Waylaid Dialectic

April 28, 2017

Murray McCully’s lessons for all of us

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

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

The end of an error, or two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 25, 2017

Murray McCully by the Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bilat v multilat

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

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

different multilats

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

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

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

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

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

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

nz aid by sector

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

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

Aid to Pacific

(Source and calculations here.)

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

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

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

April 24, 2017

What do people in different African countries think about aid effectiveness

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

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

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

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

Pew WV views on aid in africa

April 18, 2017

Unequal Democracy (a review)

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

Unequal Democracy by Larry Bartels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 13, 2017

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

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

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

April 12, 2017

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

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

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

PNG Election Results Database

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

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

February 13, 2017

The gender woes of Australian NGOs

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

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

Read more on the Devpolicy blog here.

December 7, 2016

Charter Schools

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

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

December 2, 2016

Newcomb’s problem

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

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

I couldn’t resist.

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

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

November 22, 2016

Trade doesn’t kill people; change does

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

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

The abstract:

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

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

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

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

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

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

[update: Tim Duy]

November 10, 2016

Trumping the polls

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

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

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

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

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

[Update: Gelman, Gelman, Gelman]

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

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

Still wrong needs explaining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 12, 2016

Aid Evaluations

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

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

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

September 2, 2016


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

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

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

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

September 1, 2016

Does government funding silence Australian NGOs?

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

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

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

August 25, 2016

What do Australian NGOs use the internet for?

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

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

A new point seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 1, 2016

The best laid plans of NZ aid budgets

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

Recently Jo and I blogged about issues with aid spending in New Zealand. We were pleasantly replied when MFAT responded with a very good blog post. Our response is now up on the Devpolicy Blog.


July 21, 2016


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:29 am

From a new paper in Perspectives on Politics. I’ve highlighted the important stuff in bold. It beggars belief that this could be possible in an ostensible democratic nation:

In the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, many American private-sector employers now have the legal right to recruit their workers into politics and to fire or discipline employees who refuse to participate. How many firms and workers are engaged in this kind of political recruitment and why? And how have the opportunities for the political recruitment of workers by their employers changed over time? Drawing on national surveys of top corporate managers and workers, as well as a review of the legal literature, I provide initial answers to these questions and illustrate the implications of employer political recruitment for a range of substantive and normative issues in American politics. My findings invite further research and discussion about this feature of the American workplace and its effects on politics and policy.


June 20, 2016

A problem with Effective Altruism

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:08 am

If you’ve ever thought carefully about international development you will be tormented by shoulds. Should the Australian government really give aid rather than focus on domestic poverty? Should I donate more money personally? And if so, what sort of NGO should I give to?

The good news is that William MacAskill is here to help. MacAskill is an associate professor in philosophy at the University of Oxford, and in Doing Good Better he wants to teach you to be an Effective Altruist.

Read the rest here at the Devpolicy blog.

June 6, 2016


Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 12:41 pm

This strikes me as a mind boggling development success. I’m scratching my head wondering why it’s not something more loudly broadcast.

A handy two para summary (as part of a more generally excellent blog post by Rachel Glennerster):

In the early 2000s a debate raged about whether to charge for ITNs. Advocates of free distribution said small costs could reduce access by the poor. Those arguing for charging cited anecdotes of bednets being used as wedding veils or fishing nets but neither side had much evidence. The RCTs on price and use were quickly taken up by advocates of free mass distribution and the opposition faded.

Coverage of ITNs in sub-Saharan Africa (the region with the highest burden of malaria) has improved dramatically with the vast majority of coverage accounted for by free mass distribution (43 out of 47 countries had mass free programs). As the great maps from Giving What We Can illustrate, malaria cases have fallen dramatically. A recent article in Nature estimates that 2/3 to 3/4 of the decline in malaria cases between 2000 and 2015 can be attributed to increased net coverage: 450 million cases of malaria and 4 million deaths averted from ITN distribution. That’s anything but small.

June 2, 2016

The astounding increase in New Zealand aid, and other woes

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

When is a 12 per cent increase not, actually, a 12 per cent increase? When it is to the New Zealand aid budget, sadly. In Australia there would be scenes of jubilation within the aid community if the aid budget went up by 12 percent. In New Zealand things aren’t that simple. This chart shows why.

Read the rest on the Devpolicy Blog.

Are New Zealanders nicer when it comes to aid?

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

Just how unique are Australians’ attitudes to aid? We know Australians approve of government aid, yet when push came to deficit shove most preferred aid cuts over alternatives, although their enthusiasm for further cuts has mellowed somewhat. We also know most Australians want their government aid given for altruistic ends.

We have good data on all of this, but what we haven’t had is a sense of how unique Australians are in their views — until now. We’ve just started analysing the responses to questions we placed in a New Zealand public opinion survey (n=1124) that allows us some comparisons.

Read the rest on the Devpolicy Blog.

April 30, 2016

Puzzles of modernity

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 3:23 pm

12:25pm: I sit at my desk with my beaten up Samsung Laptop. Using Stata I run an ordered logistic regression on my computer. n = just over 1000. About 5 independent variables. I wait 4 seconds. I get results. Results that, back in the days of calculators and notepads, I would have spent weeks or months to calculate, if I could calculate them at all.

12:30pm: I decide to open a PDF in Adobe Reader. Back in the days before PDFs it might have taken me 10 seconds to find its paper equivalent in my office drawer. 10 seconds after double clicking on the file I’m still waiting for it to fully open.


March 3, 2016

Wood’s paradox

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 6:54 am

I spent my youth surfing. I now wish I had devoted more of it to learning economics.

However, had I devoted more of my youth to economics I would now wish I’d just gone surfing.

March 1, 2016

Development neologisms: saccharin ‎stats

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:13 am

Saccharin stats: sweet looking numbers often found in the PR of multilaterals and NGOs. Numbers which don’t bear up to much scrutiny.

Example: “Thanks to our work 300 million people have been treated.” “With your help we have sent over 20,000 children to school in Somewhere province.”

Musing: A speciality of the aid world, numbers either based on outputs rather than outcomes (vials of treatment procured, rather than actual people cured). And which conveniently ignore the counter-factual (were treatment rates going up before organisation X arrived). Numbers which also don’t ask too many questions about the quality of the data they came from (very nice the government of Distant-land said they spent your money on treatment, but did they? Really?).

To be fair to aid, sweet is what Joe Public and Jim Politician want, initially at least (outside the borders of the World of Aid, people like simple tales), and getting real data costs a lot. The risk is, I think, people stop believing eventually. One of the main problems of Saccharin the sweetener is that too much leaves a bitter after-taste.

February 22, 2016

Numbers, norms or Englishmen: what changes Australians’ opinions about aid?

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 9:32 am

When the Australian government cut aid last year, Australians didn’t exactly race to the barricades. In fact, many actually seemed quite happy. When we commissioned a survey question about the 2015–16 aid cuts, the majority of respondents supported them.

Since then, we’ve started studying what, if anything, might change Australians’ views about aid. There’s an obvious practical reason for this: helping campaigners. Yet the work is intellectually interesting too–a chance to learn more about what shapes humans’ (intermittent) impulse to aid distant strangers. [Read the rest here on the Devpolicy Blog]

February 16, 2016

Calorie labelling

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 11:07 am

Intriguing. Research suggesting calorie labelling helps with weight reduction, albeit mostly on overweight people (i.e. the people you want it to work on). As someone who never reads the labels, I would have been sceptical. Great to know I’m (quite probably) wrong.

February 3, 2016

A link to save…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:50 am

the political methologist blog on high quality graphics

Making High-Resolution Graphics for Academic Publishing

Solving other people’s problems

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:31 am

There are a number of problems with this Medium hit. (“The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”)

1. The magnitude of the issue — sure it’s like, totally, unhip to naively want to help people. But how significant are the problems it causes? In the scheme of things (Syria, climate change, Ted Cruz…)? Really?

2. The counter factual — people caring about other people in dopey ways may be cringe-worthy, and ineffectual. But it still comes from one of the better, and fragile, sides of human nature (contrast, the couldn’t give a shit and hate that most people express towards Syrian refugees). I’m no ethicist but in the scheme of things, being a dope seems less bad than being bad or simply not caring.

3. The change process — if tut tutting on the internet achieves anything I suspect it’s most likely to stop people caring, than making them more practical.

4. Selecting on the dependent variable — Play Pump is a disaster, but it’s not the only case of people naively going to a developing country thinking they had the solution. I once went to a talk by a New Zealand midwife who’d gone to Vietnam and advised midwives there on the correct procedure for complicated births (my simplification), and saved many, many lives as a result. Quite probably Play Pump is a more representative case, but I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from one side of the ledger alone.

5. Ignoring the evidence — Tom’s shoes. Sounds awful on the surface. But the best available evidence does not suggest the idea has had particularly bad impacts.

6. Orders of magnitude — The blog castigates people for wanting to solve problems overseas rather than in the United States (a proxy for the developed source country in general). But what’s wrong with this? The (cruelly low) US poverty line is somewhere in the vicinity of $12-16 PPP per day. Many (in the poorest countries, most) people in the developing world live off less than $2.50 PPP per day (these figures are consumption, not income so include subsistence income). The need is greater elsewhere. And this, unless you think, the moral worth of non-American lives is less than that of Americans, is pretty good reason to try and help where the need is greatest. It is true that you may be more effective helping at home, although my guess is that if you’re a white middle class kid in the US the problems of the ghetto are going to be every bit as foreign and complex for you as the problems of Mali. This shouldn’t stop you from doing important things in the US (or New Zealand, or Australia), especially casting your vote for the right political party. But it does mean that there’s no automatic case for prioritising helping at home over helping abroad. (To be fair this point is recognised in the piece, but to my read it’s recognised then ignored.)

The blog does make some good points. In particular:

“But don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity.

Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult.

Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.”

Here I agree, both with the specifics and the important point about complexity. Development is complex. But that is true on the donor side too. Few people participate with perfect motives. But is hip scold-blogging going to solve much?



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