Blog post

Isn’t poverty just a symptom and not the real problem we should be addressing?

8 min read
11 Oct 2022

‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’

This popular saying is often used to illustrate the argument that, over the long-term, it is more efficient to address the fundamental issues causing a problem rather than relying on ‘quick fixes.’ For example, the effective altruism (EA) community, along with other organisations which work to alleviate poverty, has occasionally been criticised for focusing on short-term solutions instead of tackling the root causes of poverty. Sometimes these interventions are given the (rather derogatory) name ‘band-aid’ solutions, implying that they merely cover up the superficial symptoms of poverty like a bandage would, without doing anything to improve the underlying situation.

But is this really fair? After all, achieving systemic change takes time, and may even eclipse the lifetimes of those suffering right here and now. Sometimes, a quick-fix might actually be the most empowering thing you can do, and be the first step that helps break the cycle of poverty. For instance, a long-term study in Kenya found that children who received deworming treatment had significantly fewer school absences, and earned 13% more income as adults, compared with children who did not receive the treatment. Given that deworming treatment costs less than $1 US per child per year, the researchers estimated the social rate of return to be 37%. Not bad for a band-aid surely?

The case against Band-Aid solutions

Nevertheless, it’s true that a lack of strategy or long-term thinking can allow problems to perpetuate, or even get worse. For instance, providing food to the hungry through charity-funded food banks may shift the responsibility from governments, making them less compelled to introduce state support. Similarly, although camps for refugees and displaced people are a quick solution to save lives and provide food, water, shelter, and medical care, they are incredibly costly to run, undignified, and can lead to long-term dependency. Paul Spiegel, a former senior official at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, argues that better, long-term measures would introduce policies to give displaced people work permits, besides access to educational and healthcare systems within their host countries.

Perhaps the ultimate band-aid example comes from ‘Band Aid’ itself: the charity supergroup founded in 1984 by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise money for anti-famine efforts in Ethiopia. This culminated in the legendary 1985 Live Aid concert, which raised $127 million, sparking real hope that this would start to reverse Ethiopia’s desperate levels of poverty. But 35 years later, Ethiopia remains a ‘Humanitarian Catastrophe’, crippled by drought, famine and conflict. According to Oxfam, key reasons for this include lack of investment in broad, long-term policies for agricultural development, managing natural resources, and credit/insurance.

But…solving ‘poverty’ is hard.

When we consider the examples above, it can seem obvious that the most effective strategy would be to tackle the major causes of suffering - as the fifteen-year Millennium Development Goals aimed to do. These addressed eight grand challenges, with the first being to ‘eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.’ And indeed, the goals definitely made some progress towards this: within the project’s timeframe the number of those living in extreme poverty halved, reducing the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. However, several reasons mean that addressing the root causes of poverty that remain will be much, much harder.

1. Poverty looks very different depending on where you are

In some countries, while only a small proportion of their population lives in poverty, this translates into large absolute numbers. For instance, the countries with the highest numbers of people living below the poverty line are India, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have a combined total of over 280 million people. But there are many smaller countries that have higher relative levels of poverty: in South Sudan and Burundi, for example, around 80% of the population lives below the poverty line. On top of this, each country has its own unique combination of political systems, infrastructure, environmental resources, cultural traditions, and foreign policy. Improving people’s livelihoods as quickly as possible will therefore require an individual, tailored plan for every region.

2. Poverty is now concentrated in extremely challenging environments

Most (96%) of those living in extreme poverty live in countries that are environmentally vulnerable, politically unstable, or both. Furthermore, the largest recipient countries of international humanitarian aid are burdened with protracted or recurring crises. In these circumstances it is difficult, if not impossible, to plot a route out of poverty, and this is typically well beyond the scope of a charity or NGO to deal with. Writing for Vox, journalist and EA advocate Kelsey Piper put it this way: “… there’s no doubt that it’s significantly more complex to identify the best ways to do good in [lobbying and advocacy work] than it is to identify the best ways to distribute bednets.”

3. Solving poverty is not a linear process

Unlike giving a child a vaccination or installing a well, solving poverty isn’t a simple ‘once it’s done, it’s done’ process. The overall success of the Millennium Development Goals wasn’t felt everywhere, with some areas experiencing little change and 30 countries seeing the number of people living in extreme poverty actually increase. Furthermore, sudden conflicts and political instability can rapidly undo decades of slow policy change, as we are seeing now in Afghanistan.

4. Assumptions about the best way out of poverty aren't always correct

It is often assumed that if you can increase a country’s economic growth, poverty levels will naturally fall, but this isn’t always the case in reality. Without policies that ensure that increased wealth is distributed across many levels of society, growth alone typically lifts few people out of poverty. We also lack measures that link overall economic growth with the amount of poverty within a country. One of the most commonly used measures, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), simply measures the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country during one year, but it doesn’t say anything about how this wealth is shared, and the gulf between the highest and lowest levels of society. Economic growth can simply lead to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, particularly if there are high levels of corruption.

5. We can get it wrong

Arbitrary attempts to change systems are unlikely to have positive effects, particularly if we aren’t clear on what the causes of the problem are, and what the best solutions may be. Even worse, they can actually do harm, especially when led by rich Westerners who assume that their money and background means they have more knowledge and expertise than local groups (also known as ‘White Saviour Complex’).

In combination, these reasons mean that addressing poverty at a systems-level — whether through advocacy, policy engagement or research — carries a much higher risk of being ineffective or totally unsuccessful.

An evidence-based approach to systemic change

However, since ‘bigger picture’ approaches can (if successful) have a much higher potential impact, we shouldn’t disregard them completely. Thanks to increasingly sophisticated data sources and new approaches, the EA community is beginning to also assess charities working for systemic change. For instance, in 2019 GiveWell announced that it would be expanding its scope to include interventions where causality is harder to establish, as part of its mission to provide guidance on everything that could potentially be among the most cost-effective giving opportunities. This could include charities that provide technical assistance, work to influence government policies, organisations undertaking research and development, or groups supporting social entrepreneurship.

The aim is to support the best charities, using evidence as a guide (bearing in mind that not all evidence is equal). Some examples of evidence-based charities include:

In all cases, working for societal change is most likely to succeed when there is a focused strategy, and donor charities work in partnership with local communities, drawing on their expertise, resources, and connections. For instance, the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention (CPSP) collaborates with local and regional governments to collect information on the use of lethal pesticides in their country, then trains local researchers to identify the suicide, accidental poisoning, and environmental consequences of their use.

What does this mean for me as a donor?

At the end of the day, the distinctions between short-term, individualised solutions and societal change can be highly arbitrary, and not the most helpful way to evaluate charities. The band-aid metaphor, for instance, assumes that the intervention can only be applied retrospectively - it can’t stop you getting the cut in the first place. But many so-called band-aid solutions can actually prevent the harm from happening, for example providing vitamin A supplements to stop children from developing blindness.

In any case, a charity’s strategy will likely include both direct interventions and broader, systemic work. For instance, despite their big picture approach, the successes of the Millennium Development Goals were partly achieved through apparently short-term methods, including distributing millions of measles vaccinations and insecticide-treated mosquito nets.

Whatever the strategy, the guiding principle for effective altruism remains the same: to support charities which the evidence suggests will achieve the most good

A final thought: if you have already taken the pledge to donate a portion of your regular income to help the world’s poorest, then you are already part of a systemic change within society — one that asks ‘What can I give?’ instead of ‘What can I get?’ Telling others about your decision and explaining effective altruism to your friends and family can have a ripple effect that sees even more people lifted out of poverty. And isn’t that a beautiful thing?

Guest blog from Caroline Wood