Waylaid Dialectic

June 15, 2014

The legacies of war…

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 8:25 pm

I opposed the Iraq war from the start, but it was an agonised opposition. Agonised because not going to war meant leaving an obvious tyrant in power.

Yet in the end invasion seemed worse.

Worse because the neo-cons so clearly did not give a hoot about the welfare of Iraqis. And because in international relations intentions play a major role in outcomes. And so from their evil to the ongoing nightmare.

And worse because war is hell. And surely any domestic social contract worth having would treat it as an absolute last resort. Something only to be used to stave off calamity.

On this latter point, Frank Rich, in the process of tearing apart unrepentant liberal hawks:

Iraq’s legacy in America goes well beyond the steep toll of casualties, injuries, and billions wasted on corruption and folly. Of the 2.6 million Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than half have physical or mental-health problems…


September 10, 2013

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 20, 2012

Peter Norman

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 7:38 pm

Sure the apology’s good. But more than 40 years after the fact! Hang your head in shame for this one Australia. Seriously.

January 21, 2012

Violence in Venezuela

Filed under: Governance,Inequality,Social Justice — terence @ 10:09 am
Tags: ,

I’ve blogged before about what I call the Hugo Chavez Polarity Inversion Level (the Hug-PIL!)- that is, the strange, differentiated effect Chavez has on almost everyone’s thinking. To the right of a line that falls somewhere amongst left liberals and in a portion of the political sphere that includes most liberals (in the American sense of the term) and definitely all conservatives, Chavez is a Really Bad Dude, a despot in disguise who is ransacking his country’s economy and who can not possibly be doing anything good. Nothing. To the left of the line, amongst lefter left-liberals, socialists and the like, Chavez is a Very Good Guy, the future of anti-capitalism, a model for us all, and a man who can do no wrong.

This frustrates me – by inclination I suspect that not all of what he does is great, and not all of what he does is bad. And it would be very helpful to separate the good from the bad, and the successful from the unsuccessful. And then, who knows, maybe we might learn a bit. It wouldn’t be as exciting as re-staging the cold war, but it would be useful from a development perspective.

And so: if you know of any impartial and intelligent writing on Chavez which attempts to do this please do let me know.

Also, if you’re a Chavez fan, have a crack at explaining the following:

Venezuela’s homicide rates are among the highest in the hemisphere — twice those of Colombia and three times those of Mexico — despite largely escaping the world’s attention. Rates were rising even before Hugo Chávez assumed power. But under his 12 years they have skyrocketed, from 4,550 in 1998 to 17,600 last year. The victims are predominantly poor young men — killed for as little as a mobile phone, caught in gunfire between gangs, or even subject to extrajudicial killings by security forces. (from here)

How can this be commensurate with the rise of socialist utopia? And how can criminal violence be rising amidst social progress and falling inequality?

If there is a good explanation I am genuinely interested in hearing it.

August 6, 2011

When you can do nothing, what can you do?

Filed under: Aid,Development Philosophy,Poverty,Social Justice — terence @ 10:48 am

Reflecting on well-intended but poorly informed attempts to solve world poverty J. at Tales from the Hood writes:

We are messing around with people’s lives, here. Just because you won’t be slapped with a malpractice suit if you get it wrong (although I do actually believe that day is coming) doesn’t mean it’s okay to “just do something” in order to feel good. Very often, and especially if you don’t know what you’re doing, the very best thing to do is…


This is not a phrase that I expect to use more than twice over the next century but: J. is wrong.

If you’ve been moved by the plight of people suffering in Humanitarian disasters, or if the scale and scope of global poverty strikes you as profoundly wrong, and if you want to help, do not do nothing. Doing nothing is not ‘very often…the best thing to do’. Do something. It is almost always possible to help.

Of course, doing something isn’t the same as doing absolutely anything, or doing the first thing that comes into your mind. What follows are some rules of thumb (the best I can offer, at least) for doing something and for maximising the chance that what you do does more good than harm.

1. First and foremost: do not assume that the only reason that global poverty hasn’t been solved is simply because you personally haven’t had time to think about it yet. Decades work of work and effort have gone into understanding the problems of global development. And it turns out they are complex. Unlike the woman whose blog J. links to in his post, your first fact finding mission should not be to India or Africa: it should be to the library.

2. Then, accept you are on a learning journey (welcome aboard). Be humble (here’s looking at you Mr Starr). And keep trying to learn.

3. Also, accept the fact that the best contribution you can make in many circumstances will often be unsexy, imperfect, and inconvenient: i.e. a cash donation to a large, credible international NGO (i.e. Save the Children, Oxfam, UNICEF (who probably function as an NGO where you live), World Vision, etc). None of these organisations is perfect: they are human endeavours after all. But they are generally pretty good. Sometimes they will make mistakes, and sometimes you will read about their mistakes in the paper, but they will almost certainly be making fewer mistakes than you will if you try and set up your own NGO.

Giving money isn’t much fun either, but money is almost always the most useful thing you can give. It is much better than stuff you have in your garage but no longer want (the seminal post on this being one of J.’s). And usually much more cost efficient than you going to help personally (although this isn’t always the case in the case of particular specialist skill sets, and see point 5 below).

4. Small is ok. Something is better than nothing. Buying a cup of Fair Trade coffee is not going to save the world. But on the other hand buying it is still likely to help someone — going to make a small contribution to the life of a poor farmer, somewhere. Small things are worth doing. Similarly, when confronted by the magnitude and complexity of the problems of the world, it can be very tempting to despair but, once again, something is better than nothing. Don’t do nohing just because you can’t do everything.


5. Be aware that much of the most important work you can do to help tackle global poverty won’t be about them it will be about us. The foreign policy related decisions made by our (rich country governments) can have dramatic impacts on the lives of poor people in developing countries. For example, climate change: if we don’t limit our CO2 emissions it is very likely that the world’s poorest people will suffer. For example, the global weapons trade: we sell the guns, they suffer the consequences. For example, migration: letting people into wealthy countries is one of the easiest ways of helping them escape poverty; letting refugees into wealthy countries is one of the best ways of helping them escape strife (here’s looking at you Australia!). And so on…

In tackling problems in all of these areas you have one huge comparative advantage: you vote in the countries where the decisions are made. Only one vote and only one voice amongst many, true. And domestic political economy can mean that the polluters, and arms dealers, and business lobbies have a much greater voice than you. But, nevertheless, there’s still more chance that your senator or MP is going to listen to you than to someone on a small atoll in the Pacific somewhere whose sole source of fresh water is being contaminated by rising sea-levels.

Do something, but take care in what you do.

June 19, 2011

Meanwhile on the left-most edges of the Lunisphere…

Filed under: Human Rights,Inequality,Social Justice — terence @ 7:16 pm

George Monbiot catches and dispatches left-wing genocide denial by Edward S Herman, along with tacit endorsement from Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. What is with these guys?

I’m more sympathetic to radical left-wing thought than most liberals. I can see the need for it. By any measure (be it utilitarian or justice based) we live in a radically unethical world. Injustices occur all the time and the potential for raising welfare through tackling inequality is considerable.

And yet I find the radical left pretty unconvincing. For three reasons:

First, the alternatives they propose to capitalism tend to strike me as improbable given human nature and the challenges of large scale collective action. And, similarly, I don’t find very convincing their answers to questions along the lines of ‘ok so that sounds plausible, but how do we get there from here?’

Second, much of the radical left is simply disingenuous in the extent to which it plays down differences between the centre-left and the right. Obama may not be great but you-have-got-to-be-fucking-dreaming if you think there is next to no difference between him and the Republican Party in its current permutation.

Third, too many radical left-wing thinkers seem to need to justify their world view through bizarrely one dimensional interpretations of events. People like Chomsky and Pilger often do great work putting paid to the myths of benign Western Foreign policy. That’s great. But it’s hard not to want to part company with them once they start downplaying the crimes of our official enemies, as is occurring in the case of the Herman book. Thoughts with as much nuance as, “we’re pretty bad a lot of the time, yet there are also people out there even worse, and sometimes our foreign policy interventions aren’t totally evil and may have some benefits” too-often seem beyond them.

Of course, the problem doesn’t afflict everyone on the radical left: there’s a tradition including Orwell and people such as Monbiot himself, which is much more consistent in its critique of atrocities. There is also, as Monbiot also points out, plenty of denial on the right too. And, despite their shortcomings, people like Pilger and Chomsky still deserve to be listened to; at times they are bang on. But me personally, ultimately, I find their myopia frustrating.

Of course, to put this in perspective, there are far bigger problems with the world than a few members of the left leaping off into the lunisphere, or the shortcomings of the radical left more generally. But, for what it’s worth, it still bugs me. The radical left ought to have a lot more to offer.

April 27, 2011

Read About it Here First! The Next Big Thing in Aid!

Filed under: Aid,Development Theory,Social Justice — terence @ 12:55 pm
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It’s hard to escape the fact that we development folks are, at times, awfully Charlie Brownesque. Like Charlie Brown, who was forever being fooled by Lucy’s promise to hold the football while he kicked, we keep falling for things we shouldn’t. We’re suckers for the Next Big Thing all the while forgetting how the last big thing left us in the lurch, or how the the big thing before it did the same too.

And so we have, Cash transfers (either conditional or unconditional – CCTs and UCTs) and Cash on Delivery Aid (COD) lining up as the latest Big Things offering to hold the ball for us. Micro-finance, the last big thing, is looking rather bruised, while ICT for development has got to be feeling even less loved these days.

I’m no fan of COD aid, but I’ve got nothing against CCTs and UCTs. They were introduced to South America by the Worker’s Party, who I still kindof idolise, and there’s good evidence that they really have worked well in some places. But I’m deeply sceptical of their potential as panaceas. Which is another way of saying I completely agree with Laura Freschi’s measured scepticism at AidWatch.

The good news here at least is that Freschi is making reference to recent DFID funded research. DFID, it would seem, have learnt a few lessons and seem to be systematically gathering evidence before hopping on the Cash Transfer bandwagon.

Which is kind of cool. Imagine if the next big thing in development wasn’t a thing at all, but rather an approach: move slowly based on the evidence you can use. And consider context before adopting stuff which worked elsewhere. Even this wouldn’t be unproblematic but it would surely have to be better than falling for the latest fad time and time again.

On a completely different subject, but linked by the theme ‘these are people are I don’t normally agree with’ I reckon Jonathan Glennie is almost word perfect in his critique of Zizek.

April 24, 2011

Fair Game – a really short review

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 8:35 pm

Fair Game: a pretty good movie and a helpful reminder of why I’m a zealous Obama supporter. It’s not because I think he’s great — in many ways he’s been a disappointment, even taking into account the impossible situation he inherited. Rather, I support him because he’s the one thing that stands in between our planet and the gravest of threats: another Republican president.

April 8, 2011

Sem Medo de Ser Feliz

Filed under: Governance,Social Justice — terence @ 11:06 am
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It’s a looonnnggg essay but Perry Anderson’s examination of the presidential career of Lula da Silva is a must read if you are at all interested in Brazilian Politics, or the fate of the left in Latin America.

Like a lot of people on the left I was: jubilant when Lula won; despondent from about a year into his rule when he ended up being both economically orthodox and politically compromised; re-enthused when his social programmes started to kick in; and cheered by his eventual ongoing political triumph.

Looking back now I think it would have been next to impossible for Lula to have governed as a radical. He was president of Brazil but most definitely not the sole source of power. Foreign investors had the economy’s fate in their hands, local capital was in an easy position to play spoiler (as it so often had for PT municipal governments), and the PT were nowhere near a majority force in the house or senate. Above and beyond that, I’m now not sure whether there was anything to be gained by deviating too far from economic orthodoxy. Plenty of previous Brazilian presidents had done so in the past and only ended up with inflation as a reward.

And so, Lula did what he could. Innovative social programmes mainly and sound economic governance. And he got lucky, the global economy ended up very kind to the Brazilian economy. The combined effect being that the pie got bigger and the poor’s slice of the pie also grew substantially. The PT’s political fortunes went well too. Given the dilemmas he faced, this definitely counts as a win.

And yet, it also falls far short of a transformation. Or if it is to be a transformation, it will be a long slow and qualified one, much like the post war achievements of Social Democracy in Western Europe.

Final verdict: the pragmatist in me is awed by what Lula was able to achieve, even as the idealist in me still feels slightly let down.

January 4, 2011

Of Seat Belts, Modernity, Subsidies, Paris, Owls and Still More Things for PhD Students to Agonise About

Filed under: Aid,Social Justice — terence @ 4:11 pm

Starting with John Quiggin who demolishes the glibertarian talking point that seat belt laws and road safety rules don’t save lives.

Then Owen Barder who makes possibly the most sane comment ever posted on a Guardian Blog (unfortunately the competition’s not high). He’s responding to a post by Jonathan Glennie on the Paris Declaration and makes a critical point. If you read much of what’s written about the Paris Declaration you’d think the donor agencies referred to were a bunch of independent entities as opposed to what they actually are: bureaucracies beholden to politicians, who are ultimately beholden to voters. Personally, I think some of the objectives of the Paris Declaration are wrong-headed but when it comes to the more sensible ones (such as harmonisation), what we really need to be doing, rather than simply bemoaning poor progress, is to examine the domestic political incentives in donor countries and see how, if at all, they might be changed to facilitate the outcomes we’d like to see. Creating international norms, which is all the PD actually does, is something that will have an impact up to a point (as it seems to have done with tied aid) but the potential here is bounded by domestic politics. And if we’d like to see better ODA  (be it via the PD or through other changes), I think we really need to learn a lot more about the domestic politics involved.

More cheerily, Charles Kenny makes the (fairly persuasive) case that the decade just been was the best decade ever for development. Best? I’m not 100% sure. But certainly better than the two that proceeded it. Why so good? FWIW I reckon the end of cold war, the retreat of the Washington consensus, the rise of China, peacekeeping, and the influence of the MDGs are the main culprits behind the improvements in human development stats.

If it’s too late in the evening for you to be reading essays on Foreign Policy a similar argument can be found here on YouTube (via Duncan Green).

And on to government intervention in markets… By the end of the 1990s I think the most extreme versions of neo-liberalism (ones which prescribed pro-cyclical policies in recessions, and the retreat of the state even from social services) were basically dead intellectually (if not politically). The active debate about the state’s role development now centered round active economic interventions by governments. Here authors such as Robert Wade and Ha Joon Chang argued against an orthodoxy that claimed that states really couldn’t out perform markets and their only real role in the economic sphere was to set and maintain good rules of the game. Wade and Chang mustered as evidence countries, like those in parts of Asia, which had intervened in markets and which subsequently saw higher growth rates. Their opponents argued that this growth was in spite of rather than because of these interventions. And that failed interventions were far more common than successful ones. I’m more sympathetic to the Wade and Chang side of the argument — although I reckon the real question isn’t ‘can governments intervene in markets to improve economic performance?’ but rather ‘can governments in poorly governed countries intervene in markets to improve economic performance?’ Here I’d say the evidence is less clear.

Anyhow on the same broad subject two excellent posts on government fertilizer subsidies in Malawi. One from Oxfam’s Max Lawson and one from Owen Barder. In Malawi it looks like subsidies have worked (although see comments under Owen’s post too).

Meanwhile, in totally non-development related linking: Gordon Campbell has an excellent review of the Owl Service — the Alan Garner book I found too scary to finish as a kid.

Nowadays, on the other hand it’s stuff like this that’s more likely to keep me awake at night.

November 23, 2010

The Trouble with Capitalism

Filed under: Social Justice,Theory — terence @ 7:25 pm
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I haven’t got anything against capitalism in principle. Private property and markets, coupled with collective action in the form of enabling, enforcing and ameliorating institutions and programmes seems like the least worst way of organising a modern economy. Actually, more than that, it seems like something that could probably do quite a good job of affording most people the good life. Or, at least, it would if it could ever actually exist. The trouble with capitalism is that, inevitably, some people either start or end up real rich. And with money comes power, and the ability to mold belief, and rig institutional arrangements to the benefit of elites.

Don’t believe me? Have a listen to this episode of Blogging Heads TV. Deeply depressing…

October 5, 2010

It Feels Good to do Good

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 7:55 am
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From the latest NBER email…

Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal

Lara B. Aknin, Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh, Elizabeth W. Dunn, John F. Helliwell, Robert Biswas-Diener, Imelda Kemeza, Paul Nyende, Claire E. Ashton-James, Michael I. Norton

NBER Working Paper No. 16415

Issued in September 2010

NBER Program(s):   PE   POL

This research provides the first support for a possible psychological universal: human beings around the world derive emotional benefits from using their financial resources to help others (prosocial spending). Analyzing survey data from 136 countries, we show that prosocial spending is consistently associated with greater happiness. To test for causality, we conduct experiments within two very different countries (Canada and Uganda) and show that spending money on others has a consistent, causal impact on happiness. In contrast to traditional economic thought—which places self-interest as the guiding principle of human motivation—our findings suggest that the reward experienced from helping others may be deeply ingrained in human nature, emerging in diverse cultural and economic contexts.

Gated Link; Related and ungated, I think, article in Science Mag

October 4, 2010

Churchill’s Secret War

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 7:02 pm
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A must watch Bloggingheads TV, Churchill’s secret war and the Bengal Famine.

September 27, 2010


Filed under: Aid,Random Musings,Social Justice — terence @ 1:47 pm

In Melbourne on a course. So for now only links…

Lant Pritchett on the variation in development performance within Africa. It strikes me you could write a very similar column on the Pacific (or more or less any developing region).

The malign influence of the Koch brothers on US politics. (H/T Chris Blattman)

Owen on the benefits development benefits of family planning.

Paul Krugman relays the best line he ever read on Ayn Rand’s influence:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

Bank home in NZ worrying news on the aid programme via Phil Twyford’s blog. For the life of me I can not fathom why a former Wellington mayor with no development experience (at least that I’m aware of) would be granted an aid contract to work on tourism in Niue. True it’s only a small contract, but it’s a worrying sign. It’s not like the Pacific is short of bona fide development consultants with experience in tourism.

Via Our Word is Our Weapon, Chris Dillow examines the theory and evidence behind that perennial conservative talking-point – that higher welfare benefits lead to higher unemployment – and finds it wanting. I’ve always thought even if higher benefits lead to longer periods of unemployment (so long as this didn’t equate to higher long term unemployment) that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Rather, it would simply reflect the fact that people aren’t being forced to take the first job they come across, instead taking more time to search for something they’re qualified for and want to do. Being able to choose jobs not solely from desperate necessity seems like an essential component of the good society to me.

And finally, the always excellent Lane Kenworthy interrogates the Oxford Handbook of the Welfare State asking all the essential questions. A very useful two minute overview of a tome.

[Update: oh, and, speaking of the development consequences of unwinnable wars – the Guardian reports from the front line of the war on drugs.]

September 21, 2010

William Easterly: Libertarians all talk

Filed under: Aid,Governance,Institutions,Social Justice — terence @ 1:06 pm
Tags: ,

Meanwhile, in a helpful post at AidWatch, libertarian aid blogger William Easterly outlines in a diagramme one of the main shortcomings of modern libertarianism: when it comes to issues such as human rights and dictatorship in developing countries, libertarians are all talk and no action.

Of course, there are times when there is no better option than not to act, but it seems to me that to declare from the outset that you’re against all intervention, whilst at the same time professing to care about human rights, is simply another strategy for thwarting change and protecting privilege, while appearing ethical yourself.

Easterly’s post is a good illustration of this. Aid agencies face a real dilemma when dealing with authoritarian states: if they provide aid they may, in effect, be propping such states up, on the other hand, if they withdraw aid they may do nothing to bring about regime change and simply harm the very people they were hoping to help. Or worse, as recent research appears to show [pdf] (h/t the Monkey Cage), rapid aid withdrawal may well lead to armed conflict.

What’s more, it’s very hard for an aid agency to openly criticise a host country: official government aid agencies aren’t actually mandated to do this (criticism must come from their political masters) and, for NGOs, criticism usually leads to being expelled – in other words withdrawing your aid.

Which isn’t to say that aid agencies should never criticise repressive regimes or that they should never withdraw their support. Rather, as I’ve pointed out before on this blog, the point is that there is a dilemma. A challenge with no easy answers. This is the sort of thing aid agencies have to negotiate all the time. And it would be nice if at some point William Easterly would stop polishing his own halo long enough to acknowledge this.

August 31, 2010

Sweatshops and the fallacy of one choice and just two options

Filed under: Social Justice,Trade — terence @ 8:03 pm
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Well, Bill and Laura may be in abeyance, but the fun and games are continuing over at Aid Watch. Today taking the form of a guest post by Benjamin Powell making the case for sweatshops.

His argument will is a familiar one: poor jobs at poor wages are better than no jobs at all.

Which is correct as far as it goes, but it’s also a perfect illustration of what I’ve (rather inelegantly) decided to call the ‘fallacy of one choice and just two options’. It’s a popular right wing debating technique: either you’re with us or you’re with the enemy; if you’re in favour of protecting the environment then you’re also in favour of ransacking the economy; if you don’t support bombing the s##t out of the Middle East then you’re opposed to fighting terrorism; and if you’re opposed to sweatshops then obviously you’re in favour of protectionism and joblessness for people currently employed in them.

The thing is, in every one of these instances, there’s more than two choices: I am against you and your enemies; I’m in favour of protecting the environment by re-gearing the economy; I think terrorism is better fought through police work, and a political settlement over Israel/Palestine, combined maybe with targeted intervention.

And in the case of sweatshops: I want the workers to stay employed. But I also want their jobs and conditions to improve. Call it the third way, if you will.

Which means supporting initiatives to strengthen workers’ political rights in developing countries, and, particularly when this isn’t possible, sending a signals through the market via purchasing decisions (like buying fair trade), and maybe, just maybe, using trade rules, although only if this isn’t going to have major unintended consequences.

Sweatshops or unemployment – two lousy options. But the thing is, they’re not the only ones. And development, if it means anything, surely means trying to improve the options people have.

July 23, 2010

Friday Links! Somewhere Between Hair-shirted and Harebrained

Ah yes, the future, I’d been trying not to think about that. Matt Ridley has though, and he likes what he sees: free markets, free people and the triumph of  reason. Rather! Mark Boyle, on the other hand is, to put it mildly, somewhat less sanguine about progress and technology. In order to save our planet and ourselves he’d have us return to a neo-primitive past. Me? In my optimistic moments at least, I’d like to think they’re both wrong and that there’s some hope for the future somewhere between the harebrained and the hair-shirted, which is probably why I really enjoyed this review in OpenDemocracy of Ridley and Boyle’s recent books.

Sticking to the future for the time being, also worth a read is Charles Kenny’s critique of the New Malthusians at Foreign Policy.

Meanwhile, an interesting article at VoxEu points to the fact (I think?) that much (but not all) of the recent improvements in life expectancy in developing countries have come from reduced infant mortality.

Did someone say economics? As you’ll know this blog has a policy of not discussing economics without at least one mention of industrial policy. Here we go: a great debate at the Economist between Rodrik and Lerner on IP.

Speaking of economic debates, how ’bout that fiscal stimulus aye? Barry Eichengreen has an interesting column at Project Syndicate.

While, in a feisty thread at Aidwatch, Michael Clemens offers a nice defence of quantitative research:

Numbers are one of many ways to organize information. While they can in some cases have the drawback of oversimplifying complex phenomena, they have the large advantage of creating transparency in how hypotheses are formulated and tested (provided one takes the time to study quantitative methods), and thus contribute to the falsifiability of claims.

And, closing out the economics section of this post, are people happier when insulated from market mechanisms? Some evidence.

Back in the qualitative world: a death in the Middle East. Not just any death though; one that makes the media; one that re-makes it; one that is made by it…Interesting analysis by David Kenner, Adam Shatz and Glen Greenwald.

Finally, having offered a qualified defense of AusAID in the face of a not particularly high quality media storm, it’s worth noting these two articles, both good and both pretty damming. The Crikey article is part of a series, with the rest of the series available to subscribers to that news-site.

[Update: just stumbled across a really good read – Michael Clemens on the Congo at 50.]

July 9, 2010

Link Friday

Filed under: Aid,Governance,Institutions,Social Justice,Trade — terence @ 12:13 pm
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Starting with industrial policy…

At VoxEU Ann Harrison and Andres Rodriguez-Clare make the case for “soft industrial policy”…

…whose goal is to develop a process whereby government, industry, and cluster-level private organisations can collaborate on interventions that can directly increase productivity. The idea is to shift the attention from interventions that distort prices to interventions that deal directly with the coordination problems that keep productivity low in existing or raising sectors. Thus, instead of tariffs, export subsidies, and tax breaks for foreign corporations, we think of programmes and grants to help particular clusters by increasing the supply of skilled workers, encouraging technology adoption, and improving regulation and infrastructure. While “hard” industrial policy is easier to implement than “soft” industrial policy measures, tariffs and subsidies become entrenched and are more easily subject to manipulation by interest groups.

The article is an excellent overview of the industrial policy debate, and their suggestion certainly has appeal. As always though, I’m still not confident that what they’re arguing for could really work in the institutional environment of developing countries, or that it would be any less subject to manipulation by interest groups than traditional industrial policy. Still, well worth a read.

Meanwhile, industrial policy is now on the menu at the World Bank, courtesy of their interesting new chief economist Justin Lin. And at Poverty to Power Duncan Green reviews some of Lin’s suggestions for industrial policy, offering similar concerns about feasibility in less than optimal institutional environments. To which Lin offers a thoughtful response.

Sticking with Oxfam, Oxfam New Zealand, spurred by last year’s Ministerially mandated change of focus to New Zealand’s aid programme (the core focus now being on economic development), have produced a really interesting piece of research [pdf] on what might work in terms of aid for economic development in the Pacific.

Also on the subject of aid, Owen makes an uncharacteristic error in attributing an incorrect figure to William Easterly. And yet the underlying point of his post is correct and bares repeating. The West really, really hasn’t given that much aid to developing countries:

The G-20 countries have, over the whole history of aid, given less aid to sub-Saharan Africa than they spent on fiscal stimulus in the single year of 2009.

Keeping the segues flowing, William Easterly is at least 50 percent correct in his most recent post at AidWatch:

Here’s why direct solutions to problems cannot foster development. Each direct solution depends on lots of other complementary factors, so the solutions can seldom be generalized across different settings; Solutions must fit each local context. Solutions that generate the highest payoff in each setting should be a higher priority than the lowest payoff solutions. Since there is little or no feedback on how well each solution is working in each local situation, there is little possibility for any such adjustments.

Hear, hear.

Where his post falls apart is in it’s extolling of markets and democracy as the best possible means of finding solutions to the complexities of context. The invisible hand is a miraculous allocational tool, and functioning markets have a critical role to play in enhancing human welfare. But markets are embedded in institutions and when institutions are poor markets are often absent or have perverse outcomes. And in most developing countries institutions are poor. Similarly, democracy is an incredibly good thing. And it’s certainly the least worst means of governance that humans have developed. But in countries where the nation state sits awkwardly against identity and informal institutions, democracy struggles. It’s not a panacea.

Which isn’t to say that economic markets or democratic polities are bad things, even in the most troubled developing countries, but rather that they aren’t the sole answer to the curly problems of aid and development. They’re only part of the answer: compliments to good aid and hard work in determining what works in governance; not alternatives.

Finally (and by now I’m all out of segues) Johann Hari attributes the commodity price crisis, not to rising demand in China, not to supply shocks, not even to ethanol, but rather to investment banks working the futures market. Is he correct? I don’t know. If he is, he’s certainly right about one thing: morally, if not legally, that’s an incredible crime.

June 27, 2010


Filed under: Random Musings,Social Justice — terence @ 9:47 am

Noam Chomsky speaks [MP3] at the LSE. It’s a good talk. A third of his points had me murmuring agreement. A third had me pondering whether he might be onto something. And a third had me shouting at the car stereo. Things like: “Yeah mate, nice ad hominem, that really proves your point!”, and “Ok so let’s surrender the right to intervene to the Security Council, because they’ve done such a fine job in the past, haven’t they!”

The best bit of the whole talk comes in question time though. A hasty transcript (it’s not word perfect!):

Question from audience: “Hello my name is John Unica from We Are Change Media. A recent scientific paper published in the peer reviewed Open Chemical Physics journal proves the presence of nano-thermite in dust samples taken from 9-11 Ground Zero. This coupled with the opinions of nearly a thousand scientists and engineers that support the controlled demolition hypothesis are inconsistent with the official explanations given by the 9-11 Commission, and the subsequent misreports. When these explanations have been disproved by peer reviewed science and the opinions of so many experts how can you maintain your stance that the findings of the 9-11 Commission are correct.”

Chomsky: “Well, what you are referring to is a statement by about a thousand people, most of them basically unknown, who make certain claims about technical facts in which I’m not position to evaluate…and the obvious thing for them to do is present their findings to the people who can make evaluations. So, instead of sending 10,000 letters to me, they should send them to the civil engineering department at MIT or other places, or they should they should publish the articles in acessible scientific journals just like other people do. So, for example, supporters of intelligent design biologists (and there are a few), they publish their articles in standard scientific journals so that they can be discussed and outsiders like me…can make an evaluation of what these claims amount to based on the subsequent debate. And that hasn’t happened.

“You could say, and thousands of letters tell me, that I should learn enough so that I could make the judgment myself. Well I know enough about science to know that you can’t learn enough in a couple of hours on the internet. If you want to understand these things you’re going to have to do what, there’s a reason why say MIT has graduate courses in civil and mechanical engineering, and physics and maths, you just can’t pick it up by roaming around the internet. And so the question is should I take off the time, years in fact, to learn the technical background and study the structural characteristics of the buildings so that I can make some evaluation of, you know, nano-thermite or whatever it is. And there’s a good reason not to do that, because these people you’re referring to, though they don’t seem to understand it, are in fact working very hard to absolve George Bush and to implicate Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Ladin. And the reason is extremely simple: I mean everyone agrees, this is uncontroversial, that the destruction of the WTC was attributed to Saudis. Now suppose the Bush administration had done this, they would have attributed to Iraqi. I mean they’re trying very hard to find an excuse to invade Iraq, and if they’d attributed it to Iraqis it would have been a walk away. They’d immediately get total popular support, a UN resolution, a Nato resolution, and then they could go to attack. When they attributed it to Saudis, first of all they alienated their post powerful ally in the region, and second they forced themselves to jump through hoops to try to concoct some sort of pretext for invading Iraq: connections between Al Quaeda and Saddam, weapons of mass destruction, the whole business which collapsed exposing them to ridicule. And they also diverted their efforts to a side show: invading Afghanistan – for which there was very little purpose – and getting themselves caught up in that and delaying the invasion of Iraq, which is what they wanted in the first place. So they couldn’t have done it short of lunacy…

“But who does it point to, who would have gained, by attributing the destruction to Saudis? Well I can think of only two people: one is Saddam Hussein, who wanted to divert a US attack on Iraq, the other is Osama Bin Laden, whose worst enemies are the Saudis, to try to get the US to hate Saudis, it would be wonderful. At least I can’t think who else would benefit. So it seems to me that all these efforts are essentially directed to absolving the Bush administration and blaming Saddam Hussein and OBL and I just don’t see any point taking of years to study to try and prove this.”

9-11 ‘Truthers’ are vexing, depressing even, but one thing they’re not is frightening. Which is more than can be said about the other group of conspiracy theorists who sprung up in the wake of September 11th: the Neo-Conners. The people who concocted an elaborate conspiracy in which Iraq was flush with WMDs, Saddam in cahoots with Osama Bin Laden, and a small fucked up oil state a major threat to sole world super power.

Whatever else you might say about 9-11 Truthers, they’re nothing more than a bunch of slightly sad true believers jumping up and down on the fringes of our political discourse. The Neo-Cons on the other hand: they happened to be running the US at the time. Now that was frightening.

The other bunch of conspiracy theorists who scare me are the Climate Change Conspiratoids. In this case a bunch of men (and a few women) who argue that anthropogenic climate change isn’t happening. Like the Truthers, their arguments are either specious or hinge on factoids and facts out of content. And they’re slavish in their aversion to information at odds to the narrative they believe in. Just like the Truthers they see an active conspiracy to keep knowledge from the public: this one involving Al Gore, the UN and almost all the World’s climate scientists.

Unlike the Truther’s the Climate Conspiratoids get listened to. They’re funded by wealthy think tanks. And the media affords them a heap of air time. And they’re contributing to humanity’s delay in tackling the greatest challenge it has ever faced.


International Development has it’s own conspiracy theory in the form of John Perkin’s Confession’s of an Economic Hit Man. In Perkins’ telling the West lent money to developing countries in the 1960s, 70s and 80s because it knew that by owning their debt it would own them. Not just their allegiance in the Cold War (which is a reasonable argument) but literally own them, once they defaulted on their debts. On default the West would stride in, enforce neo-liberalism, and take ownership of their industries. It’s an exciting story. But alas Perkins doesn’t provide any evidence (other than a, gasp, sex scene) to back it up. And in the absence of evidence it’s hard to see why we should believe Perkins’ theory (which involves the World Bank et al successfully predicting the Volker Disinflation and debt crisis years in advance) over the alternate hypothesis, which sees all that lending (and eventual neo-liberalism) as products of previaling economic beliefs in their time, plus some readily transparent cold war bad faith of the “sure he’ll squander the money, but he’s our dictator” type.

Oh well. At least Perkins isn’t frightening.


The Econometrics of Imperialism

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 8:09 am
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Over at my health and hillsides blog a while ago I jotted down what I think is a pretty reasonably typology of explanations for global poverty. If you live in a developed country and have even a vaguely international outlook, global poverty is pretty much an inescapable fact. If you live in a developing country it’s an utterly inescapable fact. Unsurprisingly, then, there are numerous different explanations for its existence.

Yet for all their quantity I think these explanations can fairly easily be sorted into the following broad categories (with a couple of also-rans which I detail in my original post).

1. It’s Nature’s Fault – Sachs type arguments which directly blame geography for the existence of poverty.

2. It’s Their Fault – arguments which blame developing countries for their own poverty. Which blame corruption, poor governance and poor institutions. This is a very diverse category – spanning conservatives who do, literally, blame poor countries for their plight, to more enlightened views which see poor countries’ institutional inheritances as the product of colonialism and other historical trends such as slavery.

3. It’s Our Fault – New Internationalist magazine type arguments, which blame the West for global poverty.

Obviously, a lot of people will hold views from across all three camps to differing degrees. I know I do.

To my mind the best evidence for camp 3 (It’s Our Fault) has always come from Latin America. Authors like Noam Chomsky have done an excellent job in detailing the role of the US in supporting dictators and toppling democrats amongst their Southern neighbours. Such studies have usually being qualitative/historical, which makes recent work by Berger et. al and Dube et. al really interesting. Econometric work digging away at the same issues and revealing some pretty compelling results.

I don’t think It’s Our Fault type arguments get anywhere near explaining the totality of global poverty, but this recent work in economics is a very helpful reminder our own role in aiding and abetting the phenomenon.

June 17, 2010

Well, why not Socialism?

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 7:07 am
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George Scialabba reviews, G. A Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? in the process running through the standard arguments against Socialist societies:

Fine, skeptics will say, gifted people may not need extra incentives to work hard, but what about slackers and schlubs – i.e., the great majority of us? As conservatives’ horror stories of union featherbedding demonstrate, job security brings out the worst in many people. (Political theorists will recognize this as the celebrated “collective action problem.”) Here, Cohen acknowledges, is the rub. Is there enough virtue in the world – generosity, honor, patience – to make socialism feasible? Not any time soon, of course; the millennia of scarcity and greed have scarred us deeply. But in the imaginable future? Or is there an evolutionary equivalent of original sin, an irreducible minimum of radical evil in human nature that must rule out socialism in aeternum?

Anyone who offers a confident answer to that question is either a blithe utopian or (much more likely) an apologist for the capitalist status quo. Anthropology, biology, and evolutionary psychology are currently in ferment over the question of how deep are the evolutionary roots of cooperation and competition. A priori dismissal of the possibility of socialism is evidence of ignorance or bad faith.

Mercifully, my answer to that question isn’t a confident one, so I guess I escape the apologist tag. Nevertheless, the essence of my scepticism of socialism does stem from exactly this pessimism of human nature. I am inclined (that not by any means fully confident) that evolution has provided us with a strong tendency towards self-interest (via-self preservation) and that this tendency, while not the sum total of our existence, is enough to render the large scale collective action required for utopian-socialism impossible.

In addition that, even if socialism could work, I’ve no idea how we’d get there from here, given that elites would inevitably resist, and given that violent revolution seems to destroy utopia in utero.

But I hope I’m wrong. Ethically, I’m definitely a socialist of sorts. And, in the not to distant future I think it likely that capitalism’s solution to the problem of inequality – raising absolute levels of wealth through growth – is going to crash heavily into environmental limits. For these reasons, having some sort of alternative, some sort of escape route, seems not only desirable, but also essential. I’m just not at all confident we humans can find it…

BTW: if you like book reviews George Scialabba’s website is a treasure trove. And I can’t recommend his book ‘What Are Intellectuals Good For?’ enough.

June 10, 2010

Wither (Bolivarian) Socialism?

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 3:18 pm

Eons ago, on my old blog, I uttered the following lament:

And at the end of the day this is what bugs, as well as fascinates, me about the whole Chavez phenomenon. Once you get close enough towards the Centre (and particularly the centre of the US foreign policy establishment) it’s like some weird tractor beam operates which drains the pundit of any form of capacity for unraveling contradiction or displaying subtlety. Chavez is bad. Everything he does must be bad!

Meanwhile, if you travel away from the centre you don’t have to get too far to the left before a competing tractor beam starts up and leaves you surrounded by a bunch of people to whom Chavez is a revolutionary hero who couldn’t possibly do anything bad. Onwards the revolution etc.

You’d think that the first cold war would have removed everyone’s enthusiasm for blind idealism. The whole Chavez debate suggests not – quite a few people out there are just itching for the sequel.

The rest of that post was mostly directed at the anti-Chavez squad. And so, in the interest in fairness, the following is for all those on the radical left who think that Chavez is teh revolution incarnate.

From VoxEu – trends in inequality in Latin America.


If Bolivarian Socialism was so wonderful, and so clearly preferably to the incrementalism of Lula and Bachelet you’d think that the first thing we would see would be a more rapid reduction of inequality than elsewhere…

Wouldn’t you?

[Update: corrected the spelling mistakes – thanks Andy!]

[Update 2: or maybe I’m just totally wrong: see this – http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=3016 ]

May 31, 2010

Madness at sea

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 6:44 pm
Tags: ,

Woah. As someone who is generally more sympathetic to Israel’s plight than many on the left can I just say wow – this is utterly beyond the pale. What on Earth are they doing? what was the Israeli government thinking?!?

[And a quick update while I’m at it: come to think of it, the whole darn Gaza blockade has been beyond the pale from the start. Utterly inhumane and surely counter-productive. Count this as the latest chapter in an ongoing crime.]

May 20, 2010

Kindness, Cruelty and the Better Polity Through Suffering Theory

Filed under: Aid,Governance,Migration,Social Justice — terence @ 10:57 am
Tags: , , , ,

Call it ‘Better Polity Through Suffering Theory’. It’s nasty, common and it comes in various forms. On the far left there are those who dismiss the market mitigating effects of social democracy as impediments to real political transformation. People who argue that if we would just stop providing the masses with some security they will eventually rebel, leading to left wing utopia.

The right has it’s own versions. Witness Helen Hughes and Gaurav Sodhi [PDF] arguing against a seasonal migration scheme for Pacific Island workers because it will reduce the impetus for political reform back home. Similarly, opponents of aid sometimes claim that the negative shock of aid withdrawal will lead to pressure for positive political reform.

The common thread in such ‘theories’ (both from left and right) is that you have to be cruel to be kind: deny people benefits now and you will provide the incentive for positive change.

On a society-wide scale this has never struck me as convincing for the simple reason that there are not many examples of countries that have weathered large shocks and become radically better as a result. On the other hand there are plenty of examples of countries that have weathered large shocks either by falling apart or by reverting to authoritarian hyper-nationalism. It’s much easier to break a country (or a community for that matter) than it is to build one. For this reason I’m very wary of any reforms that promise long term gains as a result of short term pain and I’m particularly sceptical of claims that see the pain itself as a tool.

And so, the following really doesn’t surprise me; although I hope it might cause proponents of Better Polity Through Suffering Theory to reconsider their own arguments for a bit.

From VoxEU:

While estimates vary between specifications, we find that roughly a one percentage point decline in growth translates into a one percentage point higher vote share of right-wing or nationalist parties.

April 26, 2010

Will Someone Please Think of the Hedges!

Filed under: Social Justice — terence @ 9:25 pm
Tags: , ,

Over at AidWatch Bill Easterly is upset because someone writing in the Washington Post has implied that hedging is illegal. Fair enough, semantics matter and all that.

I, on the other hand, am upset because I’m a third of a way through Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone piece ‘Looting Main Street‘:

If you want to know what life in the Third World is like, just ask Lisa Pack, an administrative assistant who works in the roads and transportation department in Jefferson County, Alabama. Pack got rudely introduced to life in post-crisis America last August, when word came down that she and 1,000 of her fellow public employees would have to take a little unpaid vacation for a while. The county, it turned out, was more than $5 billion in debt — meaning that courthouses, jails and sheriff’s precincts had to be closed so that Wall Street banks could be paid.

As public services in and around Birmingham were stripped to the bone, Pack struggled to support her family on a weekly unemployment check of $260. Nearly a fourth of that went to pay for her health insurance, which the county no longer covered. She also fielded calls from laid-off co-workers who had it even tougher. “I’d be on the phone sometimes until two in the morning,” she says. “I had to talk more than one person out of suicide. For some of the men supporting families, it was so hard — foreclosure, bankruptcy. I’d go to bed at night, and I’d be in tears.”

Homes stood empty, businesses were boarded up, and parts of already-blighted Birmingham began to take on the feel of a ghost town. There were also a few bills that were unique to the area — like the $64 sewer bill that Pack and her family paid each month. “Yeah, it went up about 400 percent just over the past few years,” she says.

The sewer bill, in fact, is what cost Pack and her co-workers their jobs. In 1996, the average monthly sewer bill for a family of four in Birmingham was only $14.71 — but that was before the county decided to build an elaborate new sewer system with the help of out-of-state financial wizards with names like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase. The result was a monstrous pile of borrowed money that the county used to build, in essence, the world’s grandest toilet — “the Taj Mahal of sewer-treatment plants” is how one county worker put it. What happened here in Jefferson County would turn out to be the perfect metaphor for the peculiar alchemy of modern oligarchical capitalism: A mob of corrupt local officials and morally absent financiers got together to build a giant device that converted human shit into billions of dollars of profit for Wall Street — and misery for people like Lisa Pack.

I’m glad Matt Taibbi can write, the injustice in all this leaves me utterly lost for words.

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