Waylaid Dialectic

November 25, 2015

Who opposed Australia’s aid cut

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:10 am

Following the Australian government’s cuts to aid earlier this year, a number of public opinion polls showed broad support for these cuts, including polls reported as showing even Greens voters were in favour of cutting aid. We weren’t convinced. And we wanted to see what would happen when people were asked about these cuts in possession of accurate information, while also confronted with policy trade-offs…
[Read the rest of this post at the Devpolicy blog.]

November 24, 2015

God, Australians and aid

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

In analysis I conducted with colleagues last year on Australian’s support for aid we found something that surprised us. Contrary to what we’d expected, more religious parts of Australia were home to less support for aid (everything else being equal).

This year with new survey data I got to dig into matters more. On a first cut I found something similar: on average religious Australians supported aid less than non-religious Aussies. Yet when I broke religion down into categories based on frequency of attendance of service I ran into another surprise. Read about this surprise (as well as other attributes associated with support for Australian aid) here on the Devpolicy blog.

November 19, 2015

First dog on the moon…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 3:28 pm

…does a nice job of summing up how parts of the Australian commentariat get the vile thing on real good.

November 18, 2015

The Case for Canning Future Cuts to Australian Aid

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:45 am

This was going to be the first sentence of my most recent blog post on the Devpolicy blog:

Tony Abbot’s time as prime minister will be remembered by many for its folly (threats to ‘shirt front’ the leader of a nuclear-armed state, knighting a prince) and its failures (the budget that went nowhere, inaction on climate change). Amongst aid workers it will not be remembered fondly.

But cooler heads prevailed, and the post now starts in the following way:

Among aid supporters, Tony Abbott’s time as prime minister won’t be remembered fondly. First, there was the disintegration of AusAID for no good reason (not even those invented post-hoc). And then the largest ever cuts to Australian aid. Cuts that were extreme even by the turbulent standards of international aid flows. Cuts that weren’t justified by Australia’s deficit (aid is too small a share of federal spending to have a real impact). And cuts that were so sudden that nothing other than crude heuristics could guide where they fell. Different political parties have different beliefs, and it is fair enough that these influence policy choices, but governing well also means making major policy changes only when they are justified, and making them on the basis of evidence. Justification and evidence were notably absent from the Abbott government’s treatment of aid.

Now Tony’s tenure is behind us, the big question is whether Malcolm Turnbull’s government will be kinder. There are reasons to hope it will. Turnbull himself appears more capable and considered. And Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s power has increased. She didn’t appear to support the last aid cuts and she’s shown that she cares about important development issues such as empowering women. Also, the appointment of Steven Ciobo as Minister for International Development and the Pacific is a good sign—a signal there will be more concern for aid.

Yet Ciobo’s appointment is only a signal. And there is a much more tangible act the government could take to show it cares about aid: [read the rest of the blog post on Devpolicy.]

October 31, 2015

The qualitative method

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:58 am

Speaking as a mixed methods person (so not a smug quant guy) I think Gore Vidal nails the perils of qualitative research, and the art of getting it right:

“History is gossip, but the trick is determining which gossip is history”

October 29, 2015

The book they forgot

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:18 pm

The Huffington post has a handy list of the bible quotes Tony what’shisname forgot. Hopefully, someone’s also passed the list on to Viktor Orbán, the president who believes that the only way to preserve Europe’s Christian “heritage” is by abandoning Christian thought. What lovely blokes.

October 13, 2015

An astounding aid win

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:41 am

Just after 23 minutes into this Econtalk interview William MacAskill drops this bombshell on a sceptical Russ Roberts:

Well, supposing aid did no good at all, except insofar as it eradicated smallpox, a disease that killed 300 million people before we eradicated it in 1973 and saved the lives of 60-120 million people since then. That’s more lives than would have been saved than if we’d achieved world peace in that period.

The facts of the matter are a little more complicated. As this CGD briefing shows about 2/3rds of the funding for Small Pox eradication funding came from developing countries themselves. However, as a more detailed CGD case study shows, aid given through the Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation not only funded vaccinations but also helped galvanise developing country efforts.

And smallpox is not the only instance in which aid has made an obvious contribution to disease reduction (Polio, for example; and helping stem the recent Ebola outbreak). Once you take this into account it is very hard not to conclude that aid has contributed a spectacular amount of good to our planet.

Of course, an aid sceptic might counter that this good has been more than outweighed by the harm aid has done in other areas, particularly economic development. However, the best available evidence suggests aid’s economic impact has, if anything, on average, been positive. You can argue that the best available evidence isn’t that good (which, in the case of studies looking at the relationship between aid and economic growth, is true); yet the available evidence is robust enough to severely undermine the claim that aid has substantially harmed economic growth.

A more thoughtful critic of aid might argue that while some aid has done a lot of good a lot of aid has done little good, and some aid has even done harm. This is a reasonable position, but it’s an argument for better aid, not against aid. And as the smallpox case shows, when aid is given well it can do astounding things.

(p.s. The entire Roberts/MacAskill interview is about effective altruism and is well worth listening too.)

Not quite the miasma theory of disease, but…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:36 am

An interesting new NBER working paper…

Pollution, Infectious Disease, and Mortality: Evidence from the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic

Karen Clay, Joshua Lewis, Edson Severnini

This paper uses the 1918 influenza pandemic as a natural experiment to examine whether air pollution affects susceptibility to infectious disease…The findings suggest that air pollution exacerbated the impact of the pandemic. Proximity to World War I military bases and baseline city health conditions also contributed to pandemic severity. The effects of air pollution are quantitatively important. Had coal-fired capacity in above-median cities been reduced to the median level, 3,400-5,860 pandemic- related infant deaths and 15,575-23,686 pandemic-related all-age deaths would have been averted. These results highlight the complementarity between air pollution and infectious disease on health, and suggest that there may be large co-benefits associated with pollution abatement policies.

Aiding women candidates in Solomon Islands elections

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:33 am

One of history’s enduring lessons is that men often do not run nation states well. Certainly no better than women. Given this, it’s reassuring that globally, slowly but surely, the number of elected women politicians is rising. Unfortunately, however, this trend is absent, or largely absent, in much of the Pacific. Read the rest of this blog post at Devpolicy…

August 24, 2015

Aid, Abortion and Fairy Tales

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:21 am

Although I’m pro-choice, there are people I respect, from personal friends to the current head of the Catholic Church, who don’t share my views on abortion. Miranda Devine’s recent blog post linking Australian aid, abortion and foetal tissue, on the other hand, left me struggling to feel any respect for her journalism. The blog was written for the Daily Telegraph and it is apparently causing a kerfuffle amongst some Australian politicians. (If you can’t access the post on the Telegraph’s website you can read it here).

In the blog Devine links Australian aid given to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to the selling of “livers, brains and hearts of aborted babies for $30 to $100 a pop.” [read the rest of this blog at Devpolcy here].

August 3, 2015

Why the SDGs will break your heart

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 4:25 pm

It’s a pity there aren’t more country and western songs about development. There are plenty of tales of woe to be had, and lessons learnt the hard way. Take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for example: they are destined to break your heart. [Read the rest of this blog post here.]

July 27, 2015

Why we should stop banging on about neoliberalism, and bleating about innovation, and what we should say instead

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:25 pm

Development doesn’t have a way with words. It scrunches names into acronyms. It potholes sentences with jargon. Its grey literature is drearier than grey. Words get their revenge too. They confuse, they strive for prominence, they rig the game. Or they hide shyly, letting themselves be avoided when they should be used more often.

Words shape our thinking — and here are two words the dialects of aid work and development thought would be better off without, as well as two words we ought to use more often. [read the rest here]

July 6, 2015

Is economic inequality an issue for aid practice?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:48 am

Is economic inequality important for aid work? This was the question I asked myself when I saw the name of this year’s ACFID University Network Conference: “Evidence and Practice in an Age of Inequality”. (The title didn’t specifically mention economic inequality, but conference material suggested it was the topic at hand.) It was an interesting theme; yet as I mulled it over I couldn’t convince myself that economic inequality ought to be high on the list of issues aid workers anguish about.

Read the rest of this blog post on Devpolicy.

July 1, 2015

Greek crunch tweet

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:45 pm

The Dimpost has a handy summary of the insanity of it all here.

I think there’s a broader lesson for development economics too, along the lines of:

Either sheer fecklessness or (more often) underlying problems of political economy sometimes lead countries to acquire unsustainable levels of debt.

As a donor/multi-lateral you have surprisingly little ability to prevent this. Except during crisis points. Then it becomes very, very tempting to impose austerity.

However, this is, almost always a bad idea.

Bad because:

(a) it’s pro-cyclical and often makes deficit problems worse than they were.

(b) matters of domestic political economy usually mean austerity hits the least well off hardest.

(c) dropping the a bomb can have very counter-productive political consequences. (handy rule of thumb: if your policy prescription promotes riots something has gone wrong).

This doesn’t mean that the debtor country should be given a free pass. Or that there’s no need for reform. But it does mean its a mistake to think (as I once heard an aid agency staffer remark) that “this crisis will be too good to waste”.

Reform is a long run thing — and not often helped by short term detonations.

[update: Henry Farrell has some sensible comments too; and some sensible comments from ODI.]

May 28, 2015

Spend more on development data!

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:35 am

File under no brainers:

“Initial estimates from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) suggest $1bn annually to
improve national statistical systems so they could measure the SDGs (Espey et al., 2015). Demombynes and
Sandefur estimate the cost to international donors of improving household surveys would be $300m a year
(Demombynes and Sandefur, 2014). In other words, costs are not likely to be substantial, and it is clear that these
are investments that deliver a significant degree of value for money immediately and in the longer term.”

From this ODI report.

In 2014 OECD DAC donors gave approximately US$135 billion dollars in aid. Let’s assume that SDSN have underestimated the SDG costs by a factor of two, and that the real cost would be $2B … 2/135 = 1.48% of total global aid flows.

That, I think, would be a very small price to pay for actually knowing about development progress, rather than fudging on the basis of sparse and poorly constructed statistics.

May 25, 2015

Should aid practitioners really worry about economic inequality?

The slides and references associated with a talk I’m scheduled to give about this subject can be downloaded here. Note if you download the slides prior to 5 June, they may change if I tinker with them.

May 19, 2015

if I could only use twitter…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 1:20 pm

…I’d tweet this old post by Brad Delong on how Pareto Efficiency does a massive injustice to utilitarianism. [and John Quiggin too;also this blog.]

May 5, 2015

Is David Booth right to come out against good governance?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:26 pm

One of the clearest correlations in development is that between quality of governance and wealth. You can see the relationship in the chart below (from this excellent but paywalled article in the Annual Review of Political Science).

Wealthier countries are better governed countries — this is clear. What is less clear is whether wealth causes good governance, or whether good governance causes wealth, or whether some third factor (maybe education, for example) causes both.

Read the rest of this post at the Devpolicy blog.

April 23, 2015

New evidence on microfinance

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:35 am

It’s easy to see the appeal of microfinance. The idea of loaning small amounts of money to individuals or families in developing countries to help them overcome credit constraints makes sense. I always thought it was a good one. The trouble is, in aid, ideas that seem good can still be misplaced. And this has increasingly appeared to be the case with microfinance…read the rest of my blog post on this on the Devpolicy Blog.

March 26, 2015

best Marxist blog post I’ve read in a long time…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:31 pm

…although, to be fair, I don’t often read Marxist blogs. Still a good, thought-provoking postat Stumbling and Mumbling on work and self actualisation. Does Stata help me self-actualise???

March 18, 2015

Honour Amongst Aid Workers

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 5:02 am

My wife and I often take development reading to bed. The end result is always the same: sleep within minutes. So I knew something was up recently when, hours after I’d dozed off, I woke to find her still reading. Curious, I levered my copy of Historicism and Contemporary Aid Discourses from where it had slumped onto my chest and turned in search of an explanation.

Read more: http://devpolicy.org/honour-amongst-aid-workers-20150317/

March 3, 2015

The least awful way of taking an axe to the Australian aid programme

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 1:39 pm

Let’s be clear from the start: there’s no good way to decide where to cut one billion dollars from a five billion dollar aid program in just six months. Indeed, there’s no good reason to make the cut. Aid is less than 1.5 per cent of Australian federal government spending: too small for changes to have any real impact on the country’s fiscal health. Yet the cut will hurt people in developing countries. And it may well hurt Australia too. Promises will have to be broken in the international arena, and international goodwill (of the sort that helped get Australia onto the UN Security Council, for example) may be eroded.

Read the rest of this post at Devpolicy.

February 24, 2015

struggling to feel sympathy

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:54 pm

from a brilliant article by Henry Farrell on why the woes of the hidden internet and online drug supermarket ‘the Silk Road’:

Would-be criminals on the hidden internet repeatedly complain that they have been ripped off. In the description of one commenter on the Hidden Wiki:
I have been scammed more than twice now by assholes who say they’re legit when I say I want to purchase stolen credit cards…

more generally the piece is an excellent argument as to why we need a state if we want markets — the guarantor of trust in exchange.

February 22, 2015

meanwhile, amongst the contestants to become the most powerful person on earth…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 5:06 pm

From a New Yorker article discussion whether Wisconsin governor, and presumed republication presidential candidate, Scott Walker, believes in evolution:

And yet, as the Times noted, after Walker’s London catechism, “none of the likely Republican candidates for 2016 seem to be convinced. Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said it should not be taught in schools. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas is an outright skeptic. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas will not talk about it. When asked, in 2001, what he thought of the theory, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said, ‘None of your business.’ ”

January 23, 2015

note to self: this Poverty to Power Blog post on aid and active citizineship seems important

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:51 am


January 15, 2015

And the award for dopiest development comment of the year goes to…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:08 am
Tags: , ,

People say stupid stuff about development problems all the time, so in any given year it is going to be hard to find a clear cut winner for the dopiest development comment. Fortunately last year, the pop star Damon Albarn said something so daft he won hands down.

In explaining why he didn’t think the latest bout of Band-Aiding (Bob Geldof re-recorded the song to raise money to fight Ebola) was a good idea, Albarn is quoted as saying:

“Having been to many countries and gotten to know many people, it always seems that we have only one view of it…There’s also this assumption that in Africa everyone knows what’s going on…Our perspective and our idea of what helps and our idea what’s wrong and right are not necessarily shared by other cultures. There are problems with our idea of charity, especially these things that suddenly balloon out of nothing and then create a media frenzy where some of that essential communication is lost and it starts to feel like it’s a process where if you give money you solve the problem, and really sometimes giving money creates another problem.” [Italics mine]

Assuming this quote is not being repeated out of context, and is really his explanation of his objections to the song, it is wrong in the extreme. While we can debate cultural relativism (FWIW I think it’s wrong) the ‘cultures’ (and, more importantly, the human beings) being effected by Ebola don’t view the illness as right or wonderful, they desperately want to be rid of the problem (who wouldn’t). And money can help.

The Band Aid 30 song itself is pretty awful, and I prefer Albarn’s music. But really that comment was stupid. Give me Geldof’s ‘charity’ any day’.

Anyhow, I have a longer more considered discussion of the pros and cons of Band Aid 30 over at Devpolicy; in it I also discuss the more complicated case of the campaigning of Invisible Children.

January 4, 2015

The problem with bottom up approaches to development

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 3:16 pm
Tags: ,

Duncan Green has an enthusiastic blog post on an interesting sounding book in which bottom-up approaches to development are promoted over conventional aid. Duncan writes:

 It covers a series of themes, with a set of practical recommendations on each:

Identifying and supporting local capacity
Listening to local voices to develop responses and approaches
Using funding mechanisms that enable rather than distort local entities
Supporting local actors to work together to achieve greater impact

It then distils these into a set of ‘good practice principles’ and key recommendations which are worth reproducing in full:

Good Practice Principles:

1. Listening: design and adjust according to locally-felt concerns and shifts in the local context; listen to and act upon information and feedback received.

2. Harnessing and deploying latent capabilities: before identifying gaps and needs, look at what already exists in terms of local resources and capabilities, and how they can be supported.

3. Providing support in a timely and responsive way: use small-grant mechanisms to respond to opportunities as they arise and to react to particular events; provide capacity support that is driven by local realities and priorities.

4. Promoting participation: in all stages (research, planning, implementation, monitoring), facilitate participation that empowers local actors to influence and drive processes of change in their societies. Participation can also promote accountability.

5. Recognising that change is a process: rather than leading, facilitate progressive, cumulative change over time; be open to testing, learning and developing through long-term engagement and repeated cycles of action.
Don’t ignore the small fish

6. Broadening the definition of success: balance the prioritisation of results to include both tangible and less tangible aims (such as changes in attitudes and behaviours).

Key Recommendations:

1. Move away from big aid to small, targeted and strategic funding. An approach of this kind could range from core funding (to help an organisation develop on its own terms) to activity-based allocations (to help local actors respond to specific opportunities or changes in their environment).

2. Nurture more beneficent and flexible bureaucratic environments. This could be as simple as ensuring that grant managers are available to talk to grantees over the phone as an informal feedback and monitoring approach.

3. Create space for ideas and new approaches to be tested and developed. This is connected to: having faith in the ideas of local partners; creating space for local actors to shape the design of programmes; and conceding that change is a cumulative process where learning through mistakes is as important as achieving successes.

4. Develop shared approaches for measuring ‘intangible’ aims and outcomes.

5. Develop staff performance metrics that encourage locally led practice.

6. Remove pressure to spend and stringent ‘value for money’ cultures in aid bureaucracies.

You don’t have to convince me that too little attention is paid to context in aid work. Or that too much aid is about what we have/want to give/think is needed. And there is *definitely* a case for a more participatory approach to aid. However, the advice Duncan conveys from the book sounds too simple by a half.

1. Most of the recommendations are relevant only to a very particular subset of aid: small NGO projects. Much of  the suggested improvements wouldn’t make sense if you were, for example, trying to aid a country in improving its state run health system. And, in the long run, in areas like education and health, the big improvements in people’s lives will come through functioning state run systems.

2. The sort of bottom up approach described needs A. Lot. Of. Staff. I’m ok with this. But seeing as everyone else in the world of aid, from politicians, to NGO marketing arms, to the donating public, doesn’t seem to be, this might be something of an issue.

3. While the external is often deeply misguided and not without its own mixed motivations, the bottom up approach suggested seems to idealise the local, as if there weren’t power dynamics, mixed motives, and the risk of unintended consequences there too.

4. Statements such as “Remove pressure to spend and stringent ‘value for money’ cultures in aid bureaucracies” suggest a naïveté to the politics of our own aid giving. Trust me, aid agency staff don’t work the way they do because they are very naughty. Rather there is a set of structures and incentives that shapes the way aid is given. And none of this is easily removed.

Don’t get me wrong. I think aid work needs to be a lot more context oriented, and learning about context — obviously — requires letting local actors speak (while not being blind to the fact that some, particularly the powerful, will have their own agenda). But the book — as it is summarised by Duncan — makes it sound like this is all about doing nothing more than waving the participatory development wand, which isn’t the case.

[Update: typos, or at least some of them, alongside clunky writing, tidied — sorry.]

January 3, 2015

Losing the battle, losing the war…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 6:59 pm
Tags: , , ,

Amidst an impressive, depressing review on how the British lost the (this millennium’s) war in Afghanistan James Meek has a good little development relevant snippet:

Although it is about how poorly Britain understands Afghanistan, it is also, implicitly, about how poorly Britain understands Britain; about how, that is, Britain became the country it is in 2014, with its schools and hospitals and bareheaded women, its weak ecclesiastical law, its gunlessness, its multiplicity of roads, its sewers, its literacy. A thousand years passed between the famously literate King Alfred of Wessex’s victory at the battle of Edington in Wiltshire and England’s introduction of universal education. Afghan children shouldn’t have to wait that long; it would be wrong to suggest Afghanistan is at some pre-set historical ‘stage’ which it would be better enduring in isolation. Afghanistan needs help, encouragement, advice, money. It’s just that next time we think about military intervention in a foreign country that hasn’t attacked us, it might be worth running a thought experiment to work out at exactly which moment, in the many internecine conflicts that have afflicted the British Isles, our forebears would have most benefited from the arrival of 3500 troops and eight helicopters, and for which ‘side’ those troops would have fought.

December 2, 2014

The trouble with the Institutions regressions

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:14 pm

note to self: this blog post, which links to a series of blogs is a very good take down of the institutions and growth literature. Jeffrey Sachs much be happily chuckling somewhere.

October 23, 2014


Filed under: Ramblings — terence @ 7:38 pm

Graduation ceremonies are not for me. I imagine wilting pomp and standing, bored. I don’t begrudge other people wanting to mark their achievement with this, but it wouldn’t make me happy.

And so, instead, two days after I handed in that final hard-bound thesis, to make something of the flush of relief, and to give me a full stop, Jo and I drove out to Lake George.

There, the west wind, already summery-warm and dry, had the windmills busy, and purple flowers were splashed up the hillsides. Gallahs and Rosellas flew about while we sat eating sandwiches, and I thought about old uncertainties. Could I get a research permit? Could I get access to villages? Would people speak to me? Could we manage my health? What would the travel be like? Could I find questions? Answers?

I also thought about the work: the chasing, the making contacts, the organising, the re-organising. And I could have thought about the small group of people who made it harder than it should have been. But it was too nice a day for this. And it was a celebration. So instead, Jo and I talked about everyone who had helped. And we thought back over the adventure — the travel, around parts of the Solomon Islands that we would have seen no other way. Rainforest tumbling down mountainsides into the grey seas of the Weather Coast. The sunsets of Langalanga lagoon. The flower-clad villages of Gao-Bugotu. The way thunder storms thumped over Iron Bottom Sound.

I’m still waiting for the university to confer my degree “in absentia” but, fuck it, we had our ceremony. That was graduation. And as Jo could make out from my happy chatter, it felt as good as it should.

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