Thursday’s op-ed by David Brooks reviews strategies that reduce poverty in developing countries and finds the existing approaches to be lacking.  Brooks proposes a new solution based on US-based anti-poverty strategies such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and No Excuses Schools which attempt to inculcate values believed to lead to greater prosperity.  He unabashedly calls this approach “intrusive paternalism”.

“[Intrusive paternalism] programs…are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.”

My experience in South Sudan makes me skeptical that this approach will work in the developing country context.  Beyond my discomfort with the idea that people in the developing countries share a culture, chronic instability creates barriers that people in the US who are trying to escape poverty don’t face.  In US cities, neighborhoods with endemic poverty are a subway ride away from wealthier zip codes.  Americans living in poverty must overcome social and educational constraints, but they benefit from the opportunities of the society in which they live.  That is not the case everywhere in the world.  Somalia, which is reported to have a thriving entrepreneurial culture despite the constant state of chaos, shows that wanting to achieve is not always enough.

In South Sudan, the prospect of renewed violence casts a pall over any decision about the future.  The conventional wisdom is that now is a time to eat, not a time to build.  Convincing the South Sudanese that they can succeed is important, but that requires ensuring that the fragile peace will endure and not just imposing notions that they could be successful if only they worked harder.

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