Waylaid Dialectic

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.

October 17, 2014

Aid and Civil War in South Africa

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 2:47 pm
Tags: ,

An interesting looking new working paper:

Did the Aid Boom Abate Civil Wars in Sub-Saharan Africa?

by Jean-Paul Azam and Véronique Thelen

The incidence of civil war in Sub-Saharan Africa since the turn of the century is about half what it was on average in the last quarter of the 20 th century. This paper shows that the aid boom triggered by 9/11 played a key role in achieving this result using panel data for 46 African countries over four decades. The estimated linear pr obability model predicts that doubling foreign aid would reduce the probability of a civil war occurring in a typical African country/year by nearly 5%, not far from the sa mple average. This was achieved despite the pressure in the opposite direction of the rise in the incidence of natural disasters across the continent, a piece of information that is ta ken into account by donors to determine their aid allocation.

It goes on my long to read list…

September 2, 2014

Who gives? And do we put our money where our mouthes are?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:53 am
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What traits are associated with more donations to NGOs? Do wealthy areas have more donors? Does education play a role? What about political leanings? Perhaps voting for the left is associated with a preference for giving to NGOs born of a desire for redistribution? Perhaps, on the other hand, giving comes from a right wing desire to help without using the state? And, also, is NGO support associated with support for ODA? Do people who want their government to give also put their own money where their mouths are?

Answers (provisional answers) to all of these questions, based on Australian research I’ve conducted with colleagues, can be found in a Devpolicy blog post here, and in a working paper here.



August 27, 2014

Making progress on foreign aid…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:46 am

I’m only 6 pages in (usual disclaimer then, but hey when your blog is small as mine you can get away with this sort of stuff) yet Nancy Qian’s new NBER working paper on foreign aid is promising to become the best review of the economics and political science of aid written to-date.

The abstract:

Foreign aid is one of the most important policy tools that rich countries use for helping poor countries to improve population well-being and facilitate economic and institutional development. The empirical evidence on its benefits is mixed and has generated much controversy. This paper presents descriptive statistics which show that foreign aid to very poor countries accounts for very little of total global aid; reviews the evidence that foreign aid is often determined by the objectives of donor countries rather than the needs of recipient countries; argues that the evidence on the impact of aggregate foreign aid is hindered by problems of measurement and identification, which are partly due to the heterogenous nature of aid; and discusses recent studies using natural and randomized experiments to examine narrowed definitions of aid on more disaggregated outcomes.

Chris Blattman has already said many of the sensible things to be said of the paper. However, to add a couple:

1. It is surprising that economists such as Angus Deaton and William Easterly often focus on recipient side factors to explain why so much (their claim) / some (my claim) foreign aid does not seem to sustainably improve welfare. Given that, as Qian  shows, much aid does not seem to be given foremost for the purpose of helping recipients, it strikes me the first question we should be asking, before anyone starts shouting “aid doesn’t work” is whether we could give aid for more decent motives, and what might happen if we did. (This isn’t to say that aid which is given for reasons of our own interests itself never works; sometimes, I think it, can, often thanks to the hard efforts of aid workers).

2. If we are really serious about getting aid working (or, indeed, finding out what aid works, for what and in what circumstances), in addition to tackling our own political-economy of giving problems. We. Really. Need. To. Get. Better. Data. And do better testing. Data and methodology aren’t sexy and they don’t lend themselves to polemic. But if you want to know what works and why, they are essential.

July 14, 2014

Does aid undermine democracy?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 10:41 am

A common trope amongst aid’s let-them-eat-cake opponents is that aid-provided services undermine governance in democracy by reducing citizen’s incentives to hold their government to account.

I’m a sceptic, not because I think aid can do no harm, but simply because in strongly clientelist polities (i.e. most developing countries) the impediments to citizens holding their governments to account are more fundamental, stemming from complicated collective action dilemmas.

This Afrobarometer study offers some interesting associated evidence:

Can Donors And Non-State Actors Undermine Citizens’ Legitimating Beliefs?

Author(s): Sacks, Audrey
Year Published: 2012
Published in Working Papers

Abstract: This paper addresses the conditions under which donor and non-state actor service provision is likely to undermine or strengthen citizens’ legitimating beliefs. On the one hand, citizens may be less likely to support their government with quasi-voluntary compliance when they credit non-state actors or donors for service provision. On the other hand, the provision of goods and services by donors and non-state actors might strengthen citizens’ confidence in their government and their willingness to defer to governmental laws and regulations if citizens believe that the government is essential to leveraging and managing these resources. The author assesses these competing hypotheses using multi-level analyses of Afrobarometer survey data. The sample, drawn from a continuum of developing societies in Africa, allows for analysis of associations between donor and non-state actor service provision and the sense of obligation to comply with tax authorities, the police and courts. The findings yield support for the hypothesis that the provision of services by donors and non-state actors is strengthening, rather than undermining, the relationship between citizens and the state.


June 24, 2014

A Very Human Endeavour

Filed under: Aid,Development Theory — terence @ 9:18 am

Over at WhyDev they’ve produced a long, bleak, amusing list of advice for aspiring humanitarian workers.

Pickers of nits (who me?) can find things to complain about (it’s wrong to state categorically that foreign aid doesn’t stimulate growth; if anything, the best available evidence suggests it does) but, overall, the list rings true.

At a more meta-level the list illustrates well one of the grim truths of aid work, that it is a human endeavour, and so is replete with the human failings we see throughout our lives. There is no escaping this. No part of the world of aid work that’s free from it.

If you imagine yourself working for a crusading NGO speaking truth to DFID/USAID/DFAT/MFAT power, odds are you’ll find yourself working for an entity that receives enough funding from the power itself, or easily scared suburban donors, that truth telling has to be muted. Or, if you end up in a small independently funded cluster of the ideologically pure, you’ll end up doubting, amidst the complexities of development, you actually know what the truth is.

Similarly, if you plan on standing in solidarity with some idealised noble savage against the depredations of the developed world, odds are you’ll find that while those depredations are real, the societies you imagine yourself helping have plenty of their own ambiguity and their own internal abuses of power. And that these are more often the source of suffering than our own crimes. You will also learn similar hard lessons about power and people’s failings if you stride into the world of development keen on promoting participatory approaches.

The dismal science won’t help you either. If, fresh from your economics degree, you imagine all you need is to bring some hard-nosed analysis based on sound theoretical fundamentals into the game, you’ll likely learn the hard way that amidst the messy processes of development tidy theories struggle to give guidance, and simple solutions fail.

Yet, at the same time, if the message you take from all this is that development itself is bad, and if you race to the embrace of chic, post-development philosophising, you’ll find just as much contradiction and confusion. Most importantly, if you are being honest, you will also have to face the uncomfortable truth that — for all it’s flaws and ambiguities, and for all we don’t know about how to bring it about — development actually delivers, both longer and happier lives.

And as for aid work, while it is far from perfect, it’s also far from the worst we can do. The long sad sweep of human history is mostly filled with examples of us actively doing harm to anyone who wasn’t kin or, more recently, compatriot.  Set against this, the fact we try to help strangers in far away lands is actually something. Of course it’s still ambiguous, we haven’t actually evolved into a better species in the meantime, but compared to the unambiguous nastiness of much our past, muddled attempts at kindness are still an improvement.

For what it’s worth, if you end up working in development, my advice is to abandon all hope of perfection, or of healing the world, but try your best to contribute in some small way to making our planet a kinder, more sustainable place. Do this, and I think you’ve done your bit.

June 11, 2014

New Zealand’s half full aid glass

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 5:38 am

A lot has gone wrong in the world of New Zealand aid in the last 6 years. Aid diverted from the purpose of helping poor people to the purpose of helping NZ businesses. Good funding schemes broken. Cows without borders. And so on. But if you want a glass half full, it is still possible to talk of one. At the same time as a lot has gone wrong. Quite a lot has stayed on track. Jo and I assess this over at Devpolicy, and argue that the main reason is the hard work of aid programme staff.

Encouragingly, even when the politics goes wrong, and when civil society (us included) fails to do much to stop it, in some instances at least there is a degree of institutional path dependency, and a good aid organisation can keep on trucking, up to a point.

June 4, 2014


Filed under: Aid — terence @ 4:14 pm

Don’t get me wrong, the data at the OECD DAC’s aid data base are a great resource but, mother of gods!, the front end is awful. The servers are forever timing out or crashing, and output is poorly formatted when you export to Excel. It’s egregious in this day and age. Everyone else can produce easily accessible online data, why not the DAC?

A year or so ago I went to use the DAC’s stats site, only to encounter a feedback form, which was nice, or at least it would have been were it not totally unintelligible. Very symptomatic.

April 23, 2014

Does aid make you more popular?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 11:21 am
Tags: ,

Ethically, the foremost reason for giving aid is to help people in recipient countries. If aid does this alone I think we have good enough reason to give aid. Still it would be interesting to know if there were any benefits to donors of giving aid. In particular it would be interesting to know if donors received some sort of popularity dividend — where the fact they gave aid increased positive perceptions of them in recipient countries.

Like all the big questions in aid this is an empirical one. Like all the big questions on aid it is also a hard one to answer empirically. In particular, correlations between aid levels and opinion about aid are limited in what they can tell us because it’s just as likely opinions about donor countries influence how much aid a recipient country gets as it is that the amount of aid a country receives from a donor influences how popular the donor is.

In a recently published paper in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science two co-authors and I look use instrumental variables to try and overcome this methodological challenge and find out whether PEPFAR, the U.S aid fund for tackling HIV, has increased U.S popularity. The abstract is below; the paper is here; a blog post based on the paper is here (and here ungated).

Does foreign aid extended by one country improve that country’s image among populations of recipient countries? Using a multinational survey, we show that a United States aid program targeted to address HIV and AIDS substantially improves perceptions of the U.S. Our identification strategy for causal inference is to use instrumental variables measuring the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS problem in aid recipient countries. Our finding implies that in addition to its potential humanitarian benefits, foreign aid that is targeted, sustained, effective, and visible can serve as an important strategic goal for those countries that give it: fostering positive perceptions among foreign publics. By doing good, a country can do well.

Aid, blame and Rwanda

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:12 am
Tags: ,

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.


April 21, 2014

And in breaking news, someone’s asked Ugandans what they think of aid…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:53 am
Tags: , ,

Angus Deaton knows, just knows!, aid is a net bad and should be stopped immediately. When asked for evidence by Owen Barder, he cited some selective examples, argued their couldn’t be any empirical answers to these questions anyhow, and that we should all trust his expertise. Could this be yet another example of an economist expert imposing his view upon the reality of the poor? Is this what William Easterly is banging on about?

I’ve pointed out before that Africans*, when somebody bothered to ask them, on average seem to think aid actually helps.



Adam Harris (NYU), Helen Milner (Princeton),
Michael Findley (UT-Austin), Daniel Nielson (BYU),
April 4, 2013
How do recipients view foreign aid? Systematic scholarship on this topic is very limited.
We provide a comparison of mass and elite support for aid from a randomized
field experiment and survey done in Uganda in 2012. We asked local village
leaders, provincial governors, national members of parliament, and more than 3,000
Ugandan citizens to demonstrate support for aid. For two aid projects, we randomly
assigned exposure to different project funders, including bilateral agencies, multilateral
organizations, and the domestic government. We invited subjects to demonstrate
their levels of support or opposition to these projects and donors by voicing
their support to others, signing a petition, and sending an SMS. For members of parliament
we asked them to sign letters of support to donors and the national president.
We examine the differences in attitudes and behavioral responses between
mass and elite recipients. We generally find that citizens strongly prefer foreign aid
over government programs, whereas elites support, albeit more weakly, government
programs over foreign aid in most outcomes. We interpret this as evidence
that citizens see aid as an escape from clientelism, but elites may perceive more
avenues for the capture of aid resources.

*and yup, I know Africa’s not a country. When I broke the AB results down by country support was high on average across almost all of those African countries surveyed.

March 30, 2014

File under organisations *not* to donate to

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 12:13 pm

The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog reports that:

World Vision U.S., a Christian nonprofit organization, announced Monday it would change its hiring policy to now include gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages. By Wednesday, they changed their minds:

Wow. I am presuming/desperately hoping that discriminatory hiring practices of this sort are illegal in Australia and NZ, so this darkness isn’t present amongst my own development community…

[Update: a colleague informs me WV Australia definitely *does not* have the same policy in place.]

March 2, 2014

Aid works, aid works, aid works!

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 7:08 pm

Not only is it hard to get aid to work, thanks to endogeneity it’s hard to get good evidence of aid’s actual impact at a country level. Does aid increase growth on average? Quite possibly, but we don’t know for sure. And methodological limitations make it very likely we will always have doubts, even if aid in-aggregate does actually work.

That being said the authors of this paper (h/t colleagues at ANU) seem, from my skim of its abstract while proofreading my PhD, to have spotted a very smart tool for isolating (some) aid’s actual impact on growth. Very smart. Will its findings stand? Let’s wait and see…in the meantime I’m looking forwards to a read, when I hand my thesis in.

The Effect of Aid on Growth: Evidence from a Quasi-Experiment
Sebastian Galiani
Stephen Knack
Lixin Colin Xu
Ben Zou
February 24, 2014
The literature on aid and growth has not found a convincing instrumental variable to identify the causal effects of aid. In this paper we exploit an instrumental variable based on the fact that since 1987, a major criterion for IDA (International Development Association) eligibility has been whether or not a country is below a certain threshold of per capita income. This threshold is predetermined and arbitrary, so it is plausibly exogenous to recipient countries in a model that conditions on initial income levels, country and period fixed effects. We find evidence that other donors tend to reinforce rather than compensate for reductions in IDA aid following threshold crossings. Overall, the aid to GNI ratio drops by about 60% on average after countries cross the threshold. Focusing on the 35 countries that have crossed the IDA income threshold from below between 1987 and 2010, we find a positive, statistically significant, and economically sizable effect of aid on growth. A one percentage point increase in the aid to GNI ratio from the sample mean raises annual real per capita GDP growth by approximately 0.6 percentage points. We also demonstrate that an important reason for underestimating aid effects is the attenuation bias associated with measurement errors in aid that the literature has ignored so far. Finally, there is some evidence that our results may apply to the other low-income countries that are still below the threshold.

January 14, 2014

Why I became an (aid) conservative

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 10:51 am

At 6.40am on January 1st I made a new year’s resolution. This year, I decided as I contemplated lifting my weary head from my worn-out pillow, I would become a conservative. With 40 not far off, and with Canberra’s political tides having turned, the time seemed right. Exchange the soy lattes for Victoria Bitter. Stop reading the Guardian. Trade in the Yaris for an SUV. Easy. Or was it — read the rest on the Devpolicy blog.

October 23, 2013

Angus Deaton and Roadblocks to Development

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 7:56 am
Tags: ,

Well, I was looking forwards to reading Angus Deaton’s new book, but Chris Blattman’s review leaves me less inclined. (Acting on the assumption that Blattman is treating Deaton fairly of course). In particular, writing of Deaton Blattman states:

Where he’s enflamed passions, though, is his last chapter: “How to help those left behind”. It’s a tirade against aid, especially naive aid. Overall one message comes through: Aid is a roadblock to development.

Blattman then goes on to sensibly point out that not all aid is equal, and to offer the following partial agreement with Deaton:

I think Deaton has his sights aimed at dollars sent by the West to local governments to supposedly reduce poverty, improve health, and ignite growth. This is a lot (if not the bulk) of money sent to poor countries, and so it’s a fair target.

This makes it easier to see what he means by aid not working. It probably hasn’t produced growth, even if most of Africa has been growing steadily for ten years. And it might not be what’s responsible for falling poverty levels. Frankly we don’t know, but I think we can say that if aid did ignite this growth, it certainly has been coy about it.

Yes, Chris and Angus, that might well be the case, but if aid — for all it’s flaws — really was a roadblock to development, Africa would not have grown so well in the last decade, would it?

The growth might have been in spite of aid, but that African countries could, on the whole, grow rapidly over a decade where aid to Africa itself grew rapidly, is about as definitive evidence as you could want for that aid does not prevent development.

There is a lot wrong with the world of aid. And giving aid that works is hard. But claiming that is a substantial roadblock to development is simply not true.

As an aside Blattman also writes that:

And, frankly, I personally find it hard to believe that levels of democracy in Africa would be as high as they are without aid. I think the most important forces driving democracy are probably internal to Africa, and the example and economic success of advanced democracies comes second. But aid and foreign meddling comes a close third. I simply find it hard to believe that aid–both the direct democratization kind, and maybe aid more generally–hasn’t played a big role.

Of course, I haven’t seen much evidence to support my gut feel, which (as we’ll see in a minute), is part of my larger point.

Yet there is evidence. See here and here.

September 18, 2013

The End of AusAID?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 4:31 pm

It certainly seems possible on the basis of reporting in the Fin Review:

“It is also understood the head of AusAID Peter Baxter has resigned, with the agency to be absorbed into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, mirroring a similar move by the Canadian government.

Add this to the Coalition government’s utterly reckless plan to slash aid spending mid financial year and all of a sudden the future of Australian Aid looks very bleak. In 2012 Australia was the 8th biggest bilateral OECD donor in absolute dollar terms, and it is the biggest to the Pacific, meaning that a dramatic turn for the worse will be far more significant than have been the travails in New Zealand aid.

This all looks like very bad news.

September 10, 2013

Pat Robertson and the road to hell…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 12:56 pm

People say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that has always struck me as nonsense. If you look at the sweep of history, all the really awful stuff was born of really awful intentions. Well-intended disasters don’t even make the top ten.

And so it is with aid too. A lot of well-intended aid has failed to work (giving aid well is hard!) and some of it has even caused harm. But most of the worst outcomes, I would contend, came from aid that was not well intended in the first place: tied US food aid, aid to buy the allegiance of dictators. And if the allegations levelled against him by two documentary film makers prove to be true US televangelist Pat Robertson has just done a spectacularly good job of illustrating this point.

Read the rest of this post on DevPolicy here.

And the award for nastiest person ever goes to…

Filed under: Aid,Social Justice — terence @ 7:57 am
Tags: ,

Pat Robertson if the following is true

Televangelist, multi-millionaire, and leader of the religious right, Pat Robertson is a man on a mission. During an escalating refugee crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Robertson took to the airwaves of the Christian Broadcasting Network to raise money for his charity Operation Blessing International. He attracted millions of dollars in donations for relief projects in the Congo. Later, he deemed the mission a success, broadcasting footage of himself being warmly embraced by children in refugee camps.

With Mission Congo, filmmakers David Turner and Lara Zizic conduct a deep investigation based on years of research into what Operation Blessing actually accomplished. They interview aid workers, eyewitnesses and even the pilots of Robertson’s airplanes who describe a different mission: diamonds. With the help of a brutal dictator and ex- Navy SEALS, Robertson was diverting his planes away from refugee camps to a different part of the Congo to extract precious gems. If the devil is in the details, here the details are jaw-dropping as we confront the disconnect between what Robertson promised and what others experienced.

People say the road to hell is paved with good intentions but that’s nonsense. Maybe the odd stuff up or whatever, but the real bad stuff that happens in our world is the product of the opposite: evil.

Pat Robertson take a bow.

update: more in Guardian

August 28, 2013

The Shleifer Affair

Filed under: Aid,Economic Development — terence @ 1:31 pm

A handy link on the Shleifer affair, surely the darkest hour (not without competition of course) in the annals of ‘development economists not exactly practising what they preach.’

August 8, 2013

Impact Evaluations, Coming to a Country Near You?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 12:45 pm

From an interesting CGDEV blog post. My guess is that here in the Pacific we are close to entirely absent such a trend.

July 23, 2013

Aid in Antiquity

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:28 am

From page 240 of Carol Lancaster’s book ‘Foreign Aid: Diplomacy, Development, Domestic Politics‘.

“I am grateful to Michael Clemens of the Centre for Global Development for the following observation on the ancient history of relief aid: “The earliest documented instance I’ve seen is from 226BC, when a huge earthquake hit Rhodes, toppling the famous colossus. Rhodes was a main clearing house for Mediterranean trade – something like an ancient Singapore. Led by Ptolemy III of Egypt, several nations around the Mediterranean immediately sent food aid and other assistance to the quake victims” (personal correspondence, December 2004).”

I wonder what monitoring and evaluation was like back then?

Sometimes a reminder is enough?

Filed under: Aid,Development Theory — terence @ 8:10 am

What looks to be a very interesting new NBER paper:

Turning a Shove into a Nudge? A “Labeled Cash Transfer” for Education
Najy Benhassine, Florencia Devoto, Esther Duflo, Pascaline Dupas, Victor Pouliquen

Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs) have been shown to increase human capital investments, but their standard features make them expensive. We use a large randomized experiment in Morocco to estimate an alternative government-run program, a “labeled cash transfer” (LCT): a small cash transfer made to fathers of school-aged children in poor rural communities, not conditional on school attendance but explicitly labeled as an education support program. We document large gains in school participation. Adding conditionality and targeting mothers make almost no difference. The program increased parents’ belief that education was a worthwhile investment, a likely pathway for the results.

I’m not someone who dismisses the textbook model of humans as rational utility maximisers off hand. Sometimes, we’re close enough for it to be practically useful. And almost always it is a great starting point for thinking. Nevertheless, advances in behavioural economics psychology promise, I think, not only to improve the study of economics and political science, but also to provide all manner of useful insights into aid practice.

July 16, 2013

Jeffrey Sachs, the Millennium Villages Project, and the — ever underated — evidence

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:48 am

Jeffrey Sachs, arguably the world’s most influential development economist, is no stranger to criticism. From the right, academics such as William Easterly have been attacking his advocacy of aid for at least a decade. On the left his opponents have been just as strident in critiquing his advocacy of privatisation, structural adjustment and trade liberalisation for even longer (for archetypal examples see this review in the Left Business Observer and critical opinion in the Nation Magazine here). Yet the latest round of criticism of Sachs feels different. [My latest post on Devpolicy; read more here.]

July 12, 2013

New Zealand Aid Flows

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 9:22 am

My wife and I sometimes wonder whether other couples are more exciting than us. I mean we’re happy, get on well together, and go surfing when we can. But, on the other hand, we’ve just devoted our weekends for the last several months to a detailed analysis of New Zealand aid flow data. That’s not that exciting right?

Anyhow, the end product, a joint Devpolicy NZADDs working paper is now up for your reading pleasure on SSRN: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2292300

However, unless you’re every bit as boring as we are I suggest you start with the short and snappy Devpolicy blog post. Read the basics in less than 5 minutes:


Importantly, if you’re from an OECD DAC donor country you could emulate this report pretty easily. It would be great if our nerdiness went global. You can contact me via the about page of this blog if you’d like advice.

June 19, 2013

An end to tied US Food Aid

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:45 am

Ok – so I’ve been living in a cave (the cave of PhD write up) but even so can’t believe I was completely unaware of this. It seems like very big aid news, and in need of more coverage in the aid blogs:

These next 48 hours [the blog post is from two days ago] are critical for advancing reform of US international food aid, which I have blogged about previously.  Short version: because current rules essentially demand that we provide aid in food grown in the US via government subsidy, our current aid regime wastes money, delays delivery of aid by weeks, lines the pockets of agribusiness and big shipping, often undermines farmers in the Global South, and leaves 2-4 million people starving who could otherwise be helped.

The basic answer is to allow food to be procured locally; the Obama Administration’s budget proposal did just that, and was given the back of the hand by special interests in the Senate.  The Senate bill, which passed the Upper House, did add some extra money for local procurement, but fell far short of what was really needed.  The pathetic justifications offered by the agribusiness and shipping lobbies show just how weak their policy position is.

And now — maybe the House to the rescue.  The House? The current House?  You gotta be kidding, right?

Wrong.  The hero here is House International Relations Committee chair Ed Royce, a very conservative Republican from Orange County, who studied the way food aid rules work, and got outraged.  That’s hardly odd for a conservative, because farm policy represents about the clearest case of government waste we have.  It didn’t hurt, of course, that allowing for local procurement would also take much food aid from the Agriculture Committee and give it to the IR committee, but that really wasn’t what was happening here: this is an outrage and everyone who looks at it realizes it.

Read more at the link above, and if you live in the states, lobby your congressman! This matters.

June 14, 2013

Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit and Ayn

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 10:09 am

Following from my previous effort I now have a more substantial review of Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit up at Devpolicy. This time more LRB than Game of Thrones.

There have been a couple of other reviews too: at Why Dev, and at Humansophere. Both take issue with Jonathan’s sermons in the book, Tom at Humanosphere going as far as to call them Ayn Randesque. They’re not. But it is fun to try and re-imagine sections of the book as if Rand had written them (ridiculing Rand is a pass-time of mine; she needs it).

The first thing that struck Mary-Anne was how different he looked. The bar was the same – dreary, sandy, shabby – but Jonathan was turned out in crisp, tailored clothes. A collar. Shoes of distinction. He was drinking single malt. He looked animated, fervent even. Alive!

“The goat is dead. I shot it. Tonight you call me John.”

She went to speak but he waved her into silence.

“You know what’s wrong with development…[insert 4 hour speech in here]…so you might say Easterly’s correct, but not correct enough! He’s soft…[two
more hours and now we’re well past curfew; the Australian guy from the Red Cross has passed out in a pool of his own vomit]…A is A! And M and E is for sissies!”

At first she’d wanted to object (what about Robert Chambers? Gender Mainstreaming? Jeff Sachs?) but now all she could think about was growth models: endogenous; the big push; binding constraints – you name it. His truth was so savage. So objective. So true!

She looked at the other men in the bar. Weary, worn, weak. Mediocre! She winced…she looked back into his eyes.

‘John, I’m yours!’

May 24, 2013

The Little Push

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 11:11 am
Tags: , , ,

Once, back in the dark old days of development economics, the thinking was: to grow, countries need to invest capital, but very poor countries have no capital to invest, so they are stuck in a poverty trap, which is why we should give them aid; with our aid they can invest (in human capital, in infrastructure, in industries), and then they will grow.

Trouble was, we gave the aid and they didn’t grow.

Theory extinct.

Yet here comes Chris Blattman* to exhume it. Except he’s claiming we had the unit of analysis wrong. Don’t give money to countries. Give it to people. And they’ll invest it in training, and businesses, and so develop their countries**. Or, if not, at least develop themselves.

Call this the Little Push.

His evidence looks good. Although, of course, all he’s showing is temporary improvements, not a new trajectory.

My only question would be, how dependent is this result on Uganda (i.e. a country with bad but not terrible institutions and at least some national level economic development taking place)? If you did the same in the PNG highlands what would the impact be? I certainly wouldn’t count on it being positive, but I’m interested enough to want to do the RCT.

*Ok, so this is a simplified narrative (the refund’s yours): the big push never completely died, and others (Sachs, Collier) have exhumed it in interesting ways. And unconditional cash transfers aren’t Chris Blattman’s brainchild.

**Actually Blattman isn’t, in his blog post, making national development claims, he’s just making improved welfare claims, but today is simple narrative day, sorry.



May 17, 2013

Fun Facts About New Zealand Aid

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 6:07 pm

There’s an amusing buzzfeed thread on the challenges of being a New Zealander. To which I’d add Australia envy. Budgets have just come out in Australia and New Zealand and it turns out that the increase in Australian aid next year will be larger than the entire New Zealand aid budget. My wife and I have some more New Zealand aid budget analysis up at DevPolicy.

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