Waylaid Dialectic

March 17, 2019

Processing terror…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 10:58 am

The last time I felt like this was in the wake of 9/11. My partner at the time was from the US. We were living in Sydney. For several days we walked around like confused ghosts, trying to work out what it meant, where it came from, what was to come. We compulsively bought newspapers, even when we knew they wouldn’t tell us anything new.

Now it’s Twitter. More diverse than newspapers, but rapid fire, clippings, half thoughts, short sharp shouting matches, confusing. This is me trying to get my head around it.


Thread through everything, attempts at understanding, bursts of anger, is sorrow. Sorrow — even though I didn’t know anyone directly affected. Sorrow — even though I know the fact the crime happening in my home country makes it no different from terrorism on the other side of the earth. I hurt for the people affected. I’m sorry.


The alleged terrorist is Australian. A rightwing member of Australia’s senate tried to blame the crime on immigration. Australian media broadcast the beginning of the footage the perpetrator filmed from his head-cam. The footage stopped before the killing started. But even so. This was done despite requests from the New Zealand police not to publicise the footage. It would be easy to be angry at Australia. Just as some people blame all Muslims for 9/11. But New Zealand has its own stock of far right loons. Most Australians are appalled by the crime. And a 16 year old Australian teen bravely egged the aforementioned senator. If my twitter feed is anything to go by, the broadcasting of the head-cam footage is offensive to a lot of Australians too.


In my Twitter feed plenty of attention is also been paid to the politicians and media organisations (particularly in Australia, but also in NZ) who have been dog-whistling Islamophobia for years. I’m not so sure they’re the cause of this crime. My guess is that their main effect is on frightened elderly voters. And that Neo-Nazis would exist and commit crimes regardless of the squawking in parliaments and newspapers. I’m not completely certain, but don’t think Andrew Bolt, or Rob Hosking, or Don Brash are gateway drugs. That doesn’t mean they aren’t utterly vile though. Nor does it mean that they don’t cause harm. The fear and suspicion they foster might not cause people to pick up guns, but it undermines democracy and civil society nonetheless. If they truly care about their countries they could do one thing to show this — they could shut up.


I’ve read tweeted allegations that New Zealand and Australia’s secret services have been so fixated on the left and on the risk of Islamist terrorists that they’ve ignored the far right. The evidential base for these claims is fairly weak. But that’s always going to be the case — secret service work by its nature doesn’t leave much evidence. What we need from now is clear reassurances that the threat of far right terror is being taken seriously. Actually, we need more than reassurances: we need evidence. We need action and then evidence from our governments.

The government also needs make it illegal to own semi-automatic weapons in New Zealand. (The conservative prime minister) John Howard bravely did this in Australia despite concerted opposition from the gun lobby in the 1990s. Jacinda Adern has promised similar changes for New Zealand. All power to her. And if the gun lobby resists we need to stand up to them.

Solving things

If there’s one silver lining to this very dark cloud, it has been the way New Zealand has come together. Prime Minister Adern has been a real leader. Indeed, it seems from my confused perch here in Canberra that most New Zealanders have been real leaders. Kindness, flowers, donations. Tears. Unity. It feels like a country pulling together.

Terrorists want division. Hate grows amidst divides. There’s no undoing the tragedy. But for now, at least, New Zealand seems to be doing its best to stop hate spreading.

[Update – my views on the above are changing a bit. Specifically: I’m now inclined to think that dog-whistling politicians and media commentators did contribute in their own indirect way, even if they were far from the central cause. All the more reason for them to give it a rest. Also, NZ politicians have basically come out and said intelligence services were under-prepared re the alt right etc. All the more cause for a major attitude shift.]



Predicting the 2019 Solomon Islands Elections

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:29 am

Elections are coming to Solomon Islands. Predictions are never easy in politics but here’s what I think the elections will bring (coupled with my degree of confidence in brackets, ranging from confident to completely confused).

The election will be run fairly well (quite confident)

Recent elections in Solomon Islands have been pretty well run. [Read the rest at Devpolicy].

February 1, 2019

Why are donations falling to Australian aid NGOs?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:56 am

Picture this if you will. The depths of last winter, the orthopedic ward in Canberra Hospital. Halls filled with harried nurses and unstable patients taking new hips for test drives. Televisions talking loudly to themselves. There’s one exception to the bustle: an anxious looking man, hooked up to several blood-thirsty devices, staring quietly at a laptop.

That was me. The devices, as well as the stay in hospital, were thanks to something called compartment syndrome (not recommended). The laptop had a different purpose. I was updating a programme I’d made to help Australian NGOs compile funding information. Hospital was unexpected, and I didn’t want to hold the process up. Updating the computer code was also a merciful distraction from daytime TV.

The labour also meant I’d eventually be able to examine trends in donations to Australian aid NGOs and offer — at least tentative — explanations for them. I’ve now done this. Donations are on the slide. Why? Find out in this Devpolicy blog post.

December 2, 2018

We give how much to Tokelau?!? PNG Electric

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 5:29 pm

We give how much?!?
Let’s face it, if you’ve ever had to labour over a journal article, report, or even a blog post, you’re probably pretty envious of Mike Hosking. Forget the hours spent ensuring your writing makes sense. Hosking gets paid to be incoherent.

His recent column on New Zealand aid for the Herald is a case in point. The arguments stumble around growling and banging into each other like drunken fans at a heavy metal concert. Read the rest at NZADDs.

August 7, 2018

The shocking truth about RCTs exposed!

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:18 am

Development debates are frequently fierce and rarely resolved. Often this makes sense, many disputes are ideologically charged, evidence is unclear, and peoples’ lives are at stake.

In other instances, the source of the sound and fury is hard to fathom. Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) are a case in point. Some eminent development thinkers proclaim their virtues, insisting they are the final word in evidence, others decry them in treatises.

I’m here to tell you both sides of this fight are wrong. Like much else in development, RCTs are remarkable, but also flawed. Here’s what you need to know.

Read the rest here at the Devpolicy blog.

July 20, 2018

14 economists, 1 anthropologist, and almost no common sense on aid

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 1:42 pm

Development twitter erupted in chirping this week. The cause was a Guardian op-ed from a group of development notables decrying foreign aid. Prominent aid commentator Duncan Green tweeted that the piece was a “must read”. Green’s tweet alone was re-tweeted nearly 100 times.

Aid, especially government aid, needs criticism. I’ve spent the last eight years highlighting problems with New Zealand aid. But criticism is more useful if it is cogent and accurate. This op-ed was anything but.

To be fair to the authors, the first error presumably isn’t their fault… Read the rest of this post on the Devpolicy Blog

April 11, 2018

Where to find the Green Book

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:46 am

DFAT currently has the Green Book located here: http://dfat.gov.au/about-us/publications/aid/statistical-summary-time-series-data/Pages/australias-official-development-assistance-standard-time-series.aspx

January 14, 2018

NGOs caused Donald Trump!

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 10:13 am

Depressing. If NPR is to be believed, Owen Barder and Dina Pomerantz, two normally sensible, empirically-grounded aid commentators, believe that negative portrayal of developing countries and crises in aid agency and NGO promotional material and media engagement is one of the reasons Donald Trump allegedly described developing countries in Africa as shitholes.

Before Barder and Pomerantz hit the tweet button they needed to pause and think about whether their claims had any empirical basis.

(1) Many NGOs strive for positive portrayal in their advertising. In the UK and Australia those that are members of Bond and ACFID (NGO peak bodies) are strongly encouraged to by codes of conduct. (This may be true for the US too. I am limiting my comments to countries I know about.) Obviously, crises still have to be called crises, and need described as need, but my experience has been that professional NGOs being gratuitous in doing this is the exception, not the norm.

(2) Barder and Pomerantz provide no evidence that NGO adverts do anything to shape people’s views. I would posit that most people’s views are shaped by their Facebook feeds and the TV news. This is where the bulk of the information the average person receives comes from. I rather suspect President Trump’s views are formed by Fox news, not his frequent reading of advertising material from aid NGOs.

Aid NGOs shouldn’t be beyond criticism. But it ought to be empirically accurate criticism.

June 13, 2017

Is there any excuse for Australia and New Zealand

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:10 am

As I stared glumly at Australia and New Zealand’s lowly rankings in the 2016 OECD aid generosity tables, I started searching for an explanation. Or, to be more precise, an excuse. Neither Australians nor New Zealanders seem like tight-fisted people, so perhaps there was a good explanation as to why our countries languished at 17th and 19th out of 30 donors in the OECD’s donor club at the end of 2016.

Read the rest of this post on the Devpolicy blog.

June 2, 2017

NZ on the way to its lowest ever aid effort

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:02 am

As a share of GNI, Australian aid is now at its lowest level since records began. New Zealand is following in Australia’s footsteps.

According to current budget projections from Treasury, NZ aid/GNI is projected to be 0.208% of GNI in the 2020/21 financial year. The only time it was (fractionally) lower than was in 1996 it was 0.207% of GNI. (0.207% in the 1996 calendar year; calendar year because historical data come from the OECD who work in calendar years).

New Zealand’s aid as a share of GNI is trending down in 2020/21. So, unless something changes, by 2021/22 our aid effort will be worse than ever before. If aid/GNI is any gauge, we are not a generous nation.

To see the chart below full screen click here. To download data click here.

Aid over GNI long time series

May 29, 2017

The ‘rise’ and fall of New Zealand aid (budget 2017 edition)

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 4:54 pm

Last Thursday was budget day in New Zealand. It brought another massive increase in New Zealand aid (18 per cent!). This is not good news. Read the rest of this post at Devpolicy.

May 2, 2017

Why I think NZ aid spending on Munda runway was a bad idea

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:33 pm

My comments New Zealand aid spending on the Munda Runway in Solomon Islands have been criticised on Solomon Islands Facebook forums and in the media by Solomon Islands politicians.

It’s hard to communicate a complex argument in a radio interview. So, below, in full, are my views about the runway.

Munda runway isn’t a gift from nowhere. NZ spends aid in Solomons in a lot of ways including in education and in helping with governance (to see some of what we do look at the ‘data tidied’ sheet in this spreadsheet). Money that is spent in one way can always be spent on helping in another way. For this reason it is important to make sure any spending brings big enough benefits to make the work worth it. In Munda about NZD$20M has been spent/is being spent on the runway. (It’s hard to know the exact amount as some of the total project cost was devoted to the Noro road. Also more NZ money is still being spent.) According to MFAT, NZ’s total aid budget to Solomons is about NZ$20M/yr. So Munda took the place of a lot of other spending that could have helped people in Solomons in other ways.

If the desired benefit from the Munda work was simply a better domestic runway, NZ$20M is too much. Less could have been spent, and more could have been spent on other areas.

 If the desired benefit from the Munda work was a genuine international airport, with customs and immigration facilities, to help foster tourism in Western Province, the idea is bold and I can see the possible benefits. However, NZ is not supporting such a project. And New Zealand is not funding facilities such as customs and immigration. A lot more work would be required to build these facilities. This would require a real commitment from the Solomons government. I do not think this will happen. I do not think it will happen because the clientelist nature of Solomons politics prevents the Solomons government from focusing on large national development projects in an ongoing manner. SIG currently struggles to maintain Henderson Airport, and it previously failed to fulfil its part of the bargain with NZ on the existing Munda runway work.  It may be the case that campaigning from concerned citizens can force the government to create an international airport in Munda. If this succeeds, and tourism booms in Western Province, I will admit I was wrong.

Rather than funding a true international airport, NZ is funding an alternative runway for international flights to land on if Henderson is ever unusable in an emergency. In theory, this will benefit Solomons because international flights will be able to fly to Honiara carrying less fuel. (International law requires them to carry enough fuel to get to another airport if their primary destination is shut down. At present this usually means Port Vila.) If planes could carry less fuel, in theory, they could charge less for freight and lower airfares, which ought to help with tourism and other development. But, I am not sure that even this will happen. Once again, maintaining an alternative emergency runway to international legal standards in Munda will require serious ongoing input from the Solomons Government. I’m not sure this will happen given how little money it has spent on the work thus far. Even if it does happen, I do not think airfares will fall that much (there are only two providers from Australia – a duopoly, not a competitive market). Also, I think there are other constraints on tourism in Solomons that are more important than international airfares (specifically, domestic airfares, reliable domestic flights and other domestic infrastructure).

May 1, 2017

How did Pacific Countries fare under McCully

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:56 am

Some more aid charts. How did the various Pacific countries fare, in a relative sense, in the McCully era?

Individual PICs as a share of total known NZ aid to the Pacific (two charts of same data)

how did diff pics fare 1

how did diff pics fare 2

Individual PICs as a share of total known NZ country or region allocable global aid

how did diff pics fare 3

Too see the charts better and to access and check calculations and sources, click here.

Key points:

Regional organisations did surprisingly well for a minister who said he didn’t like them.

Lots of bouncing around. Some of this is too be expected. Cyclones and the like. Other bounces are probably from large infrastructure projects. Other bounces reflect a minister who wasn’t one for planning.

To help with getting a sense of broader trends, there are two more charts below. Each has a sub-chart for every country. Each shows share of total aid to the Pacific. Each dot is a year. In the first chart a trend line (an OLS line of best fit is plotted). Because fitting an linear line of best fit is somewhat hazardous in data that bounce around a lot, in the second chart a non-linear trend line (a locally weighted regression line is fitted). (If you want these data in Stata email me.)

Cooks, Kiribati and Tuvalu are obvious winners. Solomon Islands and PNG obvious losers. The rest of the countries’ outcomes were more ambiguous in a relative sense.

Countries’ shares of aid to the Pacific



April 28, 2017

Murray McCully’s lessons for all of us

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:32 pm

This post was published on NZ’s excellent foreign affairs blog Incline. I’m posting here to keep tack of my posts. But please go and read it on their site.

The end of an error, or two

Murray McCully’s time as New Zealand’s foreign minister is at an end. On 1 May he’ll be replaced by Gerry Brownlee. It’s hard to know what Mr. Brownlee will mean for New Zealand’s approach to foreign aid, but it’s easy to assess Mr. McCully’s legacy. He brought change, and he claims to have brought development when before there was only pseudo-expertise and waste. But the changes he made were either unneeded or harmful, and the development achievements he claims either haven’t occurred or can’t be attributed to him.

McCully will be remembered for reintegrating New Zealand’s semi-autonomous aid agency into the foreign ministry for no good reason. But the smaller injuries he inflicted on New Zealand aid were every bit as important. He took a well-functioning humanitarian emergency fund for NGOs and replaced it with one that was only able to get money out the door when stories of its dysfunction made it into the media. He killed off a similarly efficient fund for non-emergency NGO work. McCully’s botched humanitarian emergency fund was eventually repaired. But, as the latest OECD review pointed out, New Zealand still wants for an effective general NGO funding tool.
McCully changed the ethos of New Zealand aid. Outside of the Pacific, an increased share of aid was geared to bringing economic or geopolitical benefits to New Zealand. There were cows without borders. There were training programmes that brought young businessmen and women from Southeast Asia to New Zealand for the explicit purpose of strengthening business ties. And, when they were surveyed in 2015, most stakeholders–including private sector stakeholders–thought New Zealand aid was more focused on bringing benefits to New Zealand than it was on helping the poor (see pages 12 and 13 here).

There were also odd undertakings, which mightn’t have been solely about helping New Zealand, but which still didn’t seem like the actions of a country focusing its aid on need or effectiveness. There was, for example, training the Royal Hashemite Court of Jordan so it could run a private, non-profit air ambulance service (p. 44). And aid to St Lucia to develop geothermal energy. (In 2015, both Jordan and St Lucia had per capita GDPs above $10,000 in purchasing power parity adjusted dollars. By way of comparison, Samoa’s PPP GDP per capita was $5,934; Solomon Islands’ was $2,200.)

Foreign Minister McCully micromanaged the Aid Programme too, he derided aid expertise, and made captain’s calls. Most disastrously, he decided to use aid to upgrade the Munda Runway in Solomon Islands to meet requirements for emergency international runway status. The rationale was that an emergency runway in Munda would allow international flights to Honiara to carry less fuel and, as a result, charge less. And cheaper fares would mean more tourists. But international airfares aren’t a binding constraint on tourism in the Solomons. Worse still, the spending wouldn’t help at all unless the Solomons government did its bit. Predictably, it didn’t. And so the runway lies, refurbished by New Zealand companies, costing nearly NZ$20 million, and doing little for tourists.

Minister McCully didn’t mention the Munda runway in his farewell address to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. Instead he claimed as “shining examples” of his aid successes, “the huge turnaround in the fortunes of Niue, where tourism numbers have nearly trebled, and in the Cook Islands, where they have increased by 50%…” When he talks of aiding Niue, McCully presumably means the Matavai resort, which according to Radio New Zealand, was refurbished and extended with New Zealand aid money in the early days of McCully’s tenure (more money has been spent on it since). Although it brought controversy, the hotel may be a reasonable idea. Yet I challenge you to look at these economic data for Niue (the most recent available) and show me any “huge turnaround” in the country’s fortunes. As for Cook Islands, it’s true that tourist numbers have risen by about 50% since 2009, but as this spreadsheet shows, the increase was simply a continuation of long run trends. It’s not anything the minister can claim. (If you’re wondering about the 2016 up-tick, it was caused by Jetstar starting to serve Cooks, not aid.)

As he lorded over New Zealand aid, Murray McCully made a lot of noise, brought change, and achieved little.

There’s a lesson in this for future foreign ministers. Mr. McCully’s energy and his desire to improve things were admirable. But giving good aid is hard. Intentions matter, there’s a lot to be learnt, and a role for expertise. Had he recognised this, Murray McCully might have translated his energy into a genuine legacy of positive change.

There are lessons for New Zealand’s broader development community too. Bad Ministers are part of politics. Maybe Brownlee will be better. Maybe this year’s election will bring someone better still. Or maybe not. We need to be better at pushing back against bad aid. We need to properly fund our advocacy, and we need to learn how to win political fights. Until we get this right, New Zealand’s aid will never live up to its potential. Or if it does, the gains will be fleeting ones.

April 25, 2017

Murray McCully by the Numbers

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:50 am

Questionable claims are being made about Murray McCully’s impact on the New Zealand Government Aid Programme. So, as a public service, here are some numbers.

In her take on McCully’s time as foreign minister Tracy Watkins states:

He worked himself to exhaustion on New Zealand’s successful campaign for a seat on the Security Council and earned an international reputation as a fierce and outspoken critic of UN inaction and paralysis.

He stared down his critics – and there were many of them – for his determination to redirect the aid budget to our own back yard, the Pacific, and refocus it on economic development rather than handouts.

I’m sure the Minister was tired, and no doubt he said nasty things about the UN, but he didn’t put his money where his mouth was and cut the amount of aid we gave via UN entities.

The first chart below shows the share of New Zealand government aid given bilaterally versus the share given multilaterally. (When you give aid multilaterally you are giving it to an international organisation like the World Bank so that they can then spend it as aid. When you’re giving aid bilaterally you’re giving it yourself.) The data come from the OECD and are by calendar year. The first year McCully’s budget choices had any affect on spending was 2009. The first full year affected by his choices was 2010. As you can see, while it’s ever so slightly lower now than before, the share of aid given via multilaterals did not decrease meaningfully under McCully. (Development nerds note that the multilateral figure is core funding to multilaterals and excludes earmarked funding.)

bilat v multilat

(Sources and calculations for the charts on multilateral aid can be found here.)

Funding to UN development agencies as a share of multilateral aid is shown below. (The World Bank is part of the UN in a sense, but is treated as a separate entity in the world of development).

different multilats

As you can see, amongst the different types of multilateral organisations that New Zealand gave aid to, UN development agencies did comparatively well under Minister McCully. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But it’s an odd course of action for a ‘fierce and outspoken critic’ to take.

[Update: Minister McCully in a recent speech, “Finally, a word of explanation: if on the second of May you hear the incessant popping of champagne corks at the headquarters of many of the world’s multilateral funding institutions, do not be surprised…These giant process-driven bureaucracies generally deliver a below-average quality of service to the poorer countries of the world…”. Struggle dear reader to map these claims with the charts above.]

What about the claim he, “stared down his critics – and there were many of them – for his determination to redirect the aid budget to our own back yard, the Pacific, and refocus it on economic development rather than handouts.”

Obviously there are some conceptual issues here. Is aid to improve education or eradicate diseases, or to change norms about domestic violence any more of a handout than aid to build a bridge or a runway? Development is multifaceted. If you don’t get this, think about your own life. Was the education you received any more a handout than the roads you drive on are?

Conceptual challenges aside, what about the empirical matter.  What changes did McCully bring?

As the chart below shows McCully clearly increased the emphasis on economic development in NZ’s aid spending. Economic development as a share of total sector allocable spending doubled from 2009 to 2015. That said, economic development is still not the largest spend; more money is devoted to social development (health and education, and the like). There was change, but it wasn’t a transformation. If you thought we were giving handouts before, the bad news is we’re still giving them now. If — like me — you think we should balance our aid spending priorities — the good news is we still are.

nz aid by sector

(Sources and calculations for this chart can be found here.)

That leaves us with the Pacific. For what it’s worth, I don’t know if Minister McCully actually had any critics to ‘stare down’ in this particular area. Most members of the New Zealand aid community have always thought we should give the lion’s share of our bilateral aid to the Pacific. As a result, we’ve done this for a long time. Minister McCully did not change this. However, during his time as foreign minister the share of New Zealand aid given to the Pacific increased, as the chart below shows.

Aid to Pacific

(Source and calculations here.)

Before you start shouting, “take that criticz! stared you down!!”, remember that aid to the Pacific was already trending upwards when McCully took the helm. It had been doing so since 2005. Also note that the ‘McCully effect’ on aid to the Pacific is about 6 percentage points. Once again, this is not a transformation.

Murray McCully did change aspects of New Zealand aid. I’m hoping to write about this more in coming weeks. But the largest changes that he wrought were qualitative — to do with his leadership style and its impact on how well New Zealand gives aid — they weren’t quantitative. The direction and emphasis of New Zealand aid spending changed somewhat under Minister McCully, but the change was less dramatic than people think.

As I said, I hope to write more. In the meantime, if you want a slightly-dated, but very detailed study of changes in New Zealand aid flows see here (or here for a summary). If you want to read the views of some New Zealand stakeholders see here. If you want last year’s New Zealand aid budget analysis see here.

April 24, 2017

What do people in different African countries think about aid effectiveness

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:03 am

I stumbled upon this PEW World Values question asked in 9 African Countries in 2015.

Now thinking about foreign aid programs. Please tell me how well each of the following describes programs in (insert survey country) funded by foreign aid organizations. Does it describe these programs very well, somewhat well, not too well or not well at all?

The charts are below (with the response categories collapsed to make for easy viewing). Here’s the downloaded data.

Pew WV views on aid in africa

April 18, 2017

Unequal Democracy (a review)

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:06 am

Unequal Democracy by Larry Bartels

My interpretation of his arguments is as follows: economic inequality in the United States has increased a lot in recent decades and the economic lot of the typical citizen has not improved much. Although Americans are not great at estimating the extent of inequality, most do not want high levels of it, and many think the issue has become worse.

There’s a clear albeit partial cure to the problem of economic inequality: inequality has risen less, or fallen, under Democrat presidents than under Republicans.

This begs the question: if Americans aren’t that keen on inequality, why aren’t they voting for the Democrats a lot more. Bartells argues that this is not because poorer Americans are becoming more conservative, but rather that the swing voters who decide elections often base their votes on economic performance (growth) in the year prior to the election. This happens even though presidents can take little justified claim for overall economic performance. Republicans have happened to be lucky, or cunning in their choice of governors of the federal reserve, because in many elections they have benefited from good economic performance in the year prior to elections when they’re holding power.

Bartels dismisses arguments along the lines of the poor are becoming more socially conservative, although I do not think he is wholly convincing in doing so. No can I totally buy the economic performance in election year argument. I was left wondering about issues of differential turnout amongst different economic groups. I was also left wondering about the importance of collective entities (unions and churches in particular) in shaping peoples views and motivating them to vote, and feeling this area needs more research.

However, there is more and it is fascinating: using the estate tax Bartels shows that most voters are not good utilitarians or even just that good at voting in their own interest on some policies that would help reduce inequality. On the other hand in areas like the minimum wage voters’ views are more progressive. Something akin to a fairness preference appears to shape voters’ views in these areas a lot more than views about optimal outcomes (either for themselves or more broadly for society).

Economic inequality comes coupled with political inequality too. Controlling for party, politicians’ votes in congress or the senate are much more likely to accord with the preferences of their wealthier constituents than their poorer constituents. I’m still wondering whether controlling for party is appropriate in the aggregate regressions but there’s more. Disaggregating by party, the absence of influence of the poor is most true for Republicans but it is also somewhat true for the Democrats.

Left-wing commentators have taken this to be a very bad thing. I can see why. However, it is possible that — if inequality tends to fall under Democrats, and if voters’ economic preferences are not wholly rational — in some areas the Democrats may be ignoring the views of poorer voters for their own good. I need to think about this more.

Also, worth noting is that Democrats’ votes in Congress or the Senate do tend to accord with the views of the second tercile of voters. In responding to Bartels’ critique of What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank argues that the bottom tercile of the income distribution may not be the ‘working class’. They may for example, be retirees, or young (see page 4 of Franks’ response). So it seems possible that if the Democrats are ignoring the views of a certain group it may not be simply the working poor. Or it might be, I need to think more about it and consider Bartels’ data more.

Even with this caveat, there seem some clear takeaways: the Democrats are somewhat better on economic inequality, most voters don’t like economic inequality, most voters’ preferences about economic policy seem more shaped by traits like the fairness preference than reasoned utilitarian calculus. The left should think about this when they think about the economic policies they campaign loudly on.

April 13, 2017

Good news for (most) of Australia’s aid NGOs

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:36 am

We’ve updated the Aid Tracker. It now has information on NGO donations until the end of the 2014/15 financial year. (This is the most recent year for which there are data. You can find our updated charts at the bottom of this page on the Aid Tracker).[1] There’s good news for Australia’s aid NGOs–or most of them at least. Read more on the Devpolicy blog here.

April 12, 2017

Want to sell aid to the Australian public? Look to values, not national interests

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:16 am

If recent speeches are anything to go by, politicians believe the best way to sell aid to Australians is to convince them it aids Australia too. It’s an understandable belief, but is it actually, empirically, correct? Read more here.

PNG Election Results Database

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:15 am

I recently launched the Papua New Guinea Election Results Database in Port Moresby. The database contains all available election results for all general elections held in Papua New Guinea since 1972. The database is our attempt to preserve Papua New Guinea’s electoral record and to share it with researchers, as well as people from Papua New Guinea who want to know more about the electoral history of their constituency, region, or country. Read more about it here.

February 13, 2017

The gender woes of Australian NGOs

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:40 pm

Australian aid NGOs have a male leadership problem. The problem isn’t that there are men running NGOs–there’s nothing wrong with this. The problem is that a disproportionately high number of Australian NGOs have men at the helm. And, worse, my analysis suggests this isn’t because of a shortage of capable women.

Read more on the Devpolicy blog here.

December 7, 2016

Charter Schools

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:08 pm

I’ve always wondered whether charter schools worked, but have also been suspicious of the claims from people on either side of the debate. This website is a huge help. Short answer, of course, ‘it depends’.

December 2, 2016

Newcomb’s problem

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:35 pm

The Guardian and John Quiggin offer takes on Newcomb’s problem.

I couldn’t resist.

1. If the problem’s purely financial to you, then you should take box B only (setting aside the fact that windfall gains often don’t end up being gains at all). Surely the diminishing marginal utility of the prize money is such that you’d hardly notice the extra $1000 you could have won?

2. If the problem’s really the issue of free will, then you should build some sort of device that generates a decision for you on the basis of the actions of one of those sub-atomic particles which behaves, to the best of our knowledge, purely randomly. You should do this because, if you beat  the immortal predictor, you can relish in the fact that you quite probably don’t live in a deterministic universe. On the other hand, if you lose you can tell yourself that she just got lucky (50% chance), and that it’s still possible the universe isn’t deterministic.

November 22, 2016

Trade doesn’t kill people; change does

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:27 am

An interesting NBER working paper by Justin Pierce and Peter Schott.

The abstract:

We investigate the impact of a large economic shock on mortality. We find that counties more exposed to a plausibly exogenous trade liberalization exhibit higher rates of suicide and related causes of death, concentrated among whites, especially white males. These trends are consistent with our finding that more-exposed counties experience relative declines in manufacturing employment, a sector in which whites and males are disproportionately employed. We also examine other causes of death that might be related to labor market disruption and find both positive and negative relationships. More-exposed counties, for example, exhibit lower rates of fatal heart attacks.

The standard defence of trade runs something along the lines of: sure there will be losers from trade liberalisation but there will also be winners and the winners can compensate the losers.

The first problem with this is simple political economy: often the winners don’t want to compensate the losers. And the winners (they won after all) usually have more political power.

The second problem is that the sort of compensation that is most easily enacted, unemployment benefits, while essential, probably does not compensate that well for losing the psychological benefits of work.

The third problem is that while people might re-skill and then move elsewhere to find work, this is actually a whole heap harder to do for most people than you would think.

This doesn’t mean we should not trade internationally. But if you are going to be honest in your assessments of the pros and cons of international trade agreements and the change they bring, you need to take into account the fact that, often, change in the form of losing your job is a much more painful and uncertain process than it’s assumed to be in economic models.

[update: Tim Duy]

November 10, 2016

Trumping the polls

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:47 pm

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the US election results. What will happen now? Trump frightens me. I didn’t love Clinton’s liberal interventionist approach to foreign policy. But if Trump is as impulsive as he appears to be, and if he truly holds the beliefs he professes to hold (and also isn’t a quick learner), we will soon be living in a much more dangerous planet.

Alienating Muslims won’t help win the war on terror (you too France). Acting irrationally around China brings mushroom clouds closer. Denying climate change ruins future generations’ lives.

Beyond the big stuff, as someone who uses polling data, I’m pondering how the polls and their various aggregators got it more or less wrong (more or less because they simply predicted the chances of a Trump victory were low, which is not the same as saying he wouldn’t win).

And so for future reference: Nate Silver one, two, three; Natalie Johnson, John Sides.

[Update: Gelman, Gelman, Gelman]

First, national polls weren’t that wrong: they probably overestimated Clinton by a couple of percentage points (on average). And their prediction that she would win the popular vote will likely be borne out.

Second, even state level polls weren’t, on average insanely wrong: they were out by (guestimate) 3-5%. When you look at the binary: Clinton predicted to win, but she loses, that’s very wrong. When you look at a continuous variable – predicted vote share vs actual it’s wrong, crucially wrong if this is your business, but not that wrong.

Still wrong needs explaining.

I don’t think it was social desirability bias (people being ashamed to admit they were going to vote for Trump). One of the posts above links to attempts to test for this, which appeared to show it wasn’t an issue. And Trump voters struck me as loud and proud, and unafraid to admit it to pollsters (and remember in many instances you’re just admitting it to a computer). But perhaps those Hispanics or women who voted for Trump were more reluctant to admit it (even to themselves?).

I do think it could be that Trump voters were simply more likely–or the portion of them who were frustrated and alienated–to hang up on pollsters.

I also think the final FBI headlines in the paper (all you needed was the reminder of why you weren’t so hot on her; so the subsequent exoneration may not have done much) may have, rather than shifting Clinton voters to Trump, simply depressed turnout amongst tepid Clinton supporters.

Indeed, one thing that complicates polling is that you have to not only figure out who people support, but also which people actually turn out and vote. I want to learn if the latter was more wrong than the former. Though I’m not sure how you do this.

On the turnout points above — one of the links above links to something about exit polls getting it wrong too. If this is the case it can’t have been turnout and is more likely social desirability bias or aversion to being polled.

These are just guesses: I’m interested to see how they will be borne out by subsequent analysis.

A final thought: at least some of what is to come (particularly midterm elections) will depend on how many people voted for Trump because they liked him (remember his unfavourably ratings were low) and how many voted for him as a kind of protest vote. The second category of voter may peel away from him quite quickly. Likewise, white working class voters might peel away quick enough when his economic policies (if he follows through on them) start hurting them. Although things might also just get ugly as he then does other stuff to keep them in his camp.


October 12, 2016

Aid Evaluations

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:26 am

It is aid’s lot to be a strange amalgam of certainty and doubt. Certainty in the claims splashed across the websites of aid donors, in the brochures of NGOs, and in the speeches of politicians. Doubt in the minds of actual aid workers. It’s not that aid doesn’t work (sometimes it does, remarkably well), it’s that too often, for any individual aid activity, too little will be known about how well it worked and why. With absolute disasters and spectacular successes the answers are clear enough. But a lot of aid work lies between these extremes. And not knowing means not learning, and not improving.

There’s an obvious solution to all this: evaluation. Read the rest of this post here at the Devpolicy Blog.

September 2, 2016


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:23 pm

I was in a seminar today when I had a moment of illumination.

One of the speakers delivered one of those stock standard new public management catchphrases “value for money”.

As I half listened I realised my views about aid are the complete opposite. I am a ‘money for value’ man. Don’t waste money obviously. But I think that if you want aid that works you have to spend money on tedious things. Enough staff. Expensive evaluations. Good research on context. You have to spend money if you want to give money away (well).

September 1, 2016

Does government funding silence Australian NGOs?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:24 am

Should NGOs take money from the government? It’s one of those long-debated questions of development. There’s an obvious argument in favour: the money can be put to good use. And yet the counter argument is clear enough too: take money from the state and you give it leverage over you. If you do or say things it doesn’t like, it can cut your funding. At times you may directly be told what you can do or say. In other instances your own preemptive second-guessing may have the same effect. Or at least that’s the theory. But what about in practice?

The data we gathered as part of the NGO internet use content analysis we wrote about in our last blog offers us a test of this theory in the Australian case. [Read the rest of this post on the Devpolicy blog here.]

August 25, 2016

What do Australian NGOs use the internet for?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:24 am

Since aid NGOs first set up basic webpages in the late 1990s, the internet has become increasingly important for them as they project their brands and messages to the world. Given this, it’s surprising how little research there is on how NGOs make use of the internet. Our recent Devpolicy discussion paper is an attempt to fill this gap. The paper reports on our content analysis of the websites and social media feeds of Australian aid and development NGOs. We undertook our analysis to learn the extent to which aid NGOs used their web presence for the following ends: soliciting donations, encouraging people to take action, and raising awareness of development issues. [Read the rest of this post here at Devpolicy.]

A new point seven

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:22 am

Once, in happier times, 0.7% was the cornerstone of aid advocacy. It was the target that aid’s supporters extolled their politicians to meet. Zero point seven per cent of gross national income (GNI) given as official development assistance (ODA). Australia never got there, but it promised to come close, with a bipartisan commitment to giving 0.5% of GNI as ODA.

That was then though, and now, in the age of the aid cut, 0.5% is gone and 0.7% is a pipe dream. It shouldn’t be. As the United Kingdom has shown, aid is such a small slice of government spending that the point seven target could be met easily, even in a time of deficits. For the time being though, it’s out of the question. There’s no public enthusiasm. Other than the Greens, there’s no political enthusiasm. And, while there is excellent work being done by the Campaign for Australian Aid, for now it is defensive work, pushing against further aid cuts, rather than pushing for major increases.

As I sat at the ‘Creating a healthy domestic environment for aid’ workshop that the Development Policy Centre held earlier this year (the workshop report is here [pdf]) I mused about what would be required to change aid’s fortunes in Australia. My answer, of course, was “lots of things” (and as the workshop report shows, important work is already being done). But as my mind bounced back and forth between different bright ideas, one constraint kept coming back: money. Campaigning takes lots of it. Advocacy isn’t cheap either. Money. Private sector lobbyists have oodles of the stuff.

And so, in this aid-unfriendly age, I want to offer a new point seven target for Australian aid supporters. This being that Australian aid NGOs should give 0.7% of the revenue they receive from private donations to fund a collective effort to persuade the Australian public and their elected representatives that Australia should give more, and better, ODA.

[Read the rest of this blog here at Devpolicy] (you’ll find my new 0.7 target would bring a remarkable amount of money for campaigners).

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