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Break Down Foreign Assistance Myths To Build Local Capacity

“So much is written and said about foreign aid that it has become difficult to contribute meaningfully to the debate about whether it is effective. But if we are charting our fates as citizens of a crowded, fragile planet, then any honest assessment must conclude that progress has been made, whether in terms of child survival or literacy or access to basic sanitation,” anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, a professor at Harvard University, writes in a Foreign Affairs opinion piece. However, “[m]yths and mystifications about aid persist. Whether we speak of feedback loops or best practices — or, perhaps, simply better practices — we have a long way to go,” he writes, continuing, “But the aspiration to improve the lives of those living in extreme poverty through better public health, public education, and public works by definition requires public-sector capacity.”

“Given how little aid is delivered in a manner that could durably build local capacity in fragile settings and extreme poverty — the raison d’être of official development assistance — we see the trap in which we’re stuck. In order to free ourselves from it, we must begin by confronting the myths surrounding foreign aid,” Farmer writes and presents several myths, including “that foreign aid doesn’t work.” He discusses aid programs in Haiti and Rwanda as examples, and he provides five recommendations “[t]o help other nations make … progress to reduce extreme poverty.” Farmer concludes, “Only the power of public systems can provide health care, clean drinking water, education, and the multitude of other services all societies require to reap the benefits of modernity and escape the shackles of entrenched poverty. None of these proposals is easy. But the rewards awaiting us at the end are well worth the arduous journey of getting there” (12/12).

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.