Waylaid Dialectic

August 1, 2010

The trouble with bad reviews…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 7:39 pm
Tags: , , ,

It’s revealing, albeit depressing, I think, that William Easterly believes the roll of himself and fellow ‘aid-watchers’ to be similar to that of movie critics.

Depressing insomuch as that if one of the smartest, most high profile voices in the aid debate really thinks that development work is like making movies, and good development critique similar to movie reviews, the odds of aid getting better anytime soon are really, really low.

To spell it out…movies are simple: the good things about good movies are obvious and the bad things about bad ones pretty darn plain too. With a lot of aid work it isn’t that easy. Sure, some aid is unambiguously bad: be it SWEDOW, rent-a-dictator, tied aid, or aid bound to ideologically driven conditionality. This stuff is (usually) easy to spot, rarely helpful to people living in developing countries, and worthy of strong critique. Worthy of polemic. But in the case of a lot of aid things ain’t that clear. Did it work? Maybe. Could it have been done better? perhaps. Were there very real dilemmas involved? Definitely.

Take, for example, the case of aid to authoritarian regimes. If you give it you’ll be collaborating with anti-democratic forces and may end up empowering the regime and stymieing systematic change. If you withhold it, on the other hand, the good the aid was doing will also be withheld and there’s no guarantee that the regime will change. If you opt for the third way and only channel aid through non-governmental entities, you may end up supporting piecemeal inefficient work at the expense of the potential efficiencies of using government systems. Real dilemmas, but you’d never know about them from Aidwatch’s posts on Ethiopia, for example. I can understand the impulse for polemic in such instances, but the trouble is it really isn’t a pathway to solutions.

The other thing is, of course, that movies aren’t going anywhere. So long as people keep going to cinemas, movies will keep being made. Aid, on the other hand, is only secure as public support for it, either through private donations or taxes spent on ODA. And there’s a real danger that if too many books are written with snappy phrases in their titles such as “Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good” public support for aid may dry up and instead of giving better aid we’ll simply give less.

This of course, wouldn’t be an issue if aid indeed had done ‘so much harm and so little good’. But this isn’t the case. According to the best available cross country evidence, aid in aggregate has led to modest but real increases in recipient country economic growth rates. While there are good of examples of aid assisting in human development more generally (have a read of the book Millions Saved, or Roger Riddell’s Does Foreign Aid Really Work? for some of these.)

Just to be really, really clear: none of this is to say that aid should be beyond reproach. Or that every critic of aid is ill intended. Or that aid couldn’t be given a lot better. What I’m simply saying is that when you write about aid, when you criticise it, please don’t aspire to be a movie reviewer laying waste to the Latest Sex in the City sequel, don’t aim for the simple but memorable turn of phrase. Rather acknowledge the dilemmas and uncertainties. Think carefully about the message you really want to project. And think carefully about the way it will be interpreted. If you do this, you’ll be writing a terrible movie review, but you’d also be doing justice to the reality of aid.



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tom Murphy, Ajay Menon. Ajay Menon said: The trouble with bad reviews… http://bit.ly/cTtVI0 […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention The trouble with bad reviews… « Waylaid Dialectic -- Topsy.com — August 2, 2010 @ 5:23 am

  2. Amen. Aid will always have its critics, from inside and outside. But it’s time to bring out ideas and solutions. It’s the next step after criticism, and it’s what so many people forget.

    Comment by Jennifer Lentfer — August 3, 2010 @ 4:11 am

  3. Thanks Jennifer – certainly agree with you on the need to look for solutions.



    Comment by terence — August 3, 2010 @ 9:14 am

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