Waylaid Dialectic

March 26, 2015

best Marxist blog post I’ve read in a long time…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:31 pm

…although, to be fair, I don’t often read Marxist blogs. Still a good, thought-provoking postat Stumbling and Mumbling on work and self actualisation. Does Stata help me self-actualise???

March 18, 2015

Honour Amongst Aid Workers

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 5:02 am

My wife and I often take development reading to bed. The end result is always the same: sleep within minutes. So I knew something was up recently when, hours after I’d dozed off, I woke to find her still reading. Curious, I levered my copy of Historicism and Contemporary Aid Discourses from where it had slumped onto my chest and turned in search of an explanation.

Read more: http://devpolicy.org/honour-amongst-aid-workers-20150317/

March 3, 2015

The least awful way of taking an axe to the Australian aid programme

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 1:39 pm

Let’s be clear from the start: there’s no good way to decide where to cut one billion dollars from a five billion dollar aid program in just six months. Indeed, there’s no good reason to make the cut. Aid is less than 1.5 per cent of Australian federal government spending: too small for changes to have any real impact on the country’s fiscal health. Yet the cut will hurt people in developing countries. And it may well hurt Australia too. Promises will have to be broken in the international arena, and international goodwill (of the sort that helped get Australia onto the UN Security Council, for example) may be eroded.

Read the rest of this post at Devpolicy.

February 24, 2015

struggling to feel sympathy

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:54 pm

from a brilliant article by Henry Farrell on why the woes of the hidden internet and online drug supermarket ‘the Silk Road’:

Would-be criminals on the hidden internet repeatedly complain that they have been ripped off. In the description of one commenter on the Hidden Wiki:
I have been scammed more than twice now by assholes who say they’re legit when I say I want to purchase stolen credit cards…

more generally the piece is an excellent argument as to why we need a state if we want markets — the guarantor of trust in exchange.

February 22, 2015

meanwhile, amongst the contestants to become the most powerful person on earth…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 5:06 pm

From a New Yorker article discussion whether Wisconsin governor, and presumed republication presidential candidate, Scott Walker, believes in evolution:

And yet, as the Times noted, after Walker’s London catechism, “none of the likely Republican candidates for 2016 seem to be convinced. Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said it should not be taught in schools. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas is an outright skeptic. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas will not talk about it. When asked, in 2001, what he thought of the theory, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said, ‘None of your business.’ ”

January 23, 2015

note to self: this Poverty to Power Blog post on aid and active citizineship seems important

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:51 am


January 15, 2015

And the award for dopiest development comment of the year goes to…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:08 am
Tags: , ,

People say stupid stuff about development problems all the time, so in any given year it is going to be hard to find a clear cut winner for the dopiest development comment. Fortunately last year, the pop star Damon Albarn said something so daft he won hands down.

In explaining why he didn’t think the latest bout of Band-Aiding (Bob Geldof re-recorded the song to raise money to fight Ebola) was a good idea, Albarn is quoted as saying:

“Having been to many countries and gotten to know many people, it always seems that we have only one view of it…There’s also this assumption that in Africa everyone knows what’s going on…Our perspective and our idea of what helps and our idea what’s wrong and right are not necessarily shared by other cultures. There are problems with our idea of charity, especially these things that suddenly balloon out of nothing and then create a media frenzy where some of that essential communication is lost and it starts to feel like it’s a process where if you give money you solve the problem, and really sometimes giving money creates another problem.” [Italics mine]

Assuming this quote is not being repeated out of context, and is really his explanation of his objections to the song, it is wrong in the extreme. While we can debate cultural relativism (FWIW I think it’s wrong) the ‘cultures’ (and, more importantly, the human beings) being effected by Ebola don’t view the illness as right or wonderful, they desperately want to be rid of the problem (who wouldn’t). And money can help.

The Band Aid 30 song itself is pretty awful, and I prefer Albarn’s music. But really that comment was stupid. Give me Geldof’s ‘charity’ any day’.

Anyhow, I have a longer more considered discussion of the pros and cons of Band Aid 30 over at Devpolicy; in it I also discuss the more complicated case of the campaigning of Invisible Children.

January 4, 2015

The problem with bottom up approaches to development

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 3:16 pm
Tags: ,

Duncan Green has an enthusiastic blog post on an interesting sounding book in which bottom-up approaches to development are promoted over conventional aid. Duncan writes:

 It covers a series of themes, with a set of practical recommendations on each:

Identifying and supporting local capacity
Listening to local voices to develop responses and approaches
Using funding mechanisms that enable rather than distort local entities
Supporting local actors to work together to achieve greater impact

It then distils these into a set of ‘good practice principles’ and key recommendations which are worth reproducing in full:

Good Practice Principles:

1. Listening: design and adjust according to locally-felt concerns and shifts in the local context; listen to and act upon information and feedback received.

2. Harnessing and deploying latent capabilities: before identifying gaps and needs, look at what already exists in terms of local resources and capabilities, and how they can be supported.

3. Providing support in a timely and responsive way: use small-grant mechanisms to respond to opportunities as they arise and to react to particular events; provide capacity support that is driven by local realities and priorities.

4. Promoting participation: in all stages (research, planning, implementation, monitoring), facilitate participation that empowers local actors to influence and drive processes of change in their societies. Participation can also promote accountability.

5. Recognising that change is a process: rather than leading, facilitate progressive, cumulative change over time; be open to testing, learning and developing through long-term engagement and repeated cycles of action.
Don’t ignore the small fish

6. Broadening the definition of success: balance the prioritisation of results to include both tangible and less tangible aims (such as changes in attitudes and behaviours).

Key Recommendations:

1. Move away from big aid to small, targeted and strategic funding. An approach of this kind could range from core funding (to help an organisation develop on its own terms) to activity-based allocations (to help local actors respond to specific opportunities or changes in their environment).

2. Nurture more beneficent and flexible bureaucratic environments. This could be as simple as ensuring that grant managers are available to talk to grantees over the phone as an informal feedback and monitoring approach.

3. Create space for ideas and new approaches to be tested and developed. This is connected to: having faith in the ideas of local partners; creating space for local actors to shape the design of programmes; and conceding that change is a cumulative process where learning through mistakes is as important as achieving successes.

4. Develop shared approaches for measuring ‘intangible’ aims and outcomes.

5. Develop staff performance metrics that encourage locally led practice.

6. Remove pressure to spend and stringent ‘value for money’ cultures in aid bureaucracies.

You don’t have to convince me that too little attention is paid to context in aid work. Or that too much aid is about what we have/want to give/think is needed. And there is *definitely* a case for a more participatory approach to aid. However, the advice Duncan conveys from the book sounds too simple by a half.

1. Most of the recommendations are relevant only to a very particular subset of aid: small NGO projects. Much of  the suggested improvements wouldn’t make sense if you were, for example, trying to aid a country in improving its state run health system. And, in the long run, in areas like education and health, the big improvements in people’s lives will come through functioning state run systems.

2. The sort of bottom up approach described needs A. Lot. Of. Staff. I’m ok with this. But seeing as everyone else in the world of aid, from politicians, to NGO marketing arms, to the donating public, doesn’t seem to be, this might be something of an issue.

3. While the external is often deeply misguided and not without its own mixed motivations, the bottom up approach suggested seems to idealise the local, as if there weren’t power dynamics, mixed motives, and the risk of unintended consequences there too.

4. Statements such as “Remove pressure to spend and stringent ‘value for money’ cultures in aid bureaucracies” suggest a naïveté to the politics of our own aid giving. Trust me, aid agency staff don’t work the way they do because they are very naughty. Rather there is a set of structures and incentives that shapes the way aid is given. And none of this is easily removed.

Don’t get me wrong. I think aid work needs to be a lot more context oriented, and learning about context — obviously — requires letting local actors speak (while not being blind to the fact that some, particularly the powerful, will have their own agenda). But the book — as it is summarised by Duncan — makes it sound like this is all about doing nothing more than waving the participatory development wand, which isn’t the case.

[Update: typos, or at least some of them, alongside clunky writing, tidied — sorry.]

January 3, 2015

Losing the battle, losing the war…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 6:59 pm
Tags: , , ,

Amidst an impressive, depressing review on how the British lost the (this millennium’s) war in Afghanistan James Meek has a good little development relevant snippet:

Although it is about how poorly Britain understands Afghanistan, it is also, implicitly, about how poorly Britain understands Britain; about how, that is, Britain became the country it is in 2014, with its schools and hospitals and bareheaded women, its weak ecclesiastical law, its gunlessness, its multiplicity of roads, its sewers, its literacy. A thousand years passed between the famously literate King Alfred of Wessex’s victory at the battle of Edington in Wiltshire and England’s introduction of universal education. Afghan children shouldn’t have to wait that long; it would be wrong to suggest Afghanistan is at some pre-set historical ‘stage’ which it would be better enduring in isolation. Afghanistan needs help, encouragement, advice, money. It’s just that next time we think about military intervention in a foreign country that hasn’t attacked us, it might be worth running a thought experiment to work out at exactly which moment, in the many internecine conflicts that have afflicted the British Isles, our forebears would have most benefited from the arrival of 3500 troops and eight helicopters, and for which ‘side’ those troops would have fought.

December 2, 2014

The trouble with the Institutions regressions

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:14 pm

note to self: this blog post, which links to a series of blogs is a very good take down of the institutions and growth literature. Jeffrey Sachs much be happily chuckling somewhere.

October 23, 2014


Filed under: Ramblings — terence @ 7:38 pm

Graduation ceremonies are not for me. I imagine wilting pomp and standing, bored. I don’t begrudge other people wanting to mark their achievement with this, but it wouldn’t make me happy.

And so, instead, two days after I handed in that final hard-bound thesis, to make something of the flush of relief, and to give me a full stop, Jo and I drove out to Lake George.

There, the west wind, already summery-warm and dry, had the windmills busy, and purple flowers were splashed up the hillsides. Gallahs and Rosellas flew about while we sat eating sandwiches, and I thought about old uncertainties. Could I get a research permit? Could I get access to villages? Would people speak to me? Could we manage my health? What would the travel be like? Could I find questions? Answers?

I also thought about the work: the chasing, the making contacts, the organising, the re-organising. And I could have thought about the small group of people who made it harder than it should have been. But it was too nice a day for this. And it was a celebration. So instead, Jo and I talked about everyone who had helped. And we thought back over the adventure — the travel, around parts of the Solomon Islands that we would have seen no other way. Rainforest tumbling down mountainsides into the grey seas of the Weather Coast. The sunsets of Langalanga lagoon. The flower-clad villages of Gao-Bugotu. The way thunder storms thumped over Iron Bottom Sound.

I’m still waiting for the university to confer my degree “in absentia” but, fuck it, we had our ceremony. That was graduation. And as Jo could make out from my happy chatter, it felt as good as it should.

October 17, 2014

Aid and Civil War in South Africa

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

An interesting looking new working paper:

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

by Jean-Paul Azam and Véronique Thelen

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

It goes on my long to read list…

September 18, 2014

Note to self remember AidGrade this time…

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

AidGrade, very easy to use, drop down box driven, results from meta-analyses of impact evaluations of a (still fairly small) number of development problems.

September 2, 2014

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

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

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

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



September 1, 2014

The Political Aid Curse

Filed under: Uncategorized — terence @ 8:45 am

Two papers in the latest issue of World Development look, from a first glance, like they need to have a chat

Why there Should be No Political Foreign Aid Curse
Ceren Altincekic, David H. Bearce

This paper considers the causality underlying the so-called political aid curse, which proposes that foreign aid, like oil, should hinder democracy. Using a theoretical model which identifies repression and appeasement as the primary alternatives to democratization, it argues that aid revenue should not produce a political curse because it is less fungible, more conditional, and less constant than state oil revenue, making it difficult for recipient governments to use their aid to fund either repression or appeasement. Using several different measures associated with repression and appeasement, the statistical results show that aid cannot be associated with any of these dependent variables.

Aiding and Abetting: Project Aid and Ethnic Politics in Kenya
Ryan C. Briggs

I analyze a unique dataset of sub-national resource allocations in Kenya from 1989 to 1995 and show that project aid and local funds were disproportionately directed to the president’s political base. Per-donor analyses of aid flows show that bilateral donors and the African Development Bank were most likely to skew their aid to the president’s base. Kenya’s autocratic leader was able to exercise strong political influence over the location of many aid projects, even under unfavorable circumstances. While disbursing aid as projects may have ensured better accounting of funds, it did little to prevent aid from becoming patronage.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the findings are as at odds as they seem. As best I can tell, most of the time aid is relatively impotent in the face of domestic political economy factors. It might be able to help (or hinder) a bit, but my experience based on Solomon Islands is that it is very hard for aid actors to transform a domestic political economy: for better or for worse. Although I agree with Bearce that they probably do have enough power to offset the political resource curse problem (and maybe a bit more), if they act wisely and with recipient population welfare as their first motivation. And this is the likely second explanation of the difference: look at the time frame of Brigg’s dataset. The tail end of the cold war and just after (which given some path dependency more or less means ‘in’).


August 27, 2014

Making progress on foreign aid…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:46 am

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

The abstract:

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

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

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

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

August 19, 2014

Are Sweatshops good for women in Bangladesh?

Filed under: Trade — terence @ 8:35 am
Tags: ,

And interesting new NBER working paper from Rachel Heath and A. Mushfiq Mobarak (disclaimer: I haven’t had time to fully read it yet):

NBER Working Paper No. 20383

We study the effects of explosive growth in the Bangladeshi ready-made garments industry on the lives on Bangladeshi women. We compare the marriage, childbearing, school enrollment and employment decisions of women who gain greater access to garment sector jobs to women living further away from factories, to years before the factories arrive close to some villages, and to the marriage and enrollment decisions of their male siblings. Girls exposed to the garment sector delay marriage and childbirth. This stems from (a) young girls becoming more likely to be enrolled in school after garment jobs (which reward literacy and numeracy) arrive, and (b) older girls becoming more likely to be employed outside the home in garment-proximate villages. The demand for education generated through manufacturing growth appears to have a much larger effect on female educational attainment compared to a large-scale government conditional cash transfer program to encourage female schooling.


This looks like more evidence (if any more was needed) that anti-globalisation arguments against trade are wrong. IT’s also evidence from an interesting direction: gender equality.

Remember though, this isn’t evidence to suggest that sweatshops themselves are good. If you make this argument, you’re falling into the fallacy of one choice and just two options: either trade and sweatshops or no sweatshops and rural poverty. There is a third way: trade plus ongoing campaigning to improve conditions in garment factories, using the levers we have as consumers, though aid, and maybe (maybe, maybe) through trade agreements. While also trying raise human capital through every means possible to ultimately give women in developing countries as many options as those in our countries have. That’s the right way to think about this, I think.

August 10, 2014

Why I *think* I support what Obama is doing in Iraq

Filed under: Conflict — terence @ 8:38 am

I opposed George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. And, although I subsequently changed my mind several times, I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan in the beginning. As a teenager I opposed George HW Bush’s Iraq invasion too. My default position on war is against. As a good war movie will show you, war is hell. And it should only ever be a last resort. (This was one of the reasons I opposed the Iraq invasion of 2003. The other two key ones were: because international institutions matter; and the neo-cons clearly did not care an iota about the welfare of Iraqis, and in war motives matter for outcomes).

Yet despite all this, I think I support what Obama is doing now, for very similar reasons to those that led me to supporting the bombing if Libya.

The reason I support the bombing, and other logistical support for the Kurds (and possibly the Iraqi government), isn’t because ISIS/IS are odious (although they obviously are), or because I think they’re some existential threat to the West, or because I think the US is an altruistic defender of freedom in all instances. I support the bombing simply because if ISIS were to spill into Kurdistan humanitarian catastrophe would follow. And such circumstances are, I think, one of the few instances where military intervention is justified. Justified, because it will probably make things less worse. Not necessarily better, but at least less worse – less catastrophic.

I had opposed intervention because, on the basis of this (still excellent, and worth listening to) LSE talk, I’d thought ISIS would be little threat beyond Sunni parts of Iraq. And that even in Sunni Arab Iraq they only held sway because of discontent with the Shia dominated (and more importantly ethnically oriented) government. And that with time their own hatefulness would see them removed in the best available way, by the Sunni Arab populous.

Yet now this prognosis no longer seems right, at least in the country’s north and north east. The risk of ISIS sweeping into parts or all of Kurdish Iraq seems very real, and the potential consequences very bad. And so I think air strikes and logistical support are a good idea.

My support is agonised: air strikes will bring civilian deaths even as they save them, and they are a ridiculously expensive way of saving lives (and more profit to the hateful military industrial complex). And, as Libya shows, intervention does not guarantee a happy ending. But if Gaddafi had been able to sweep over rebel areas things likely would have been worse still. And this is what I hope US involvement can stop in Iraq too.

I’m not sure about any of this — this blog post isn’t a manifesto; it’s me trying to sort my thoughts — but for now, for what it’s worth, this is why I support what Obama is doing.


August 5, 2014

Does Fair Trade Work

Filed under: Trade — terence @ 8:43 am

An interesting looking new NBER working paper from Raluca E. Dragusanu, Daniele Giovannucci, Nathan Nunn reviewing the economics of fair trade.

From page 11:

In side-by-side comparisons, Fair Trade certified producers do receive higher prices, follow specified work standards, and use environmentally-friendly methods. We review this evidence, but also explore the more difficult questions of interpretation. Are the changes that are correlated with Fair Trade production also caused by certification or is some other factor like the entrepreneurial capacity of the producer affecting both outcomes? What factors make producers more likely to join Fair Trade? What may happen to the advantages of receiving a higher price from being a Fair Trade producer as more producers seek to join? After taking these factors into account, the balance of the evidence does suggest that Fair Trade works—but the evidence is admittedly both mixed and incomplete.

July 14, 2014

Does aid undermine democracy?

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 10:41 am

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

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

This Afrobarometer study offers some interesting associated evidence:

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

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

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


July 7, 2014

Human Development vs GDP & Capabilities vs Utility

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 9:13 am

Martha Nussbaum has an excellent piece in the Boston Review explaining why Narendra Modi ought do more than focus on GDP growth as he seeks to emulate the Gujarat miracle for India as a whole.

Economic development is important, but it isn’t everything when it comes to human welfare:

Now let us return to Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. Measured by the growth paradigm, its achievements are strong indeed. The growth rate of per capita SDP (State Domestic Prodct) between 2000 and 2011 averages 8.2 percent, higher than any other State excepting Uttarakhand (10.0). Other high performers, close behind Gujarat, are Tamil Nadu (7.5), Kerala (7.0), and Maharashtra (7.5)…If, however, we begin to examine distribution, things immediately look very different. Gujarat’s rate of rural poverty is 26.7 percent, of urban poverty 17.9 percent; the combined poverty rate is 23.0 percent. Of the high economic performers, Maharashtra does worse, but Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala do much better, with combined rates of poverty of 18 percent, 17.1 percent and 12.0 percent respectively.2 Moreover, the following States, not such stellar economic performers, have lower combined rates of poverty than Gujarat: Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab…Let’s now look more closely. Gujarat has life expectancy at birth of 64.9 years for males, 69.0 years for females. The figures for Tamil Nadu are 70.9 (female) and 67.1 (male), for Kerala 76.9 (female) and 71.5 (male).3 Lest we ascribe these differences to climate or genes, quite a few other States also outperform Gujarat: these include Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka, and West Bengal. In infant mortality and maternal mortality, Gujarat also lags well behind the two southern States and quite a few others. In maternal mortality, indeed, Gujarat has the high rate of 148 deaths per 100,000 live births, as compared with just 81 for Kerala and 97 for Tamil Nadu.4 So: comparable growth achievements, utterly disparate health outcomes.

Nussbaum lists similar discrepancies in gender and education.

As it critiques GDP as a measure of welfare, the piece makes the case for Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to development — the belief that the end goal of development should be to maximise human functioning in a range of aspects of the human condition. Nussbaum lists these as: life, bodily health, bodily integrity, ‘senses, imagination and thought’, emotions, practical reasons, affiliation.

I’m not convinced. Or to be more exact: I am convinced that measuring the state of our lives across a range of indices will provide a better approximation/measure of welfare than measuring GDP alone. But I’m not convinced that maximising human capabilities is a better end goal than the one which supposedly underpins most economic thought: human happiness.

One problem with the capabilities approach is the same trouble all non-utilitiarian philosophies face. What if it turned out that maximising capabilities (or at least certain ones) made us less happy as a whole? Would you really want us to be talented but miserable? Not me, I’d settle for mediocre bliss for our species any day. You can argue that maximising capabilities won’t make us less happy. I’d agree with you. Hence my support of measuring welfare across a range of human indices. But it seems to me that if that’s your way out, you’re tacitly agreeing happiness, not capabilities, is the ultimate end goal.

The other problem with the capabilities approach, is a problem confronting all Aristotelian philosophies — how do you adjudicate trade-offs between the different things you want to maximise (capabilities in this case)? What happens when you need to curtail someone’s affiliation to increase someone else’s bodily health? For a utilitarian this is easy enough (in theory): you act to maximise the greatest good. But this option would not seem to be there for Aristotelians.






June 24, 2014

A Very Human Endeavour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 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…


June 11, 2014

Poverty, Economics and Poor Philosophy

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 4:04 pm

A book mark: three great posts  at interfluidity on how economics stumbles from is to ought.

New Zealand’s half full aid glass

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 5:38 am

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

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

The Centre Left and Centre Right are all the same, right?

Filed under: Development Theory — terence @ 5:32 am

A useful corrective from Australia if you happen to labour under that particular delusion.

June 4, 2014


Filed under: Aid — terence @ 4:14 pm

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

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

May 18, 2014

The Foundations of Modern Conservative Thought

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 10:11 am

a depressingly common human failing I suspect…

Galiani and Schargrodsky (2004, 2010) provide an interesting example on the effects of extending property titles to poor squatters in Argentina. In 1981, squatters organized by the Catholic Church occupied an urban wasteland in the province of Buenos Aires, dividing the land into similar-sized parcels that were then allocated to individual families. A 1984 law, adopted after the return to democracy in 1983, expropriated this land, with the intention of transferring title to the squatters. However, some of the original owners then challenged the expropriation in court, leading to long delays in the transfer of titles to the plots owned by those owners, while other titles were ceded and transferred to squatters immediately. The legal action therefore created a “treatment” group—squatters to whom titles were ceded immediately—and a “control” group—squatters to whom titles were not ceded.12 Galiani and Schargrodsky (2004, 2010) find significant differences across these groups in subsequent housing investment, household structure, and educational attainment of children—though not in access to credit markets, which contradicts De Soto’s theory that the poor will use titled property to collateralize debt. They also find a positive effect of property rights on self-perceptions of individual efficacy. For instance, squatters who were granted land titles—for reasons over which they apparently had no control!—disproportionately agreed with statements that people get ahead in life due to hard work (Di Tella, Galiani, and Schargrodsky 2007).

from Dunning (2012-08-31). Natural Experiments in the Social Sciences (Strategies for Social Inquiry) (p. 10). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

May 7, 2014

What the blogs did for development

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 2:05 pm

This is pretty cool. CGD researchers post on new PPP data. Martin Ravallion shows up in comments to tell them off. And loses (IMHO) the subsequent debate.

Blogs, and the internet more generally, are great for this: real time discussion and interaction. I learnt from reading this exchange.

May 6, 2014

The economic rationality of polygamy

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:42 pm

Kathleen Geier has written a great obituary, not so much for Gary Becker as for his ideas:

Becker said quite a few other wacky things in the Treatise. For instance, he performed a formal mathematical proof that purports to demonstrate that women are better off under polygamy, because, given Becker’s theoretical assumptions, their income under polygamy would be higher. H’okay.

Useful lesson for theorists of all types. If your theory leads to conclusions which are palpably crazy, abandon it.

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