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When “Doing Good” in Development Becomes a Problem

Courtney Noll is a recent graduate from Cornell University, where she majored in industrial and labor relations. Her interests lie in labor and gender issues in international development. She was a participant in the 2020 Summer Honors Program course on “International Economic Development: Why Institutions Matter” taught by Dr. Stephen Smith.


It’s time to rethink the widely accepted western approach to development that agencies utilize to combat global challenges. Sure, development practitioners have good intentions. However, good intentions are often not enough. Historically, simply attempting to do good without examining all of the social and economic consequences of foreign aid tends to leave developing nations in a poor spot. Take a look at aid projects intended to promote the “development” of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example. Despite receiving billions of dollars in aid, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have yet to benefit from these investments. More often than not, foreign aid projects in African countries fail, and there is a larger number of impoverished individuals on the continent today than in 1990. Even though aid is intended to catalyze positive change, it often produces little growth and may even cause negative unintended consequences in the aid-receiving countries.

Despite the failure of this model of development to lift people out of poverty, the most influential aid agencies have continued to promote and utilize it as their primary method. Aid and foreign investment, all in the name of doing good, have continued to allocate billions of dollars to developing nations. In light of these failures, we must reframe our mindset. Development leaders, organizations, governments, and civil society actors need to realize that simply “doing good” fails to generate sustainable, long-term solutions. In short, development must become a more inclusive process.

What does a world of inclusive development approaches look like? It begins by granting a seat at the table to those directly impacted by development projects. It is time to eliminate top-down approaches that have been plaguing the development industry for decades and replace them with approaches that empower individuals in developing countries.

Conditional cash transfers is one example among many that demonstrate the strength of directly helping the world’s poorest rather than hoping that aid dollars will trickle down to them. Low-income individuals who are given direct cash are highly likely to spend the money on basic necessities. Conditional cash transfers have also been extremely effective in ensuring that children receive proper education and health services. At their foundation, these types of programs enable individuals to be able to afford basic goods and services. But, it is also important to acknowledge that these programs and projects are likely to only provide short-term relief for families. In order to fundamentally change the structural inequalities that have caused widespread rates of extreme poverty, it is essential to also reflect on the role of political and economic institutions in addressing these inequalities.

For example, in developing nations that have a weak or corrupt legal system, stronger political and legal institutions are needed to protect the most vulnerable members of its population. Cash transfers won’t help anyone gain justice when the legal system is stacked against them. Additionally, even if individuals are able to access and afford healthcare services, they still require an inclusive and quality healthcare system that they trust. In general, there needs to be a bolstering of state power for the provision of basic public services. These institutional reforms are necessary in tandem with the economic empowerment of the poor.

Unfortunately, neither of these changes will be brought about through foreign aid as it stands today. Continuing to just “do good” without reflection is harmful. Our actions need to start reflecting our intentions.