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Helping People Help Themselves

June 26, 2015


Recent estimates have shown that the share of the population living on less than USD 1.25 per day has remarkably decreased in the last few years. This notably has been used as a benchmark in the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) whose first target is to reduce global poverty by this year. However, more and more people continue to live under the vicious cycle of poverty, especially in fragile states often affected by perpetual or prolonged armed conflict, poor governance, or high competition for natural resources. Does the achievement of MDGs truly reflect the improving status of countries when it comes to combatting global poverty?

Conventional views on poverty often focus on how much a person or family earns per day. This myopic view on poverty undermines and oversimplifies the complex and multidimensional nature of poverty. Aside from addressing income deprivation, the limited access to basic social services should also be targeted. These—among many other things—were the most salient insights I gained from this week’s class discussions and exercises.

A better way to assess a country’s wealth is to look into how it treats the most marginalized and underprivileged sectors of the society. Rights-based development advocates for a holistic, people-centered approach to development, making sure that universally accepted human rights are not violated and are duly respected. In a nutshell, it argues that development requires the achievement of universal human rights.

British sociologist Peter Townsend pioneered the idea of looking into relative deprivation as a key indicator in defining poverty (McLachlan, 1983). His definition differentiated relative poverty to absolute poverty. Traditionally, absolute poverty can be measured through a standardized set of unit, usually through income or consumption-related values. As an example, the MDGs would define an individual to be poor if he or she lives on less than USD 1.25 per day. To Townsend, it is important to consider not just the income-related values but also non-income measures, such as access to basic physiological, safety, and social needs. He also emphasized that poverty should also be assessed in the sociocultural space and time wherein which deprivation occurs (Ferragina, Tomlinson, & Walker, 2013).



This income-biased view on poverty has resulted to the limited impact of poverty reduction strategies implemented in recent years. The early 2000s mark the emergence of microfinance programs as a response to address global poverty. This promising market-driven model for poverty reduction, alongside its emphasis on adopting a more participatory approach to development, led to its rapid popularity. Among the major arguments for microfinance include the lack of access to formal banking institutions and the increasing household debt among poor communities. However, it seems that it has since lost its track due to some of its unintended consequences, including the burgeoning debt among poor farmers.

Other countries also launched conditional cash transfer (CCT) schemes or government-supported programs that directly provide monetary assistance to indigent individuals. However, recent experiences have shown that these schemes have not been able to target the poorest of the poor and have also cultivated a culture of dependency and mendicancy among its beneficiaries. In the Philippines, ADB (2015) estimates that almost 30 percent of the budget allocated for the national CCT program did not go to the poor.

These insights are valuable as I build my experience in working with communities. Instead of focusing on raising incomes, more emphasis should be given in empowering and building communities’ capacities. A key determinant of empowerment is that has to inherently come from within the community. It implies the communities can only empower themselves by consciously deciding to make choices relevant to them. External development agents can only facilitate and set up the conditions within which communities can empower themselves.


Asian Development Bank. (2015). To Foster Inclusive Growth, Tackle Inequality and Climate Change. Manila: ADB. Accessed 25 June 2015, from

Ferragina, E., Tomlinson, M., & Walker, R. (2013). Poverty, Participation, and Choice: The Legacy of Peter Townsend. London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Accessed 25 June 2015, from

Guardian Interactive team, Harris, C., & Provost, C. (2013). Millennium Development Goals: Big Ideas, Broken Promises? The Guardian. Accessed 25 June 2015, from

McLachlan, H. (1983). Townsend and the Concept of ‘Poverty’. Social Policy and Administration, 17 (2), 97–105. doi: 0.1111/j.1467-9515.1983.tb00181.x

Bridging the Gap

June 21, 2015

Initially, man’s understanding of development is only limited to economic growth. Conventional economic theories put emphasis on establishing a free market to hasten economic growth, ergo for development. However, recent experiences of many developing countries have shown that a boost in a country’s financial sector does not necessarily mean an improvement in the overall well-being of its citizens. Several studies have provided strong evidences positing that economic growth alone does not guarantee the reduction of poverty and a better quality of life especially in Third World countries.

The widening rich-poor gap and prevailing social inequalities continue to hamper development in many countries. In fact, higher income inequality within countries is linked with slower economic growth, higher poverty incidence, higher unemployment rate, and other retrogressive impacts. More emphasis should be given to the equal distribution of income and of opportunity.


enhanced-buzz-wide-3680-1354319373-4MIND THE GAP. Fashionistas pose for photographs in front of a homeless man outside Moynihan station following a New York fashion week show in September 2012 (Photo Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters).


South Africa’s experience in recent years perfectly illustrates the incongruence between fueling economic growth and development. The rapid rise of the BRICS economic bloc signify the apparent shift of global economic dominance from traditional developed economies to the fast-growing economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. With all its population and economic assets combined, the BRICS makes up almost one-fifth of the world’s economy (Willis, 2011).

However, despite significant improvements in South Africa’s economy in last few decades, majority of its population are still living below the poverty line and have limited access to social services. These may be due to weak institutions and prevalent corruption in the country, some of which are remnants of the anti-poor apartheid practices adopted in previous decades. Recent estimates show that South Africa’s Gini coefficient — a quantitative measure of a country’s level of inequality — is at 0.69 (Bhorat, 2013). A value of 0 signifies perfect equality, while 1 signifies inequality.

Exponential population growth and rapid urbanization in recent years have also become a challenge to many countries. One of its major consequences is the increase in welfare burden or the actual or perceived social and economic costs to support non-working or marginalized sectors of the society. Instead of reaping the fruits of the demographic dividend gained with a larger population, populous countries endure the so-called Malthusian trap where the income gained through economic growth or technological advances are subsequently lost due to continued population growth.

Due to stiff competition for resources, rapid population growth has also lead to the rise of cities of the poor and the informal sector. Since 2007, more people now live in sprawling urban areas than in rural villages. Thus, while poverty may often be attributed to rural communities, poverty is increasingly becoming an urban phenomenon (UN Habitat, 2007). Major megacities often have a large poor communities, many of which are involved in informal economic activities.

As the post-2015 sustainable development agenda starts taking shape, countries and other relevant institutions should focus on making economic growth more inclusive. The value of ensuring equal access to these economic gains while also conserving Earth’s limited resources should be further emphasized. To reduce persistent inequality, governments should target leveraging sustainable investments on basic social services, such as health and education. In the long run, this would strengthen the human resource base of a country and, thus, might be able to contribute in driving sustained development.


Ahmad, M. M. (2014). Expectations and Achievement in Development Planning [Powerpoint slides]. Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, Thailand.

Bhorat, H. (2013). Economic Inequality Is a Major Obstacle to Growth in South Africa [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Todaro, M. P. & S. C. Smith. (2012). Economic Development (11th ed.). Boston: Addison-Wesley.

United Nations Human Settlements Programme. (2007). State of the World Cities 2006/7. Nairobi: UN-Habitat.

Willis, K. (2011). Theories and Practices of Development (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

World Bank. (2008). New Directions in Development Thinking. In G. Secondi, The Development Economics Reader (pp. 9–27). New York: Routledge.

Looking Beyond the Promises, Pitfalls, and Exaggerated Expectations on NGOs’ Roles in Development

May 24, 2015

Widespread criticisms in the 1980s regarding conventional top-down approaches in delivering social services paved the way to the rapid growth and expansion of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Putting emphasis on the expanded role of the civil society — with NGOs as its main actors — was largely seen as a response to the inefficiency of governments and markets in driving development. As part of the shift towards the so-called new policy agenda, significant amount of multilateral and bilateral aid poured in to developing countries, with non-state actors serving as a magic bullet in alleviating poverty and promoting social welfare (Edwards & Hulme, 1996).

NGOs were seen as a potent force due to its strong linkages with communities and its people-centered approaches to development, initially seen as more efficient and cost-effective in providing basic social services. Aside from filling in these gaps, NGOs also played a vital role in promoting strengthened community participation, empowerment, and democratization at the grassroots level (Willis, 2011).

However, many now question the effectiveness and legitimacy of NGOs as providers of development alternatives. Banks, Hulme, and Edwards (2015) tried to take a closer look on the impact of the NGOization of development and described how NGOs have seemingly lost their touch in recent years. Broadly, Banks et al. argued that inflated views on the role of NGOs in eliciting social change still remain. After an extensive review of recent literature, the authors identified key NGO weaknesses including (a) its heavy reliance on foreign donors; (b) the professionalization of the development industry; and (c) the failure to promote community ownership of development initiatives at the local level.


Donor dilemma
Most development initiatives — especially in Third World countries — are fueled by foreign donors. Due to very stiff competition for funding, Banks et al. (2015) emphasized that NGOs are oftentimes forced to tailor policies and programs that would fit the donor requirements and not necessarily those that fit local needs.

As such, NGOs tend to focus on projects with quantifiable and tangible outcomes where donors can easily measure the “success” of these initiatives. Common quantitative measurements include number of children vaccinated, number of housewives who took part in livelihood workshops, number of food aid recipients, number of latrines built, etc.

Most NGO projects are seen to be mere band-aid solutions rather than targeting the underlying causes of poverty and other social inequalities. The authors explained that this narrow focus on “short-term results and value for money” can offset long-term — albeit “soft” — development goals, such as promoting equality and empowerment. There is also the risk of benefit fraud, where the impact of “successful” achievements are overemphasized, while failures are underreported or oversimplified.

The “business” of doing good
The pouring in of foreign funding to developing countries, as well as the increased influence of globalization, led to an increase in high-paying jobs offered to the educated middle class, which Robert Chambers notably called the uppers. Several empirical studies have described how these development tourists can influence local communities’ decision-making process and manipulate — or more aptly facipulate — initiatives based on preconceived biases or notions. To Chambers, true development will only be achieved once uppers start “handing over the stick” to the lowers.

Cronyism between development organizations and local elites can also put the community into a disadvantage since it can effectively ignore the voices of community members who are more marginalized (i.e., poor, less educated, staying far from village centers, etc.) or may share opposing views.

The emergence of the so-called super rich, an elite few who hold a majority of global wealth, also propelled the rise of new philanthropy, where there recently has been an observed increase in their influence in the global socio-political and development agenda. These individuals, mostly heads of multinational profit-earning companies, invest in NGO projects and other charity-related initiatives. Many of these individuals have sustained their wealth by lobbying for government policies or programs aimed at protecting their interests. To some extent, this can also influence NGOs’ policy and program direction, making a case for some to argue that NGOs continue to be “agents of imperialism” and “maintain the dominance of free market capitalism” (Petras, 1999; Banks et al., 2015).

Helping people help themselves
Banks et al. (2015) suggested that NGOs, operating on the good governance dogma, need to “return to their roots” and, at the same time, adopt innovative approaches in addressing inequality and poverty. NGOs, at the very least, can act as intermediaries in “building bridges” between communities and decision makers and in setting up the conditions within which communities can empower themselves. At its most basic, community empowerment is both the process and outcome of enabling communities to make informed decisions. A key determinant of empowerment is that has to inherently come from within the community.

Recent evidences have also emphasized the positive impact of NGOs in promoting collective action and participatory governance. However, as emphasized by Suleiman (2012), one must be careful in equating community empowerment with NGOs’ assumed role in fostering democracy.

Repressive government regulations and the increasing bureaucracy in NGOs also remain to be a challenge, highlighting the prevailing mistrust among governments, civil society, and local communities. Banks et al. (2015) underscored the need for a better understanding on the inter-linkages between these key sectors. Stronger partnerships should be established and each sector should be given enough public space and autonomy.

As a follow-up to the authors’ earlier work in 1996, the article provided an up-to-date review of current discourses on NGOs’ efficacy and efficiency. In a nutshell, it revealed that the challenges faced by NGOs two decades ago continue to exist — although in a more complex manner. This complexity is much more apparent especially in summarizing the wealth of knowledge and experience in NGOs’ work in the last few years and in differentiating the role of NGOs with other civil society actors.

A minor weakness of the article is it works on the assumption that all NGOs operate in the same manner. It failed to recognize the diverse approaches and contexts wherein NGOs work. From a practical standpoint, the article might also be seen to be a little too prescriptive, portraying the perceived divide between development academics and practitioners.

Ahmad, M. M. (2015). The Rise and Growth of NGOs [Powerpoint slides]. Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, Thailand. 

Banks, N., Hulme, D., and Edwards, M. (2015). NGOs, States, and Donors Revisited: Still Too Close for Comfort? World Development, 66, 707–718. Accessed 8 March 2015, from

Edwards, M., and Hulme, D. (1996). Too Close for Comfort? The Impact of Official Aid on Nongovernmental Organizations. World Development, 24 (6), 961–973. Accessed 8 March 2015, from 

Petras, J. (1999). NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 29 (4), 429–440. Accessed 11 March 2015, from

Suleiman, L. (2012). The NGOs and the Grand Illusions of Development and Democracy. Voluntas, 21 (1), 241–261. Accessed 11 March 2015, from

Willis, K. (2011). Theories and Practices of Development (2nd ed.).  New York: Routledge.

Faces and Phases of Hanoi

May 19, 2015

Visiting Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, was a feast for the senses. The dizzying streets filled with hundreds of motorbikes and the tasty street food treats make it one of the most fascinating cities in Southeast Asia. Never miss sipping the city’s famous coffee and enjoying the rich umami flavor of beef pho.

About four hours east of the Hanoi are the awe-inspiring limestone islands of Halong Bay. Rent a boat and visit some of the islands’ caves, including the impressive Hang Sung Sot.

Nhat Tan Bridge

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The setting sun and the gleaming limestone islands of Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Sung Song Cave

More photos here.

Faces and Phases of Lopburi

March 14, 2015

Lopburi is one of Thailand’s oldest cities and has once served as a hub for key kingdoms in region, including the Angkor and Ayutthaya regimes. Located in the central plains of Thailand, it is also known for the impressive Pa Sak Cholasit Dam and the sea of yellow and green from the large sunflower fields.

Pa Sak Cholasit Dam
Pa Sak Cholasit Dam

Wat Tham Promsawat
Wat Tham Promsawat

Sea of yellow and green
Sea of yellow and green

With AIT's RRDP Class of 2014
With AIT’s RRDP Class of 2014

With AIT's RRDP Class of 2014
With AIT’s RRDP Class of 2014

More photos here.

Moving towards an Ocean-based Blue Economy

January 14, 2015

An Analysis on National Policies and Programs for Sustainable Fisheries in the Philippines

As a country made up of more than 7,000 islands, the crucial role of the oceans and coasts to the lives of more than 93 million Filipinos cannot be overemphasized. An overwhelming majority of the country’s total population directly rely on the vital resources and ecosystem services provided by the surrounding bodies of water.

Aside from being an everyday source of food and livelihood, the Philippine seas remain to be a major contributor to the country’s national economy. Latest estimates from the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) indicated that the country’s 36,289-km coastline employs around 11.8 million Filipinos or one-third of the national labor force (NEDA, 2011a).

The country’s Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) reported that the fisheries sector contributed 1.8 percent to the 2012 national gross domestic product. Furthermore, an estimated 2.32 million metric ton of fisheries products, valued at PHP 145.42 billion (around USD 3.24 billion), were produced in 2012. In the same year, PHP 42.37 billion-worth of fisheries commodities (around USD 944 million) were exported (BAS, 2013).

The Philippines is also located in the so-called Coral Triangle, the global center for marine biodiversity. Considered as one of the most biodiverse waters in the world, the Philippine seas host a wide array of coastal and marine resources including coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangrove forests, and various fish and marine species.

Due to rapid coastal development and the increasing demand for marine resources brought by the exponential population growth, unsustainable fisheries practices became rampant in recent years. Aside from this, the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters and the looming threat of climate change have put the Philippines — especially poor coastal communities — under serious threat.

Realizing the need to address these emerging threats, the Philippine government has adopted several policies and programs promoting sustainable fisheries in the country. This policy analysis primarily focused on the relevant provisions of the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2011–2016 and Executive Order (EO) 533.

Formulated by NEDA, the PDP 2011–2016 outlines the government’s national development targets, as well as its priority policies and programs, set to be achieved by 2016. For this analysis, two chapters were extensively reviewed, specifically Chapter 4: Competitive and Sustainable Agriculture and Fisheries Sector and Chapter 10: Conservation, Protection, and Rehabilitation of the Environment and Natural Resources. Chapter 4 primary aims to improve food security, increase rural incomes, and build up the sector’s capacity to respond to climate change. On the other hand, Chapter 10 focuses on the sustainable management of the country’s natural resources.

In 2006, EO 533 was also adopted to promote integrated coastal management (ICM) as a national sustainable ocean and coastal development strategy. EO 533 targets to strengthen the capacity of local governments to sustainably manage its coastal and marine resources, with the help of relevant national agencies, nongovernment organizations, the academe and private sector. Ultimately, EO 533 aims to fully implement a comprehensive national ICM program led by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

This analysis seeks to review existing national policies and programs on promoting sustainable fisheries in the Philippines. Indicators were identified to cover the three major sustainable development dimensions, including the environmental, economic, and social aspects.

View this document on Scribd

Shaping the Future We Want

January 14, 2015

Lessons from the MDGs and How It Can Shape the Post-2015 Development Agenda

The year 2015 marks a crucial milestone in the world’s continuous pursuit for sustainable development. With key targets set to be achieved this year by major international policy instruments, most notably the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it is an opportune time to assess countries’ progress in achieving these goals. This also provides a chance for policymakers and experts to initiate dialogue and lay a solid foundation in outlining post-2015 targets.

The adoption of the MDGs almost a decade and a half ago galvanized strong commitments by governments to improve the quality of life of its citizens. The unprecedented support received by the MDGs reflected countries’ recognition that extreme poverty is unacceptable and that there is an imperative need to immediately address it. Alongside eliminating extreme poverty and hunger, the MDGs advocated for universal education, gender equality, improved health care, and environmental protection, among others. This set of specific and time-bound goals have guided almost all development initiatives in the last few years.

'High Goals' by Victor Ndula

Breaking the vicious cycle of poverty
Perhaps, MDGs’ most successful contribution to the global development agenda is putting considerable focus in combatting global poverty and other major social ills. As Indian development economist Gita Sen pointed out (as cited by Manning et al., 2013), “the MDGs successfully focused the global policy spotlight on some key development issues in the past decade.” Outlined in eight major targets, the MDGs provided simple and quantifiable indicators by which progress of countries can easily be measured and monitored.

However, critics argue that the goals set in the MDGs are overly simplistic and undermine the multidimensional aspects of sustainable development. Manning et al. (2013) described this causal oversimplification of the root causes of poverty as being “broken down into silos in a way that detracts from the holistic nature of the challenges that poor people face.”

There is also a general consensus that the MDGs fail to recognize equally important drivers of development, including efficient governance and accountability, protection of human rights, addressing income inequality and regional disparity, and securing long and lasting peace among nations.

China’s remarkable progress in reducing poverty in the last few decades would be a good case study. As thoroughly explained by Wang (2004), China’s sustained agricultural and rural economic growth in the 1980s — and not directly due to MDG-related policies — greatly contributed in reducing poverty in the country. Without China, the first MDG of reducing worldwide poverty by half would not be successfully achieved (Chen and Ravallion, 2008). Wang claimed (as cited by Manning et al., 2013) that, “the MDGs needed China more than China needed the MDGs.”

Conversely, although an estimated 500 million people has risen out of poverty, the widening rich-poor gap in China still remains to be a major challenge. This reflects the limitation of the quantitative targets set by the MDGs.

Perks and perils of providing aid
The implementation of the MDGs also paved the way for the increased flow of foreign aid to developing countries, most notably in Africa and Asia-Pacific. Highlighted in the eighth MDG, developed countries and international finance institutions were encouraged to scale up investments to assist developing countries in achieving the MDGs.

Although several low-income countries have benefitted — to some extent — from strengthened investments, an increasing number of studies show that this too have perpetuated a culture of dependence towards foreign aid. Manning et al. (2013) pointed out that this top-down approach to development remains to be one of the weaknesses of the MDGs.

While the MDGs may have been conceptually robust in setting specific development benchmarks, it was not fully embraced by Third World countries primarily because they did not have the capacity and appropriate resources to support sustained implementation. Instead of increasing aid, more emphasis should be given in strengthening the institutional capacities of governments and in making markets work for sustained local economic growth.

Going glo(c)al
Weighing in on how the post-2015 sustainable development agenda should take form, experts have now called for a more inclusive set of feasible global targets that are also sensitive to country-specific conditions and priorities.

These global targets should consider communities-in-need as main actors and not just mere receivers in the whole development process. These goals should also be firmly integrated in local development plans and policies to promote a stronger sense of community ownership. Policymakers and planners should capitalize on existing local knowledge and practices, as well as scale up and replicate best practices at the local level.

The post-2015 sustainable development agenda should shy away from directly “spoon-feeding” a one-size-fits-all formula for development, but instead build countries’ capacities and provide an enabling environment for development. In essence, this new set of commitments should put more emphasis on how to help people help themselves.

Chen, S. and Ravallion, M. (2008). The Developing World Is Poorer than We Thought, but No Less Successful in the Fight against Poverty. Policy Research Working Paper No. 4703. Washington, D.C.: World Bank. Accessed 8 October 2014, from

Guardian Interactive team, Harris, C., and Provost, C. (2013). Millennium Development Goals: Big Ideas, Broken Promises? The Guardian. Accessed 8 October 2014, from

Manning, R., Harland Scott, C., and Haddad, L. (2013). Whose Goals Count? Lessons for Setting the Next Development Goals. IDS Bulletin 44 (5-6), 1–9. Accessed 5 October 2014, from

Wang, S. (2004). Poverty Targeting in the People’s Republic of China. ADB Institute Discussion Paper No. 4. Tokyo: Asian Development Bank Institute. Accessed 8 October 2014, from


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