Waylaid Dialectic

November 30, 2010

Aiding or Abetting, should we give aid to dictatorships?

Filed under: Aid,Governance — terence @ 5:21 am

If the purpose of polemic is to stimulate thinking and debate then William Easterly can register a success with his latest swipe at the Aid Industry (this time in the New York Review of Books and on the topic of aid flowing to dictatorships). He certainly got me thinking.

It’s just a pity that Easterly can’t balance polemic with any degree of nuance. And so, instead of getting any real distinction between aid that flows solely to dictatorships for reasons of geo-strategy (and which is deplorable), and aid with flows to dictatorships as a product of a dilemma (if we withdraw it we may achieve nothing but harming the poor) Easterly offers a treatise which portrays aid workers as fundamentally opposed to democracy owing to the (I kid you not) pernicious influence of the work of Gunnar Myrdal.

Anyhow, I’ve tried a more substantive discussion of the real issues up on the DevPolicy blog.

I also wrote the following letter (destined to be unpublished, I imagine) to the New York Review.

And, I’ve been updating my post on the development benefits of democracy.

William Easterly is absolutely correct to see democracy as central to development. Yet he undermines his own arguments by writing an article [‘Foreign Aid for Scoundrels’, NYR, November 25, 2010] that both misleads and ultimately mischaracterises the issue of aid given to dictatorships.

Easterly misleads, for example, by lamenting the low proportion of aid granted to countries classified as ‘Free’ by Freedom House, while failing to note that 80 per cent of these countries are already Upper-Middle or High Income and, as such, unlikely to be in need of development assistance. (I’m all for keeping New Zealand democratic, but doubt that aid is required for the task.)

Similarly, he offers anecdotes to suggest that aid has changed little since the end of the Cold War, yet ignores recent academic work that provides systematic evidence of the opposite. Evidence which shows that since the end of the Cold War aid has tended to promote political reform, while increasingly bypassing the governments of poorly governed countries.

Most importantly though, he skirts around the key dilemmas and challenges at the heart of the issue. The first of these being that historical cases, such as the cessation of Soviet Aid to Cuba, provide us with little cause to believe that ending aid will trigger democratisation. And if the withdrawal of aid doesn’t bring democratic reform, then its only likely consequence will be to harm the people who depend on aid the most — the poor. I would put it to Professor Easterly that it is this dilemma, rather than the influence of long dead Swedish Economists, or the desire of aid agency country managers to protect their budgets, that explains much of the aid that continues to be given to countries ruled by dictators.

It is true that some aid still flows to dictatorships solely as a result of the geo-strategic and/or economic interests of donor countries. Yet even here Easterly misses the real issue. In focusing his ire on aid agencies he forgets that such agencies ultimately work at the behest of governments (this is less true of multi-lateral agencies, although politics still plays a significant role in their governance as is attested by Paul Wolfowitz’s tenure at the World Bank). If we wish to see the end of this type of aid (and we most certainly should) what really needs to change is the domestic politics of international development. Politicians need to be held to account by voters for their inattention to the plight of poor people in developing countries. If this were to occur, then in a whole range of areas — from climate change to arms exports — the development pay-offs would be dramatic. Unfortunately, bringing about such change is far from easy.  Perhaps Professor Easterly might consider focusing his considerable persuasive talents to help with this cause in the future, rather than simply attacking bureaucrats?


1 Comment

  1. […] points out that some aid can work, but the overarching tone in his polemic work at least is that: donors are venal, aid doesn’t work, and that markets are […]

    Pingback by Of Bill Easterly and Budget Constraints… « Waylaid Dialectic — July 29, 2012 @ 11:20 am

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