What Makes International Philanthropy Work?

We live in an economic paradox. During this most recent and greatest wave of globalization, poverty worldwide is being eradicated at a record rate. In specific regions of India and China, poverty is disappearing faster than at any other time in history. Yet within most nations, including the United States, the gap between rich and poor is increasing. “We need to confront the most blatant fact that has persisted across centuries of social history,” writes Thomas Sowell, the Stanford University economist, which is “vast differences in productivity among peoples, and the economic and other consequences of such differences.” 

We must also acknowledge that during the past 50 years, our collective record in international assistance to the least developed countries has disappointed, a fact well documented by Jeffrey Sachs, Dambisa Moyo, and many others. One reason for these failures relates to the mindsets with which development practitioners and philanthropists engage the very people they are trying to assist.

I first experienced these dynamics more than 30 years ago. I had just left my Jesuit college, an institution dedicated to scholarship and service, and moved to a village in Africa.

• • •

I was exuberant. It was 1979. I was 21 years old, and I had just arrived at my Peace Corps post, a site for a new school near a small market called Mwembe Tayari [“The mangoes are ready”] in western Kenya. After two days of hitchhiking on lorries and the back of a pickup truck, I walked the last two miles with a couple of duffel bags. One bag contained clothes: three secondhand U.S. Army surplus shirts, a blue shirt, a pair of blue jeans, and a pair of Adidas Rom leather running shoes, gently worn. The other duffel was heavier. It contained paperback books: anthologies of western philosophy, a Robert Kennedy biography, and as much Hemingway as possible. I wore the other things I owned: a baseball cap, blue shirt, jeans, and a pair of work boots that we called clodhoppers.

I dropped the duffels at the site for the new teacher’s home. The local chief told me we would spend two days with the youth of the village and make “something nice out of mud and sticks.” I didn’t care if I had to sleep outside the whole two years. I was there to help these people. 

• • •

A Question of Relevance

For this article, I interviewed a number of leaders in the field of economic development and asked the question: “What has to be true for international philanthropy to work?” These leaders come from various cultures, religions, and perspectives. They are all trained professionals with experience in a wide spectrum of social, ethnic, religious, and geographic settings. Most of all, they are field-tested experts who confront, problem-solve, and, in some instances, overcome what Sowell calls “the most blatant fact.”


Ashraf Ghani

Their answers reveal that eradicating poverty cannot be reduced to a generic list of simple policy measures that will make regions and peoples better off. The Washington consensus, an economics-based set of abstractions (liberalize, privatize, stabilize, and democratize) that originated in Europe and North America, has not eliminated poverty, quite possibly because it is so difficult to implement. Outside of the special case of China, the Beijing consensus—based on centralized decision-making, undervalued exchange rates, and investment experiments that are rapidly brought to scale—has likewise failed. The answers to eradicating poverty, we learn, are more likely to be found in a mix of innovative philanthropic, economic, and business strategies.

“A philanthropist’s greatest challenge,” says Ashraf Ghani, a former minister of finance in Afghanistan, “is to create a strategy and organizational culture suited to local realities.” (As an architect of the world’s first constitution to integrate democracy, women’s rights, and Islam, Ghani knows about great challenges.) These realties, he adds, include an increasing number of global poor; the ascendance of Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia; the rise in commodities prices; the lowering of global communications costs; the coarsening of western politics and culture; and the decline of traditional cultures throughout the world.

Cardinal Peter Turkson is the highest-ranking African in the Catholic Church, as well as the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations Millennium Goals project. During his recent meetings at the United Nations, he told me over dinner, “There is a temptation to talk about the poor as if they are all the same, but different from you and me. We confuse getting rid of poverty with getting rid of the poor.”


Cardinal Peter Turkson

A common theme that emerged in my interviews is that prevailing local mentalities and ways of life have been too little appreciated. “It is a question of relevance,” says Luis Alberto Moreno, the president of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. “We constantly need to find ways to be relevant to the poor, and we do that by listening to them. Philanthropic and development programs that do not draw from local knowledge can fail to be sustainable.”

Effective philanthropists need to understand economics, business strategy, and the art of influencing a broad group of individuals, which might include other donors, grassroots volunteers, or policymakers. But effective philanthropists also need to know how to listen. Paul Kagame is the President of the Republic of Rwanda, the fastest-reforming nation in the world and one of the 10 fastest-growing economies. “We appreciate the work that philanthropists do for our people,” says Kagame, “but Rwandese will decide for ourselves what is important.”

The Goal of Accompaniment

Brian Atwood was the dean of the Hubert Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota and now leads the Development Assistance Committee, the coordinating function for aid for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. He told me over the phone from his headquarters in Paris, “It may sound counterintuitive, but philanthropy that works cannot be charity. Philanthropy that works creates the trust that only equals can feel.”

Paul Farmer has another word for it: accompaniment. Farmer is the head of the Global Health Program at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Partners in Health, which builds medical clinics for the poor in Haiti and Rwanda. “The best way to translate charity and goodwill into actual, sustainable change is through accompaniment,” explains Farmer, “listening to what is needed, and traveling the road with those you would like to help.”


Paul Farmer

Susan Sayers, chief development officer at Partners in Health, puts listening into the deeper context of mutual trust. “We need trust on the part of the giver that others will use the resources wisely for the betterment of a patient, a community, or an urgent social issue. We need trust on the part of the recipient that the giver acts with sincerity and is willing to listen and understand their needs.”

• • •

I suddenly found myself among a group of young, highly motivated African students. They possessed outsized expectations for an improved life. I had no money and not many things. I couldn’t speak their language, and I had no communication with home. I was incompetent at preparing the local food, cleaning my clothes, and dealing with the variety of rodents, insects, and small mammals that now viewed me as a crucial part of their ecosystem.

Still, my spirits remained high. I was happy to sleep under the stars, lose weight from my already skinny frame, and build fires to fend off the carnivores of the savanna. If that was the price I had to pay to teach math and science to village children, I was prepared.

Children followed me down to the brook that first day to watch me take a sip of water. An older boy, only 12 years old, said to me, “Teacher, give me a pair of shoes.”

I asked his name and shook his hand. “Twabe,” I replied, “I only have two pairs of shoes.” I placed my hand on his shoulder in a fatherly way. He said, “But you have two pairs of shoes, and I have none.” He looked down at his bare feet, which were calloused and gnarled beyond his years. His toenails looked like dulled pennies.

“Well, I have my work boots and my running shoes and I need them both,” I said.

He replied, “Can you not run in your work boots or teach in your running shoes?”

• • •

From Accompaniment to Effectiveness

“Philanthropy works if it begins by listening to those in need,” explains Mark Ward, who won the Service to America Medal for his work with USAID during the 2004 Asian tsunami. “Too much philanthropy does harm because it makes sense here, but not there, where the need is.” Others make a similar point. Steve Bloomfield, a former Peace Corps volunteer, is the executive director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. Successful philanthropy, he proposes, “has to affirm and enhance the lives of people and not simply advance an apparently good idea. It has to prove its value over time, continuously regenerating its usefulness.”

Dennis Whittle is the former chief strategist for the World Bank and founder of Global Giving. “For philanthropy to work,” he says, “intermediaries need to get out of the way and let beneficiaries speak to donors. Authentic feedback from beneficiaries is easier to solicit via video and Internet. Donors will no longer have to put up with massaged, feel-good messages. Candor engages rather than turns off donors, who are fully aware that some things work and some don’t. Funders are ready for an honest conversation with beneficiaries, one that acknowledges we often have to try a lot of things before we find out what delivers results.”

“Philanthropists should use a wide range of means, going beyond the traditional financial tools, to generate collaboration and innovation,” says Dane Smith, a former Peace Corps volunteer and now a consultant to NGOs and philanthropies. In this, practical business skills are important to international philanthropy: developing a vision, understanding needs, controlling costs, developing people, comprehending global forces, creating distinct value.

Like business, philanthropy should have as its goal solving real-world problems. But unlike for-profits, philanthropy should have the goal of putting itself out of business. “In the extreme case,” warns high-tech entrepreneur and venture philanthropist Andreas Widmer, “philanthropy becomes a business, an entire industry bent on perpetuating itself.” He recites a maxim in the development industry: “If poverty is your business—more poverty is more business.”

Many of those I interviewed offered insights into how business thought can be applied to philanthropic giving. “The benefits must always outweigh the costs,” explains Robert Litan of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. “Perhaps additionally, the grantee should find a for-profit revenue model.” Jordan Kassalow, a doctor and the founder of VisionSpring, which provides eyeglasses to the poor in Central America and India, agrees: “Philanthropists sometimes lack an appreciation for how important institution-building is.”

Some experts believed it advisable to seek steady, incremental gains—especially if they can be applied over large populations. Michael Kremer, the Gates Professor of Development Economics at Harvard University, notes that “lots of donors fail because they want ‘new and exciting.’” Better alternatives, he suggests, are more prosaic efforts, like a series of successful programs in western Kenya in which low-cost medicines were given to primary school children to control intestinal infestation by parasitic worms. “We need efforts that focus on results, focus on evidence,” insists Kremer. “Small returns over large populations create huge impact.”


Andreas Widmer

“Philanthropists must be aware of the secondary effects of their interventions,” argues Julie Katzman, a former Wall Street banker who is now the chief operating officer of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. “Vanity projects don’t work for long. A clear understanding of the problem, a deep engagement with those affected, and an open attitude to learning and adjusting the approach are needed. Long-lasting changes take place when they are rooted in local capacity—and that’s no easy feat.”

• • •

I was just beginning my two years in the Peace Corps and it was already not as fun as I thought it would be. Twabe persisted with insurmountable logic.

“I could give you my shoes, I guess.” I took a breath and said, “But I don’t want to.” He looked at me without blinking. “Why don’t you give me your work boots when you run, and your running shoes during the day when you teach?” he asked. “Then we both will have shoes to wear all the time.”

I thought for a minute. “Twabe, I prefer to keep both pairs of shoes.”

“But I have none to wear.”

“Look,” I said, “I have come to teach you so that one day you can buy your own pair of shoes.” I smiled and placed my hand on his shoulder again. He said, “Give me a pair of shoes for now and teach me for later.”

“No!” I insisted. “Twabe, I want to keep my shoes!”

I took a few seconds to calm myself and suggested a compromise. “I will give you one pair of shoes when I leave. That way I can teach you now and give you my shoes, too.”

Twabe said, “That is good.”

“That is good,” I confirmed and smiled.

“That is good, sir.”



“Yes, Twabe.”

“When are you leaving?”

• • •

Twabe and I became friends. I loaned him my clodhoppers when I ran, my running shoes when I taught, and my belt from time to time. He wore them to the market, where he met his future wife and had interviews for jobs in trucking and construction, which he landed and used to begin earning his own money. When I left, I kept my promise. I gave him my running shoes.

I departed my village two years and three months later with the same two duffel bags. My load was lighter. I carried out all my books of western abstractions, political anecdotes, and romance and bravado. There was little demand for them.

One of these books, though, contained the writing of Maimonides, a 12th-century Jewish philosopher and physician. He writes about the eight levels of charity, “The highest level of which there is no greater is to support another person by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others.”

The other duffel was almost empty. It had contained the things of greater value to Twabe and his classmates: a few sun-bleached shirts, a pair of jeans ripped by 100 river washings, and a pair of leather running shoes, well worn. 

Michael Fairbanks is a fellow at the Weatherhead Center of International Affairs at Harvard University.

Roundtable Roundup

Get the latest news and analysis from Philanthropy Roundtable. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, the Roundtable Roundup.

"*" indicates required fields


This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.