving averages)

Nevertheless, although one can make the case that there is no such thing as a poverty trap, since poor and undeveloped countries show small, but still positive, growth rates, it still cannot be ruled out that these same countries need external assistance in order to reach higher levels of development.

Unfortunately, it’s usually the way this assistance is provided that is the reason why providence of foreign aid isn’t accompanied by increases in growth per capita. In fact, much of the donations’ money is not effectively reaching those in poor living conditions. There exists a chain through which money must travel until it finally reaches those who it’s meant for, and it’s exactly somewhere along this chain where a lot of things can fail and prevent funds from reaching their final destination. In many cases, it’s corruption and embezzlement from political elites that will keep the foreign aid from being correctly allocated. Sierra Leone officials’ stealing of a total of 1.2 million GBP (british pounds), in 2010, and Uganda’s education ministers’ embezzling of a staggering of 16.5 million GBP are only a few of many, many examples.

One way of preventing this misallocation of fundings is to increase monitoring and evaluate the impact of foreign aid. The monitoring allows the aid donor to ensure that the aid is being correctly allocated, while the evaluation enables them to make sure that, after the aid has reached its recipient, it’s being well used.

Then… What should we do to help fight poverty?

Easterly’s answer is simple. Before all, western countries should make peace with the fact that they are not as much a part of the solution as they think they are. After accepting that fact, those who wish to help can focus on the importance of rights: only in an environment where an individual has political rights and economic freedom there is propensity to development. Hence, donors should not try to separate themselves from political questions, but rather fight for a democratic and free political environment.

An unreachable consensus

An agreement between Sachs and Easterly is highly unlikely. An absolutely correct and universal answer to world poverty is even less. But it still is a matter that should be addressed. According to the last estimates available on global poverty (from 2015), 9.9% of the population lives in extreme poverty (i.e. under the poverty line). That is 730 million people subsiding with less than $1,90 a day and without access to basic essentials that many of us take for granted, struggling to survive yet another day. If, on one hand, there is an ongoing discussion about how aid should be provided, on the other hand, whether or not we should help these countries is not up for debate.


  • Business and Economics Journal

  • Green revolution paper

  • Reinventing Foreign Aid, William E., The MIT Press, 2008

  • The economics of international development: Foreign Aid versus Freedom for the World’s Poor,  William E., The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2016

  • The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time; Sachs, Jeffrey D., Penguin Press, 2005

  • The Treasury

  • The white man’s burden: Why The West’s Efforts To Aid The Rest Have Done So Much Ill And So Little Good, William E., 200633

André Rodrigues - André Rodrigues Laura Osório - Laura Osório

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