The Isle of the Dogs

Aug 18, 2011
By Page May

Below is a favorite story of mine. It illustrates the logic behind failed poverty alleviation using the metaphor of an island with 100 dogs.

We are immediately limiting the success of anti-hunger and anti-poverty programs when we ask “Why are the poor poor?” instead of “Why is there poverty?”

“There once was an island with a population of one hundred dogs. Every day a plane flew overhead and dropped ninety-five bones onto the island. It was a dog paradise, except for the fact that every day five dogs went hungry. Hearing about the problem, a group of social scientists was sent to assess the situation and recommend remedies. The social scientists ran a series of regressions and determined that bonelessness in the dog population was associated with levels of bone-seeking effort and the boneless dogs also lacked the important skills in fighting for bones. As a remedy for the problem, some of the social scientists proposed that boneless dogs needed a good kick in the side to get them moving, while others proposed that boneless dogs be provided special training in bone-fighting skills. A bitter controversy ensued over which of these two strategies ought to be pursued. Over time, both strategies were tried, and both reported limited success in helping individual dogs overcome their bonelessness- but despite this success, the bonelessness problem on the island never lessened in the aggregate. Every day, there were still five dogs who went hungry.”

Or, as Obama put it in 2005:

“It is time for us to meet the why of today with the why nots we often quote but rarely live- to answer ‘why hunger’ and ‘why homelessness’, ‘why violence’ and ‘why despair’ with ‘why not food jobs and living wages’, ‘why not better health care and world class schools’, ‘why not a country where make possible the potential that exist in every human being?’”

-Barack Obama at the Robert Kennedy Human Rights Award Ceremony in November 2005

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