Waylaid Dialectic

April 19, 2020

Did New Zealand get its Covid-19 response wrong?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:10 pm

Even if I was immune to Corona virus, I’d be social distancing. Half-baked stupidity isn’t good for your health. Op-ed pundits, academics, podcasts, friends. It’s painful.

So, to self-medicate, I’m going to look at the options the New Zealand government had when it put the country into “lock-down”.

1. Throw granny under the bus.

Under this approach we would have done nothing. To save the burden on our economy, we would have kept everything open. To save the burden on our health system we wouldn’t have treated those with the virus.

The best justification for this is some sort of utilitarian calculus: it’s a pity about the people who will die, but the cure is worse than the disease; we’ve just got to let people die.

I’m a utilitarian. But I’m not that stupid. There are costs to the lock-down. Economic suffering will bring human suffering. This matters – it should be taken into account. But, in the long run, human well-being is helped most by a just social contract. One in which we don’t abandon a large slice of the population to an epidemic. Lock-down will cause suffering. Doing nothing would have caused more. You have to help people who are ill.

That brings me to the next option.

2. Throw the health system under the bus.

Under this option New Zealand would have treated people with COVID-19 but done little to prevent the spread of the virus. The obvious problem with this is our health system wouldn’t have coped. Northern Italy probably had a better health system than New Zealand, and it was completely overwhelmed.

This is true, regardless of debates about how deadly the virus actually is. At present, we don’t know how lethal Corona virus is because we don’t know how many people have caught it and been effectively asymptomatic. Maybe the virus is less likely to cause serious illness than is currently thought. If that’s the case, it’s much more virulent than currently thought. And either way, the short-term consequence for the health system is the same: overwhelmed.

An overwhelmed health system isn’t just tired doctors and nurses. It means people dying of Corona virus who would have otherwise lived. It means people with other health problems also dying.

And that would continue until either a vaccination, very good treatment options, or herd immunity (currently estimated at about 50 per cent of population; so a lot of suffering until we get there).

3. Fiddle while Rome burns.

An alternative would have been to try and contain the virus using the low impact techniques we had been using. Nice idea, but it wasn’t working. The first chart below is daily cases. Blue is pre-lock down. Red is after. Data are from the Ministry of Health.

daily cases

(Data downloaded 18/4/20.)

The next chart compares New Zealand’s disease trajectory with a select group of countries. The y-axis shows total cases. It’s on a log scale. As a rough approximation, the slope of the curve shows you how fast the illness is spreading.

The x-axis shows days since the 50th case. The period covered for all countries is the first 27 days since the 50th case. Different dates, same period in the epidemic’s growth. New Zealand hit the 27 day mark yesterday. Other countries hit it earlier and so their lines are truncated.

The vertical red line is when New Zealand entered lock-down.


Data come from the European Centre for Disease Control, and are based off WHO data.

Our trajectory was very similar to Great Britain’s. Now (although it’s not covered in the chart) they are in lock-down. But too late. Many more people have died in the UK. They will likely be in lock-down much longer than us. It took a few days, but as you can see, after we entered lock-down our fate diverged from that of the UK – a lot.

It is true that many of our early cases were acquired overseas (presumable also true everywhere but China). But even when you chart cases that were definitely locally acquired, as I’ve done in this link (based on my interpretation of Ministry of Health data) we had a real issue.

Sweden is sometimes talked of as an example of how we could have kept the country running. The chart below (once again ECDC data) compares New Zealand and Sweden.


4. Take a punt on Australia

The final alternative to New Zealand would be to do as Australia has done. Contrary to the way it’s sometimes portrayed, although it took a while, Australia ultimately engaged in a similar approach to New Zealand. A lot is closed in Australia, many people are working from home, or not working, and the government still feels the need for a huge stimulus package. But more is open. In Canberra, to give you one example, cafes are closed, but you can get takeaway coffee. If you use ECDC data to compare epidemic curves for Australia and New Zealand, this is what you see.


Australia took it’s time, but it has managed to slow the spread of the illness. It’s doing about as well now as New Zealand.

This may show we could have quashed the spread of COVID-19 with fewer constraints. It might also be trying to tell us something else: perhaps lower population densities in Australian cities help? Perhaps, a warmer, drier climate helps?

Or perhaps not. We could have taken a punt on the Australian approach. And we may have gotten everything we currently have with less suffering. Or we might not.

Imagine you’re where our government was when it put New Zealand in lock-down. The virus is spreading rapidly. You won’t throw granny under the bus. You can’t throw your health service under the bus. The approach you were taking wasn’t working. So you do something likely to work. Perhaps you could have done a little less. Australia, wasn’t an example then though.

So you opt for lock down. It will cost the economy, and this will hurt people too, but you can act to reduce those costs. And — as a panel of the world’s most eminent economists thinks — doing nothing would likely have hurt the economy more.

So you opt for caution. This is exactly what a responsible government should have done.


March 8, 2020


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 5:43 pm

I had plans. Friday. The weekend ahead. I was going to escape the city to the always-blue sea. The thought propelled me, pedaling as fast as I could, out of campus in the late-evening dark. I was on the same path I always cycled, past the courtyard, across the alley, speeding by the bushes, around the corner and then… overlapping fences straight across the path!

A safety feature, they must have gone up during the day, designed to slow cyclists. The only way through was weaving at a crawl. I wasn’t crawling. I had no way of knowing. The bushes obscured them. The warning signs would go up a week later. I pulled on both breaks, my wheels locking on the gravel. Futile.

There was no time to do anything. No time for anything, except the fastest flash of thought: ‘What’s going to happen? How will it end?’

Fence, me, path, bike, speed. Obviously not good, but how bad? In what way? I still remember the flash, part thought, part feeling.

Years later now. I live in New Zealand. I’m feeling something like I did in that moment, except stretched over weeks… months.

The first cases of Corona virus are here.

How will it end? How will it unravel? I’ve got all the time I need to do the calculations, but there are too many variables, and only one future. Will our government and people coordinate to control the spread? Can they do it for this wave of the disease? The next wave? Every wave until there’s a vaccine? Will the health system cope? What about the second-order effects? Does China come chugging back to industrial life? Does that save global supply chains? Does that save our exports? Can the state prop up the economy if needed?

It’s easy to imagine a perfect storm: the economy on the rocks, services struggling, community struggling as the government tries to use quarantines to quell the spread of illness. More modest scenarios are also very possible. Disease stopped fairly easily through infection tracing. China’s economy bouncing back. Most other countries also holding the virus in check. A bad year in it’s way, awful in places, but soon, elsewhere, it’s only a memory as life trundles on.

And that’s the strange thing, I thought, this morning as my wife and I went to a typically busy cafe, got a coffee and went for a swim in the sea. We’re waiting on the edge of something, but what? Nothing to do for now but wait and wonder. The edge of something. But what? The edge of something. What?

Who knows how, but I cleared the fence that night. I vaulted it with one arm. A twist mid air. An almost landing as my bike clattered into the posts and wire. An impossible move for a middle-aged guy, but I did it.

“Jeeze mate. Are you alright. That was a real stack mate.”

“Yeah. I am. I think. Just my wrist a bit sore.”

I collected my bike. It was in one piece too. I got shakily onto it and rode home. Just as planned, I surfed the next day.

I’m hoping for that ending this time round. Of course. I can’t tell if that’s already impossible though. Fanciful thinking. So — instead of flying through the evening air — like everyone else, I wait.

February 3, 2020

Note to self: local burden of disease data

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:08 am

Are here and here. From article here.

January 26, 2020

Two bad decades for three big debates in international development

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:05 am

Does foreign aid work? Are free markets the best path to better lives? Is globalisation good or bad?

Two decades ago, these were big debates in development. The intervening 20 years have been awful for their various protagonists.

Read the rest at Devpolicy.

January 11, 2020

We to find useful NZ aid information

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:52 am

If you were a conspiracy theorist, you’d think aid agencies made just enough information available to plead transparency when someone complained, but never enough information to actually allow anyone to find anything useful.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist of course, but I do get frustrated by long battles with awful websites. So here a few useful links for myself:

1. As of 11/1/2020, New Zealand’s country-level aid budget is here.

2. Links to NZ’s IATI data on the MFAT website are here. The metadata pdf is helpful too.

3. Links to evaluations can be found in the right-side menu here. 2018 evaluations are here. The PNG renewable energy evaluation (highlight Enga) is here.

Seeing as I mentioned IATI, am I the only person on earth who thinks making aid data available in XML (the IATI standard) is about as useful as sealing it in a vault under the ice in Norway? To New Zealand’s credit (they don’t have to do this) they link their data to a CSV conversion tool. This is a great idea. Unfortunately the data that emerge at the other end still aren’t easily amenable to analysis, but it’s a start I guess.

January 9, 2020

Why do people care more about fires in Australia than floods in Indonesia

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:03 am

A journalist emailed asking why fires in Australia seemed to be eliciting so much more concern than equivalent disasters, like the current Indonesian floods. In preparing to respond, I’ve been typing notes, based on my understanding of an evolving body or research (not my area, but close to one which I do specialise in: public opinion about aid). I’d like to think about this more. And it seems a pity not to save these notes somewhere. So here they are:

If we’re talking about Australians themselves donating more to a domestic disaster, this isn’t surprising: people tend to show greater concern for their compatriots than for people in other countries.

But we’ve also got the question of international donations flooding in. Why is the world paying so much attention to Australia and not to crises elsewhere?

Research shows the most important driver of donations to disasters is media coverage. If a disaster receives high-profile media coverage, which emphasises tragedy, donations go up. This begs the question: what drives media coverage? Often media coverage is determined by the magnitude of the disaster. Sometimes magnitude will simply be the number of people killed, but in the case of the bushfires, I think it’s fair to say coverage has been boosted by things like the intense visual imagery (plumes of smoke, firestorms), as well as the tales of heroism and tragedy. The bushfires are a telegenic catastrophe.

On top of this, people’s desire to donate is influenced by something called the “identifiable victim effect”. People are more likely to respond to descriptions or images of individual suffering than to facts and figures. We’ve had many poignant examples of individual tragedy in the Australian Bushfires. Firefighters killed in their trucks. People who have died defending their homes. People are affected by these sorts of stories. It motivates them to donate.

Speculatively, it seems to me that Australia’s charismatic fauna have also contributed to international concern – the suffering of Kangaroos and Koalas, animals that are international icons, appears to be capturing attention.

Then there’s the question of norms: people are more likely to donate if they know people around them are donating. As a result, you get cascades of concern at times. High profile campaigns from celebrities often boost donations from ordinary people. With the bushfires it’s likely these campaigns have also boosted involvement from other celebrities. One high profile campaign has spawned another. Quite possibly this has been facilitated through social media networks.

One final point: the Australian Bush Fires are a so-called natural disaster – they don’t involve a war – in general, studies show people are more inclined to donate to natural disasters than to those that they see as having a human cause, such as conflict.

My comments aren’t normative. I’m not talking about right or wrong. I’m not commenting on the way the world should be. These are simply descriptions of the way it currently is.

August 22, 2019

Are Australian Aid Loans Likely to Help the Pacific?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:33 am

The Australian government is about to start lending money to the Pacific as part of a new aid initiative intended to help with infrastructure in the region. With Australia poised to start lending, the question needs to be asked: are the loans likely to work? Our analysis of the effectiveness of loans in the Pacific has led us to conclude Australia needs to proceed with considerable care.

Our analysis involved a global dataset of nearly 18,000 aid projects. [Read the rest of this post on Devpolicy.]

August 21, 2019

Handy Excel

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:20 am

Just because I’ve got to put this somewhere:

Using the transpose formula to do fancy concatenation.

All sorts of tools for reshaping data in Excel.

July 4, 2019

Will Australian aid’s increased focus on infrastructure be good for the Pacific

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 4:23 pm

A revised version of this blog post is now published on East Asia Forum. You can read it here.


March 17, 2019

Processing terror…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 10:58 am

The last time I felt like this was in the wake of 9/11. My partner at the time was from the US. We were living in Sydney. For several days we walked around like confused ghosts, trying to work out what it meant, where it came from, what was to come. We compulsively bought newspapers, even when we knew they wouldn’t tell us anything new.

Now it’s Twitter. More diverse than newspapers, but rapid fire, clippings, half thoughts, short sharp shouting matches, confusing. This is me trying to get my head around it.


Thread through everything, attempts at understanding, bursts of anger, is sorrow. Sorrow — even though I didn’t know anyone directly affected. Sorrow — even though I know the fact the crime happening in my home country makes it no different from terrorism on the other side of the earth. I hurt for the people affected. I’m sorry.


The alleged terrorist is Australian. A rightwing member of Australia’s senate tried to blame the crime on immigration. Australian media broadcast the beginning of the footage the perpetrator filmed from his head-cam. The footage stopped before the killing started. But even so. This was done despite requests from the New Zealand police not to publicise the footage. It would be easy to be angry at Australia. Just as some people blame all Muslims for 9/11. But New Zealand has its own stock of far right loons. Most Australians are appalled by the crime. And a 16 year old Australian teen bravely egged the aforementioned senator. If my twitter feed is anything to go by, the broadcasting of the head-cam footage is offensive to a lot of Australians too.


In my Twitter feed plenty of attention is also been paid to the politicians and media organisations (particularly in Australia, but also in NZ) who have been dog-whistling Islamophobia for years. I’m not so sure they’re the cause of this crime. My guess is that their main effect is on frightened elderly voters. And that Neo-Nazis would exist and commit crimes regardless of the squawking in parliaments and newspapers. I’m not completely certain, but don’t think Andrew Bolt, or Rob Hosking, or Don Brash are gateway drugs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t utterly vile though. Nor does it mean that they don’t cause harm. The fear and suspicion they foster might not cause people to pick up guns, but it undermines democracy and civil society nonetheless. If they truly care about their countries they could do one thing to show this — they could shut up.


I’ve read tweeted allegations that New Zealand and Australia’s secret services have been so fixated on the left and on the risk of Islamist terrorists that they’ve ignored the far right. The evidential base for these claims is fairly weak. But that’s always going to be the case — secret service work by its nature doesn’t leave much evidence. What we need from now is clear reassurances that the threat of far right terror is being taken seriously. Actually, we need more than reassurances: we need evidence. We need action and then evidence from our governments.

The government also needs make it illegal to own semi-automatic weapons in New Zealand. (The conservative prime minister) John Howard bravely did this in Australia despite concerted opposition from the gun lobby in the 1990s. Jacinda Adern has promised similar changes for New Zealand. All power to her. And if the gun lobby resists we need to stand up to them.

Solving things

If there’s one silver lining to this very dark cloud, it has been the way New Zealand has come together. Prime Minister Adern has been a real leader. Indeed, it seems from my confused perch here in Canberra that most New Zealanders have been real leaders. Kindness, flowers, donations. Tears. Unity. It feels like a country pulling together.

Terrorists want division. Hate grows amidst divides. There’s no undoing the tragedy. But for now, at least, New Zealand seems to be doing its best to stop hate spreading.

[Update – my views on the above are changing a bit. Specifically: I’m now inclined to think that dog-whistling politicians and media commentators did contribute in their own indirect way, even if they were far from the central cause. All the more reason for them to give it a rest. Also, NZ politicians have basically come out and said intelligence services were under-prepared re the alt right etc. All the more cause for a major attitude shift.]


Predicting the 2019 Solomon Islands Elections

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:29 am

Elections are coming to Solomon Islands. Predictions are never easy in politics but here’s what I think the elections will bring (coupled with my degree of confidence in brackets, ranging from confident to completely confused).

The election will be run fairly well (quite confident)

Recent elections in Solomon Islands have been pretty well run. [Read the rest at Devpolicy].

February 1, 2019

Why are donations falling to Australian aid NGOs?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:56 am

Picture this if you will. The depths of last winter, the orthopedic ward in Canberra Hospital. Halls filled with harried nurses and unstable patients taking new hips for test drives. Televisions talking loudly to themselves. There’s one exception to the bustle: an anxious looking man, hooked up to several blood-thirsty devices, staring quietly at a laptop.

That was me. The devices, as well as the stay in hospital, were thanks to something called compartment syndrome (not recommended). The laptop had a different purpose. I was updating a programme I’d made to help Australian NGOs compile funding information. Hospital was unexpected, and I didn’t want to hold the process up. Updating the computer code was also a merciful distraction from daytime TV.

The labour also meant I’d eventually be able to examine trends in donations to Australian aid NGOs and offer — at least tentative — explanations for them. I’ve now done this. Donations are on the slide. Why? Find out in this Devpolicy blog post.

December 2, 2018

We give how much to Tokelau?!? PNG Electric

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 5:29 pm

We give how much?!?
Let’s face it, if you’ve ever had to labour over a journal article, report, or even a blog post, you’re probably pretty envious of Mike Hosking. Forget the hours spent ensuring your writing makes sense. Hosking gets paid to be incoherent.

His recent column on New Zealand aid for the Herald is a case in point. The arguments stumble around growling and banging into each other like drunken fans at a heavy metal concert. Read the rest at NZADDs.

August 7, 2018

The shocking truth about RCTs exposed!

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:18 am

Development debates are frequently fierce and rarely resolved. Often this makes sense, many disputes are ideologically charged, evidence is unclear, and peoples’ lives are at stake.

In other instances, the source of the sound and fury is hard to fathom. Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) are a case in point. Some eminent development thinkers proclaim their virtues, insisting they are the final word in evidence, others decry them in treatises.

I’m here to tell you both sides of this fight are wrong. Like much else in development, RCTs are remarkable, but also flawed. Here’s what you need to know.

Read the rest here at the Devpolicy blog.

July 20, 2018

14 economists, 1 anthropologist, and almost no common sense on aid

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 1:42 pm

Development twitter erupted in chirping this week. The cause was a Guardian op-ed from a group of development notables decrying foreign aid. Prominent aid commentator Duncan Green tweeted that the piece was a “must read”. Green’s tweet alone was re-tweeted nearly 100 times.

Aid, especially government aid, needs criticism. I’ve spent the last eight years highlighting problems with New Zealand aid. But criticism is more useful if it is cogent and accurate. This op-ed was anything but.

To be fair to the authors, the first error presumably isn’t their fault… Read the rest of this post on the Devpolicy Blog

April 11, 2018

Where to find the Green Book

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:46 am

DFAT currently has the Green Book located here: http://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/aid/statistical-summary-time-series-data/Pages/australias-official-development-assistance-standard-time-series.aspx

January 14, 2018

NGOs caused Donald Trump!

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 10:13 am

Depressing. If NPR is to be believed, Owen Barder and Dina Pomerantz, two normally sensible, empirically-grounded aid commentators, believe that negative portrayal of developing countries and crises in aid agency and NGO promotional material and media engagement is one of the reasons Donald Trump allegedly described developing countries in Africa as shitholes.

Before Barder and Pomerantz hit the tweet button they needed to pause and think about whether their claims had any empirical basis.

(1) Many NGOs strive for positive portrayal in their advertising. In the UK and Australia those that are members of Bond and ACFID (NGO peak bodies) are strongly encouraged to by codes of conduct. (This may be true for the US too. I am limiting my comments to countries I know about.) Obviously, crises still have to be called crises, and need described as need, but my experience has been that professional NGOs being gratuitous in doing this is the exception, not the norm.

(2) Barder and Pomerantz provide no evidence that NGO adverts do anything to shape people’s views. I would posit that most people’s views are shaped by their Facebook feeds and the TV news. This is where the bulk of the information the average person receives comes from. I rather suspect President Trump’s views are formed by Fox news, not his frequent reading of advertising material from aid NGOs.

Aid NGOs shouldn’t be beyond criticism. But it ought to be empirically accurate criticism.

June 13, 2017

Is there any excuse for Australia and New Zealand

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:10 am

As I stared glumly at Australia and New Zealand’s lowly rankings in the 2016 OECD aid generosity tables, I started searching for an explanation. Or, to be more precise, an excuse. Neither Australians nor New Zealanders seem like tight-fisted people, so perhaps there was a good explanation as to why our countries languished at 17th and 19th out of 30 donors in the OECD’s donor club at the end of 2016.

Read the rest of this post on the Devpolicy blog.

June 2, 2017

NZ on the way to its lowest ever aid effort

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:02 am

As a share of GNI, Australian aid is now at its lowest level since records began. New Zealand is following in Australia’s footsteps.

According to current budget projections from Treasury, NZ aid/GNI is projected to be 0.208% of GNI in the 2020/21 financial year. The only time it was (fractionally) lower than was in 1996 it was 0.207% of GNI. (0.207% in the 1996 calendar year; calendar year because historical data come from the OECD who work in calendar years).

New Zealand’s aid as a share of GNI is trending down in 2020/21. So, unless something changes, by 2021/22 our aid effort will be worse than ever before. If aid/GNI is any gauge, we are not a generous nation.

To see the chart below full screen click here. To download data click here.

Aid over GNI long time series

May 29, 2017

The ‘rise’ and fall of New Zealand aid (budget 2017 edition)

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 4:54 pm

Last Thursday was budget day in New Zealand. It brought another massive increase in New Zealand aid (18 per cent!). This is not good news. Read the rest of this post at Devpolicy.

May 2, 2017

Why I think NZ aid spending on Munda runway was a bad idea

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:33 pm

My comments New Zealand aid spending on the Munda Runway in Solomon Islands have been criticised on Solomon Islands Facebook forums and in the media by Solomon Islands politicians.

It’s hard to communicate a complex argument in a radio interview. So, below, in full, are my views about the runway.

Munda runway isn’t a gift from nowhere. NZ spends aid in Solomons in a lot of ways including in education and in helping with governance (to see some of what we do look at the ‘data tidied’ sheet in this spreadsheet). Money that is spent in one way can always be spent on helping in another way. For this reason it is important to make sure any spending brings big enough benefits to make the work worth it. In Munda about NZD$20M has been spent/is being spent on the runway. (It’s hard to know the exact amount as some of the total project cost was devoted to the Noro road. Also more NZ money is still being spent.) According to MFAT, NZ’s total aid budget to Solomons is about NZ$20M/yr. So Munda took the place of a lot of other spending that could have helped people in Solomons in other ways.

If the desired benefit from the Munda work was simply a better domestic runway, NZ$20M is too much. Less could have been spent, and more could have been spent on other areas.

 If the desired benefit from the Munda work was a genuine international airport, with customs and immigration facilities, to help foster tourism in Western Province, the idea is bold and I can see the possible benefits. However, NZ is not supporting such a project. And New Zealand is not funding facilities such as customs and immigration. A lot more work would be required to build these facilities. This would require a real commitment from the Solomons government. I do not think this will happen. I do not think it will happen because the clientelist nature of Solomons politics prevents the Solomons government from focusing on large national development projects in an ongoing manner. SIG currently struggles to maintain Henderson Airport, and it previously failed to fulfil its part of the bargain with NZ on the existing Munda runway work.  It may be the case that campaigning from concerned citizens can force the government to create an international airport in Munda. If this succeeds, and tourism booms in Western Province, I will admit I was wrong.

Rather than funding a true international airport, NZ is funding an alternative runway for international flights to land on if Henderson is ever unusable in an emergency. In theory, this will benefit Solomons because international flights will be able to fly to Honiara carrying less fuel. (International law requires them to carry enough fuel to get to another airport if their primary destination is shut down. At present this usually means Port Vila.) If planes could carry less fuel, in theory, they could charge less for freight and lower airfares, which ought to help with tourism and other development. But, I am not sure that even this will happen. Once again, maintaining an alternative emergency runway to international legal standards in Munda will require serious ongoing input from the Solomons Government. I’m not sure this will happen given how little money it has spent on the work thus far. Even if it does happen, I do not think airfares will fall that much (there are only two providers from Australia – a duopoly, not a competitive market). Also, I think there are other constraints on tourism in Solomons that are more important than international airfares (specifically, domestic airfares, reliable domestic flights and other domestic infrastructure).

May 1, 2017

How did Pacific Countries fare under McCully

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:56 am

Some more aid charts. How did the various Pacific countries fare, in a relative sense, in the McCully era?

Individual PICs as a share of total known NZ aid to the Pacific (two charts of same data)

how did diff pics fare 1

how did diff pics fare 2

Individual PICs as a share of total known NZ country or region allocable global aid

how did diff pics fare 3

Too see the charts better and to access and check calculations and sources, click here.

Key points:

Regional organisations did surprisingly well for a minister who said he didn’t like them.

Lots of bouncing around. Some of this is too be expected. Cyclones and the like. Other bounces are probably from large infrastructure projects. Other bounces reflect a minister who wasn’t one for planning.

To help with getting a sense of broader trends, there are two more charts below. Each has a sub-chart for every country. Each shows share of total aid to the Pacific. Each dot is a year. In the first chart a trend line (an OLS line of best fit is plotted). Because fitting an linear line of best fit is somewhat hazardous in data that bounce around a lot, in the second chart a non-linear trend line (a locally weighted regression line is fitted). (If you want these data in Stata email me.)

Cooks, Kiribati and Tuvalu are obvious winners. Solomon Islands and PNG obvious losers. The rest of the countries’ outcomes were more ambiguous in a relative sense.

Countries’ shares of aid to the Pacific



April 28, 2017

Murray McCully’s lessons for all of us

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:32 pm

This post was published on NZ’s excellent foreign affairs blog Incline. I’m posting here to keep tack of my posts. But please go and read it on their site.

The end of an error, or two

Murray McCully’s time as New Zealand’s foreign minister is at an end. On 1 May he’ll be replaced by Gerry Brownlee. It’s hard to know what Mr. Brownlee will mean for New Zealand’s approach to foreign aid, but it’s easy to assess Mr. McCully’s legacy. He brought change, and he claims to have brought development when before there was only pseudo-expertise and waste. But the changes he made were either unneeded or harmful, and the development achievements he claims either haven’t occurred or can’t be attributed to him.

McCully will be remembered for reintegrating New Zealand’s semi-autonomous aid agency into the foreign ministry for no good reason. But the smaller injuries he inflicted on New Zealand aid were every bit as important. He took a well-functioning humanitarian emergency fund for NGOs and replaced it with one that was only able to get money out the door when stories of its dysfunction made it into the media. He killed off a similarly efficient fund for non-emergency NGO work. McCully’s botched humanitarian emergency fund was eventually repaired. But, as the latest OECD review pointed out, New Zealand still wants for an effective general NGO funding tool.
McCully changed the ethos of New Zealand aid. Outside of the Pacific, an increased share of aid was geared to bringing economic or geopolitical benefits to New Zealand. There were cows without borders. There were training programmes that brought young businessmen and women from Southeast Asia to New Zealand for the explicit purpose of strengthening business ties. And, when they were surveyed in 2015, most stakeholders–including private sector stakeholders–thought New Zealand aid was more focused on bringing benefits to New Zealand than it was on helping the poor (see pages 12 and 13 here).

There were also odd undertakings, which mightn’t have been solely about helping New Zealand, but which still didn’t seem like the actions of a country focusing its aid on need or effectiveness. There was, for example, training the Royal Hashemite Court of Jordan so it could run a private, non-profit air ambulance service (p. 44). And aid to St Lucia to develop geothermal energy. (In 2015, both Jordan and St Lucia had per capita GDPs above $10,000 in purchasing power parity adjusted dollars. By way of comparison, Samoa’s PPP GDP per capita was $5,934; Solomon Islands’ was $2,200.)

Foreign Minister McCully micromanaged the Aid Programme too, he derided aid expertise, and made captain’s calls. Most disastrously, he decided to use aid to upgrade the Munda Runway in Solomon Islands to meet requirements for emergency international runway status. The rationale was that an emergency runway in Munda would allow international flights to Honiara to carry less fuel and, as a result, charge less. And cheaper fares would mean more tourists. But international airfares aren’t a binding constraint on tourism in the Solomons. Worse still, the spending wouldn’t help at all unless the Solomons government did its bit. Predictably, it didn’t. And so the runway lies, refurbished by New Zealand companies, costing nearly NZ$20 million, and doing little for tourists.

Minister McCully didn’t mention the Munda runway in his farewell address to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. Instead he claimed as “shining examples” of his aid successes, “the huge turnaround in the fortunes of Niue, where tourism numbers have nearly trebled, and in the Cook Islands, where they have increased by 50%…” When he talks of aiding Niue, McCully presumably means the Matavai resort, which according to Radio New Zealand, was refurbished and extended with New Zealand aid money in the early days of McCully’s tenure (more money has been spent on it since). Although it brought controversy, the hotel may be a reasonable idea. Yet I challenge you to look at these economic data for Niue (the most recent available) and show me any “huge turnaround” in the country’s fortunes. As for Cook Islands, it’s true that tourist numbers have risen by about 50% since 2009, but as this spreadsheet shows, the increase was simply a continuation of long run trends. It’s not anything the minister can claim. (If you’re wondering about the 2016 up-tick, it was caused by Jetstar starting to serve Cooks, not aid.)

As he lorded over New Zealand aid, Murray McCully made a lot of noise, brought change, and achieved little.

There’s a lesson in this for future foreign ministers. Mr. McCully’s energy and his desire to improve things were admirable. But giving good aid is hard. Intentions matter, there’s a lot to be learnt, and a role for expertise. Had he recognised this, Murray McCully might have translated his energy into a genuine legacy of positive change.

There are lessons for New Zealand’s broader development community too. Bad Ministers are part of politics. Maybe Brownlee will be better. Maybe this year’s election will bring someone better still. Or maybe not. We need to be better at pushing back against bad aid. We need to properly fund our advocacy, and we need to learn how to win political fights. Until we get this right, New Zealand’s aid will never live up to its potential. Or if it does, the gains will be fleeting ones.

April 25, 2017

Murray McCully by the Numbers

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:50 am

Questionable claims are being made about Murray McCully’s impact on the New Zealand Government Aid Programme. So, as a public service, here are some numbers.

In her take on McCully’s time as foreign minister Tracy Watkins states:

He worked himself to exhaustion on New Zealand’s successful campaign for a seat on the Security Council and earned an international reputation as a fierce and outspoken critic of UN inaction and paralysis.

He stared down his critics – and there were many of them – for his determination to redirect the aid budget to our own back yard, the Pacific, and refocus it on economic development rather than handouts.

I’m sure the Minister was tired, and no doubt he said nasty things about the UN, but he didn’t put his money where his mouth was and cut the amount of aid we gave via UN entities.

The first chart below shows the share of New Zealand government aid given bilaterally versus the share given multilaterally. (When you give aid multilaterally you are giving it to an international organisation like the World Bank so that they can then spend it as aid. When you’re giving aid bilaterally you’re giving it yourself.) The data come from the OECD and are by calendar year. The first year McCully’s budget choices had any affect on spending was 2009. The first full year affected by his choices was 2010. As you can see, while it’s ever so slightly lower now than before, the share of aid given via multilaterals did not decrease meaningfully under McCully. (Development nerds note that the multilateral figure is core funding to multilaterals and excludes earmarked funding.)

bilat v multilat

(Sources and calculations for the charts on multilateral aid can be found here.)

Funding to UN development agencies as a share of multilateral aid is shown below. (The World Bank is part of the UN in a sense, but is treated as a separate entity in the world of development).

different multilats

As you can see, amongst the different types of multilateral organisations that New Zealand gave aid to, UN development agencies did comparatively well under Minister McCully. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But it’s an odd course of action for a ‘fierce and outspoken critic’ to take.

[Update: Minister McCully in a recent speech, “Finally, a word of explanation: if on the second of May you hear the incessant popping of champagne corks at the headquarters of many of the world’s multilateral funding institutions, do not be surprised…These giant process-driven bureaucracies generally deliver a below-average quality of service to the poorer countries of the world…”. Struggle dear reader to map these claims with the charts above.]

What about the claim he, “stared down his critics – and there were many of them – for his determination to redirect the aid budget to our own back yard, the Pacific, and refocus it on economic development rather than handouts.”

Obviously there are some conceptual issues here. Is aid to improve education or eradicate diseases, or to change norms about domestic violence any more of a handout than aid to build a bridge or a runway? Development is multifaceted. If you don’t get this, think about your own life. Was the education you received any more a handout than the roads you drive on are?

Conceptual challenges aside, what about the empirical matter.  What changes did McCully bring?

As the chart below shows McCully clearly increased the emphasis on economic development in NZ’s aid spending. Economic development as a share of total sector allocable spending doubled from 2009 to 2015. That said, economic development is still not the largest spend; more money is devoted to social development (health and education, and the like). There was change, but it wasn’t a transformation. If you thought we were giving handouts before, the bad news is we’re still giving them now. If — like me — you think we should balance our aid spending priorities — the good news is we still are.

nz aid by sector

(Sources and calculations for this chart can be found here.)

That leaves us with the Pacific. For what it’s worth, I don’t know if Minister McCully actually had any critics to ‘stare down’ in this particular area. Most members of the New Zealand aid community have always thought we should give the lion’s share of our bilateral aid to the Pacific. As a result, we’ve done this for a long time. Minister McCully did not change this. However, during his time as foreign minister the share of New Zealand aid given to the Pacific increased, as the chart below shows.

Aid to Pacific

(Source and calculations here.)

Before you start shouting, “take that criticz! stared you down!!”, remember that aid to the Pacific was already trending upwards when McCully took the helm. It had been doing so since 2005. Also note that the ‘McCully effect’ on aid to the Pacific is about 6 percentage points. Once again, this is not a transformation.

Murray McCully did change aspects of New Zealand aid. I’m hoping to write about this more in coming weeks. But the largest changes that he wrought were qualitative — to do with his leadership style and its impact on how well New Zealand gives aid — they weren’t quantitative. The direction and emphasis of New Zealand aid spending changed somewhat under Minister McCully, but the change was less dramatic than people think.

As I said, I hope to write more. In the meantime, if you want a slightly-dated, but very detailed study of changes in New Zealand aid flows see here (or here for a summary). If you want to read the views of some New Zealand stakeholders see here. If you want last year’s New Zealand aid budget analysis see here.

April 24, 2017

What do people in different African countries think about aid effectiveness

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:03 am

I stumbled upon this PEW World Values question asked in 9 African Countries in 2015.

Now thinking about foreign aid programs. Please tell me how well each of the following describes programs in (insert survey country) funded by foreign aid organizations. Does it describe these programs very well, somewhat well, not too well or not well at all?

The charts are below (with the response categories collapsed to make for easy viewing). Here’s the downloaded data.

Pew WV views on aid in africa

April 18, 2017

Unequal Democracy (a review)

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:06 am

Unequal Democracy by Larry Bartels

My interpretation of his arguments is as follows: economic inequality in the United States has increased a lot in recent decades and the economic lot of the typical citizen has not improved much. Although Americans are not great at estimating the extent of inequality, most do not want high levels of it, and many think the issue has become worse.

There’s a clear albeit partial cure to the problem of economic inequality: inequality has risen less, or fallen, under Democrat presidents than under Republicans.

This begs the question: if Americans aren’t that keen on inequality, why aren’t they voting for the Democrats a lot more. Bartells argues that this is not because poorer Americans are becoming more conservative, but rather that the swing voters who decide elections often base their votes on economic performance (growth) in the year prior to the election. This happens even though presidents can take little justified claim for overall economic performance. Republicans have happened to be lucky, or cunning in their choice of governors of the federal reserve, because in many elections they have benefited from good economic performance in the year prior to elections when they’re holding power.

Bartels dismisses arguments along the lines of the poor are becoming more socially conservative, although I do not think he is wholly convincing in doing so. No can I totally buy the economic performance in election year argument. I was left wondering about issues of differential turnout amongst different economic groups. I was also left wondering about the importance of collective entities (unions and churches in particular) in shaping peoples views and motivating them to vote, and feeling this area needs more research.

However, there is more and it is fascinating: using the estate tax Bartels shows that most voters are not good utilitarians or even just that good at voting in their own interest on some policies that would help reduce inequality. On the other hand in areas like the minimum wage voters’ views are more progressive. Something akin to a fairness preference appears to shape voters’ views in these areas a lot more than views about optimal outcomes (either for themselves or more broadly for society).

Economic inequality comes coupled with political inequality too. Controlling for party, politicians’ votes in congress or the senate are much more likely to accord with the preferences of their wealthier constituents than their poorer constituents. I’m still wondering whether controlling for party is appropriate in the aggregate regressions but there’s more. Disaggregating by party, the absence of influence of the poor is most true for Republicans but it is also somewhat true for the Democrats.

Left-wing commentators have taken this to be a very bad thing. I can see why. However, it is possible that — if inequality tends to fall under Democrats, and if voters’ economic preferences are not wholly rational — in some areas the Democrats may be ignoring the views of poorer voters for their own good. I need to think about this more.

Also, worth noting is that Democrats’ votes in Congress or the Senate do tend to accord with the views of the second tercile of voters. In responding to Bartels’ critique of What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank argues that the bottom tercile of the income distribution may not be the ‘working class’. They may for example, be retirees, or young (see page 4 of Franks’ response). So it seems possible that if the Democrats are ignoring the views of a certain group it may not be simply the working poor. Or it might be, I need to think more about it and consider Bartels’ data more.

Even with this caveat, there seem some clear takeaways: the Democrats are somewhat better on economic inequality, most voters don’t like economic inequality, most voters’ preferences about economic policy seem more shaped by traits like the fairness preference than reasoned utilitarian calculus. The left should think about this when they think about the economic policies they campaign loudly on.

April 13, 2017

Good news for (most) of Australia’s aid NGOs

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:36 am

We’ve updated the Aid Tracker. It now has information on NGO donations until the end of the 2014/15 financial year. (This is the most recent year for which there are data. You can find our updated charts at the bottom of this page on the Aid Tracker).[1] There’s good news for Australia’s aid NGOs–or most of them at least. Read more on the Devpolicy blog here.

April 12, 2017

Want to sell aid to the Australian public? Look to values, not national interests

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:16 am

If recent speeches are anything to go by, politicians believe the best way to sell aid to Australians is to convince them it aids Australia too. It’s an understandable belief, but is it actually, empirically, correct? Read more here.

PNG Election Results Database

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:15 am

I recently launched the Papua New Guinea Election Results Database in Port Moresby. The database contains all available election results for all general elections held in Papua New Guinea since 1972. The database is our attempt to preserve Papua New Guinea’s electoral record and to share it with researchers, as well as people from Papua New Guinea who want to know more about the electoral history of their constituency, region, or country. Read more about it here.

February 13, 2017

The gender woes of Australian NGOs

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:40 pm

Australian aid NGOs have a male leadership problem. The problem isn’t that there are men running NGOs–there’s nothing wrong with this. The problem is that a disproportionately high number of Australian NGOs have men at the helm. And, worse, my analysis suggests this isn’t because of a shortage of capable women.

Read more on the Devpolicy blog here.

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