Critiquing aid Angus Deaton writes:
Why might aid fail in aggregate? One of my favorite stories in Duncan’s book is about owners of fishponds being violently dispossessed by more powerful people, and then getting them back through political action. Money and know-how were not the issues; power was the problem, and politics the solution. But this good outcome is unusual. The worst case I know happened in Goma in 1994, when the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda fled into the eastern DRC with their wives and families. Perhaps two-thirds of the aid for the humanitarian emergency was diverted for training the murderers to go back to finish off the Tutsi “cockroaches.” Alex de Waal, in Famine Crimes, explains over and over how aid can only reach the victims of war by paying off the warlords, and sometimes extending the war. Such aid saves lives, but at the price of other lives later.
Meanwhile, also on Rwanada and Zaire, John Borton writes:
A clear example was in the refugee camps that formed in Zaire after the genocide. UN member states were unwilling to provide troops for a proposed UN force to provide security in and around the refugee camps and to separate the killers (genocidaires) from the majority of refugees who had not participated in the genocide. Humanitarian agencies were forced to choose between providing assistance to all those in the camps (including to genocidaires), or pulling out – as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) did in November 1994.
Which rather suggests to me that it’s far from inevitable that “aid can only reach the victims of war by paying off the warlords”. In the case of the camps on the Rwandan border the story would have been much different had the world been willing to lift a finger and provide troops. That we couldn’t bring ourselves to do even that hardly seems to be aid’s fault. Or to be evidence that in all post-conflict instances aid will only make things worse. It’s true, you can argue that the world will never care enough to send in the peacekeepers, and so therefore the Rwandan border story is a representative case, except that there are equally good examples where we have. Solomon Islands, the country context I know best, being one of them.
And this is the broader problem with Deaton’s ‘critique’ of aid, by selecting on the dependent variable, cases where aid hasn’t worked, (or the dependent polemicist, books whose authors critique aid) he ends up painting a very skewed picture of aid’s impact. For what it’s worth, the systematic evidence of aid’s impact on conflict actually suggests it reduces it on average, although much more study is needed. What’s more the best available evidence (ungated here) on the impact of major negative aid shocks (sharp falls in aid to a country) — you’ll recall that Deaton’s prescription for making the world a better place is cutting aid rapidly — is that they promote conflict, not reduce it.