Waylaid Dialectic

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.)

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