03/18/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

Why Development Works

Alexander Appiah was barely eking out a living farming cassava and yams on his quarter-acre in Nkwabeng, Ghana. Then Heifer International's farmers program gave him the development assistance he needed to thrive. Five beehives, 20 laying hens, and an agricultural training course later, he is now able to send his two daughters to school and has built a concrete home for his family.

Alexander's story is not unique. According to Ghana's president, John Agyekum Kufuor, Ghana was able to cut its poverty rate in half between 1991 and 2008 because of development assistance and investments in agriculture.

Development assistance is one of the most effective ways to transform lives around the world. Although it makes up less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget, poverty-focused development assistance is responsible for saving millions of lives every year -- lives like Alexander's.

This assistance comes in many forms. Bilateral aid is assistance given by one country's government directly to another. Multilateral aid is given by governments to international organizations like the World Bank, the United Nations, or the International Monetary Fund. And nongovernmental aid comes from initiatives like Heifer International's farming program or World Vision's child health and nutrition program.

Modern development assistance originated from the Marshall Plan. The United States implemented a huge relief effort after World War II to strengthen our relationship with Western Europe and to help stop widespread hunger and malnutrition. It helped 270 million people in 16 countries.

Unlike that massive direct aid to postwar Europe, development assistance in recent years has been primarily based on bolstering country-led development and increasing the resilience of nations and communities.

Bread for the World Institute's recent report, "Development Works, Myths and Realities" emphasizes the importance of letting nations create their own development plans: "Today the need for 'country-led' development is recognized as a necessity for effective foreign assistance. Many low-income countries have developed their own detailed plans to reduce hunger and extreme poverty but lack the resources to carry them out fully."

This idea of partnership is relatively new when it comes to foreign assistance. The country-led development approach was first implemented in earnest when the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative was launched by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1996. Countries committed themselves to poverty reduction in exchange for debt forgiveness.

To reduce poverty, communities have created safety nets, ways to prevent crises like famine from repeating. Safety-net efforts include improving irrigation and drainage systems, diversifying food sources, finding better ways to preserve food stocks, and constructing dams to store water that would later irrigate crops.

For those living in poverty or on the brink, these safety nets allow them to take risks and diversify their incomes. In developing countries, small investments that are specifically tailored to the population and implemented by effective governments can yield significant improvements -- not only in an individual's quality of life, but also in the nation's economy as a whole.

If development assistance is successful, it will no longer be needed. Countries that used to receive U.S. assistance include Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Germany and Italy -- nations that have lifted themselves out of poverty and now help to provide international aid to others.

Our global success depends on countries working together to solve the problems of hunger and poverty. Until we are successful, the United States has the incentive and obligation to continue providing development assistance.

Asma Lateef is the director of Bread for the World Institute. Bread for the World Institute provides policy analysis on hunger and strategies to end it. The Institute educates opinion leaders, policy makers, and the public about hunger in the United States and abroad. Find out more at