‘This American Life’ does development

Last week This American Life did This Haitian Life, a first foray into the travails of humanitarian aid. As I listened, I couldn’t decide if I found my favorite radio reporters naive or insightful. On reflection, the answer is both.

In Act One, the Planet Money reporters work their brains around their first development project. A poor woman can’t afford expand her mango crop without the hundreds or thousands of dollars to irrigate. Where is the government, they ask?

Meanwhile, a Haitian mango magnate wants to get poor farmers to upgrade their product, and tries to distribute free bins and washing equipment, to meet American export standards. The bins turn into chairs and cabinets, and not a single mango gets delivered.

So the magnate turns to an NGO to establish a washing, binning and training cooperative. Months and months of bureaucratic barriers ensue: land must be donated, communities must be mobilized, a cooperative registered, funds raised, and so on.

The reporters’ conclusion: why can’t the aid community and government do more or do better? My conclusion: what kind of businessman needs an NGO to build a functioning supply chain?

Act Two makes the listening worthwhile. It charts the stories of doctors and missionaries who choose the long, slow, inefficient path–basically, mentoring Haitian partners rather than doing the job for them–that gradually yield more lasting results than the international NGO’s slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am style.

Stream it here.