Even people of goodwill in the West are stuck with a bad case of the white man's burden complex, then: We must help, because they are so helpless. That attitude leads to bad aid -- the type run out of donor-country capitals with little involvement of beneficiary governments or citizens on the ground -- with the irony that reams-worth of evaluation studies suggest it is exactly this aid that is some of the most likely to fail. It also leads to aid fatigue: "What? They're still helpless after all our help?" Worse, it surely depresses other powerful forms of engagement between North and South -- like private investment, trade, and travel. Who would think of setting up a factory or going on holiday to a region supposedly engulfed in war, run by crooks and psychopaths, and starving to the last man?
As it happens, the white man's burden complex is also a completely inaccurate view of the world. The quality of life across the planet is higher than it has ever been. Incomes are rising -- the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day worldwide has been more than but in half since 1990. Mortality is falling -- about two million children born this year will live to their fifth birthday who would have died were mortality rates unchanged from 10 years ago. And education rates are climbing across every developing region -- with more than three quarters of primary school children actually in school in the "basket case" of sub-Saharan Africa, for example. And on the subject of Africa, eight economies in the region ended the last decade twice the size they'd started it.
Furthermore, the overwhelming reason for all of this change isn't charitable giving by the people and governments of rich countries, it's the efforts of the people and governments of the developing world themselves. Compared to how small aid flows are in relation to the size of most recipient economies, development assistance has had an outsized role -- successes such as the eradication of smallpox and rinderpest depended crucially on aid, for example. Nonetheless, such assistance accounts for an average of about 1 percent of the GDP of recipient countries. Assume for the sake of argument (and not based on any evidence) that aid is a tenfold more powerful tool for development than local incomes, that still means the development story is 90 percent about the domestic activities of the developing world and only 10 percent about outsiders.
That's a message charities and aid agencies themselves should be hammering home at every opportunity, not just because it is right, but out of self interest. Because it is the immense progress that we've seen in the developing world that provides the best evidence that aid can play a role in support of change. After all, if there hadn't been any change, there wouldn't be anything to take credit for. As it is, there's enough good news around that aid agencies taking only partial credit can still claim spectacular returns to their investments.
Focus groups among interested citizens in the West carried out by Intermedia suggest that important "triggers to engagement" when it came to activities like donating or volunteering were an emotional response to something they saw or heard, evidence that development efforts could have positive outcomes and a sense of empowerment -- that they could make a difference. But the trick for aid organizations that want to sustain commitment and work effectively with the developing world is to ensure that the sense of empowerment among their supporters doesn't involve a feeling that aid recipients are powerless. The message -- and the truth -- is that aid works when it supports people in the developing world in their immense, ongoing, and incredibly successful efforts to make their own lives better.