Shane Heywood

Musings on market-oriented approaches to International Development

Ode to a Black boy. A Latin American girl. An Asian child.

In Forbes, Gene Marks wrote an article titled “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” In essence, the piece was a hopeful – if somewhat “pull your socks up” – message to a low-income African-American “kid” discussing the numerous modern opportunities for self-development (e.g. Google scholar) available. Tools that would, only if taken advantage of, gradually lead this poor black kid to economic and social mobility.

Criticisms of this article soon followed. Concerns ranged, varying from charges of Mr. Marks peddling the myopic, trite arguments of a middle-class male to the vapid nature of (perceived) armchair advice.

Yet, one of the most enduring criticisms was this: contrary to the premise of “If I were a poor Black kid,” neither race nor limited access to quality education are the primary challenges that helped to perpetuate cycles of poverty in low-income communities. Instead, an intricate and varied set of challenges comes together to create a web of restraints that prevent mobility and progress.

In two key senses, the challenges facing developing countries are akin to those faced by the “poor black kid.”
First, no one or two challenges are central to the difficulties faced by developing countries. Second, the strategies for addressing the challenges of “the kid” may also share similarities with the means for driving economic advancement and development in general – layered and unique.

This insular belief in the “best” or “better solution” – I think that’s one of the many challenges that maybe wrong with the enterprise that is global development. Each party seeks/advances a panacea or the “better” solution for addressing the challenges of the developing world. From colonization, to independence, to dams, to roads, to structural adjustment programs, to poverty strategy reduction papers, microfinance, social enterprise, impact investing – the list of “better” continues.

What remains unheard in the din of each person pushing the next big thing in development is that there is probably not one thing that will solve the woes facing Latin America or Asia. Instead, it is more likely that a bespoke set of measures will help each respective developing country advance.

Like the “poor black kid,” just having access to Google Scholar won’t help, if the streets still lay riddled with bullets, or his mother remains distracted with three jobs instead of one.

Like the “poor black kid,” change and advancement maybe more likely to come about in developing countries when some efficient combination of Aid (gasp!), accountable government, a job-creating private sector, and a civic community come together to encourage change.

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2 comments on “Ode to a Black boy. A Latin American girl. An Asian child.

  1. Julius
    February 23, 2012

    Way too coincidental. I just had a very similar conversation to this post just yesterday over lunch. Hope you’re well Shane! Definitely long over due for a catch up.

  2. Josh Gray
    February 24, 2012

    Good thoughts. I think that it is very easy for those interested in international development to become narrowly focused on one problem especially if that fits with their area of interest/expertise. I’m thankful for all of the people that use their expertise to engage with these problems, but I also agree that problems facing those in developing countries is much more complex than any one fix.

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