Article | Foreign Policy

Power to the People

by Eric D. Werker

Abstract

Every nongovernmental organization has a mission statement. For example, CARE, one of the world's largest and best-funded NGOs, explains its mission as serving "individuals and families in the poorest communities in the world. Drawing strength from our global diversity, resources and experience, we promote innovative solutions and are advocates for global responsibility." Indeed, CARE has teams of experts with years of experience in more than 70 countries, and its efforts to tackle the "underlying causes of poverty" are impressive. Implicit in its mission statement, like those of most NGOs, is the notion that CARE is exceptionally knowledgeable about how to meet the needs of the world's poor. But does it know best?

Take one of the most confounding global problems today: the skyrocketing cost of food. Prices for staple crops such as rice and wheat have more than doubled since 2006, putting an enormous strain on the 1.2 billion people living on a dollar a day or less. In 2004, a typical poor farmer in Udaipur, India, was already spending more than half his daily dollar of income on food—and that was before grain prices went through the roof.

NGOs and relief agencies are on the front lines of this global crisis, distributing food and other forms of assistance to the hardest-hit victims. But food handouts may be the last thing that poor countries need right now. In many of the worst-stricken places, agriculture is the top employer. High food prices are offering a rare opportunity for farmers in these countries to make a tidy profit. Dumping imported food onthe market will cut into many farmers' incomes and thus might do more harm than good. Low-wage work programs could help people avoid hunger, but they might also take farmers away from their fields just when farming is becoming lucrative.

Keywords: Mission and Purpose; Food; Service Operations; Inflation and Deflation; Experience and Expertise; Economic Slowdown and Stagnation; Knowledge; Poverty; Agribusiness; Diversity Characteristics; Non-Governmental Organizations; Innovation and Invention; India;

Citation:

Werker, Eric D. "Power to the People." Foreign Policy, no. 169 (November–December 2008).