Tree of Knowledge and Pit of Ignorance: Aid versus Development

Since beginning in the field of “development” over 10 years ago every time I visit a new community I find there is a lack of understanding between the concepts of aid and development. To describe the differences, I borrowed a chart from the famous book “Where There Is No Doctor” by Hesperian Press. The chart is intended to detail two types of healthcare, but can be applied generally to any intervention or program intended to serve the poor, including income generation. The tree and the field represent the “Land of Knowledge”. This heavenly land is where all the people who have had the opportunity for education and social mobility live. It is the realm of doctors and nurses, but also of economists, scholars, and professional aid workers. These people who have been able to make educational advancement have two choices for interacting with the people who have been trapped in what we call “the pit of ignorance”. Those trapped in the pit of ignorance have had limited opportunities for education and advancement typically due to the cyclical nature of extreme poverty. 

On one side of the image we show a doctor throwing medicines into the pit with little concern as to how or if the fellow in the pit ever sees the light of day. This shows the aid approach which believes when someone has a need, it is suitable to meet that need temporarily and immediately without concerns of bringing someone out of the pit, but keeps them alive. Aid is like putting a bandaid to a gaping wound and expecting it to stop bleeding. It creates dependency and a loss of freedom. The person in the pit needs someone from the land of knowledge to come and save them in order survive. The person in the pit grows accustomed to his depency so spends the rest of their live languishing and waiting for handouts.

On the other side of the image, we show a man from the land of knowledge offer a rope to the person in the pit so they can now begin to climb out and feel the sunshine in the land of knowledge. This side shows sustainable development. It is not a quick fix or temporary approach but one that prioritizes the long term impact of working with the disadvantaged and removing their barriers to a level playing field. Helping others to learn to care for themselves encourages self reliance and equity. 

The difference between these two approaches can be clearly illustrated through Grassroots Economics community currency programs. If the organization decided people need money and sent a one time cash transfer, that transfer would last a few days before perhaps even weeks before the individual will ask for another transfer. That would be an aid driven model which would be discontinued at the end of the program, leaving the individual in a similar position to where she began. The program may have saved her temporarily, but as soon as the grant or funding expires all impact vanishes like nothing was ever done.

In the case of Grassroots Economics programs, a virtual rope to financial sustainability is lowered into the pit. By leveraging organizations and structures already in the community, our programs help individuals to learn about entrepreneurship and how a means of exchange can help communities to use their own resources more effectively and efficiently to improve their lives. This change is lasting, sustainable and can properly be termed development. 

Both aid and development have their roles and ways of serving the needs of the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized. Depending on the context, one approach may prove superior to the other in tackling tough problems. In the case of complex emergencies such as weather disasters, aid is vital to saving lives that very instant. However building strong and resilient communities requires a different approach. It requires using the resources available in the community to better provide for its members and fostering empowerment through education and opportunities. So next time you hear about a project, ask yourself is it aid or is it development. You might be surprised at your answer.