One of history’s enduring lessons is that men often do not run nation states well. Certainly no better than women. Given this, it’s reassuring that globally, slowly but surely, the number of elected women politicians is rising. Unfortunately, however, this trend is absent, or largely absent, in much of the Pacific. Read the rest of this blog post at Devpolicy…
October 13, 2015
August 24, 2015
Although I’m pro-choice, there are people I respect, from personal friends to the current head of the Catholic Church, who don’t share my views on abortion. Miranda Devine’s recent blog post linking Australian aid, abortion and foetal tissue, on the other hand, left me struggling to feel any respect for her journalism. The blog was written for the Daily Telegraph and it is apparently causing a kerfuffle amongst some Australian politicians. (If you can’t access the post on the Telegraph’s website you can read it here).
In the blog Devine links Australian aid given to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to the selling of “livers, brains and hearts of aborted babies for $30 to $100 a pop.” [read the rest of this blog at Devpolcy here].
August 3, 2015
It’s a pity there aren’t more country and western songs about development. There are plenty of tales of woe to be had, and lessons learnt the hard way. Take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for example: they are destined to break your heart. [Read the rest of this blog post here.]
July 27, 2015
Why we should stop banging on about neoliberalism, and bleating about innovation, and what we should say instead
Development doesn’t have a way with words. It scrunches names into acronyms. It potholes sentences with jargon. Its grey literature is drearier than grey. Words get their revenge too. They confuse, they strive for prominence, they rig the game. Or they hide shyly, letting themselves be avoided when they should be used more often.
Words shape our thinking — and here are two words the dialects of aid work and development thought would be better off without, as well as two words we ought to use more often. [read the rest here]
July 6, 2015
Is economic inequality important for aid work? This was the question I asked myself when I saw the name of this year’s ACFID University Network Conference: “Evidence and Practice in an Age of Inequality”. (The title didn’t specifically mention economic inequality, but conference material suggested it was the topic at hand.) It was an interesting theme; yet as I mulled it over I couldn’t convince myself that economic inequality ought to be high on the list of issues aid workers anguish about.
Read the rest of this blog post on Devpolicy.
July 1, 2015
The Dimpost has a handy summary of the insanity of it all here.
I think there’s a broader lesson for development economics too, along the lines of:
Either sheer fecklessness or (more often) underlying problems of political economy sometimes lead countries to acquire unsustainable levels of debt.
As a donor/multi-lateral you have surprisingly little ability to prevent this. Except during crisis points. Then it becomes very, very tempting to impose austerity.
However, this is, almost always a bad idea.
(a) it’s pro-cyclical and often makes deficit problems worse than they were.
(b) matters of domestic political economy usually mean austerity hits the least well off hardest.
(c) dropping the a bomb can have very counter-productive political consequences. (handy rule of thumb: if your policy prescription promotes riots something has gone wrong).
This doesn’t mean that the debtor country should be given a free pass. Or that there’s no need for reform. But it does mean its a mistake to think (as I once heard an aid agency staffer remark) that “this crisis will be too good to waste”.
Reform is a long run thing — and not often helped by short term detonations.
May 28, 2015
File under no brainers:
“Initial estimates from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) suggest $1bn annually to
improve national statistical systems so they could measure the SDGs (Espey et al., 2015). Demombynes and
Sandefur estimate the cost to international donors of improving household surveys would be $300m a year
(Demombynes and Sandefur, 2014). In other words, costs are not likely to be substantial, and it is clear that these
are investments that deliver a significant degree of value for money immediately and in the longer term.”
From this ODI report.
In 2014 OECD DAC donors gave approximately US$135 billion dollars in aid. Let’s assume that SDSN have underestimated the SDG costs by a factor of two, and that the real cost would be $2B … 2/135 = 1.48% of total global aid flows.
That, I think, would be a very small price to pay for actually knowing about development progress, rather than fudging on the basis of sparse and poorly constructed statistics.
May 25, 2015
The slides and references associated with a talk I’m scheduled to give about this subject can be downloaded here. Note if you download the slides prior to 5 June, they may change if I tinker with them.
May 19, 2015
May 5, 2015
One of the clearest correlations in development is that between quality of governance and wealth. You can see the relationship in the chart below (from this excellent but paywalled article in the Annual Review of Political Science).
Wealthier countries are better governed countries — this is clear. What is less clear is whether wealth causes good governance, or whether good governance causes wealth, or whether some third factor (maybe education, for example) causes both.
Read the rest of this post at the Devpolicy blog.
April 23, 2015
It’s easy to see the appeal of microfinance. The idea of loaning small amounts of money to individuals or families in developing countries to help them overcome credit constraints makes sense. I always thought it was a good one. The trouble is, in aid, ideas that seem good can still be misplaced. And this has increasingly appeared to be the case with microfinance…read the rest of my blog post on this on the Devpolicy Blog.
March 26, 2015
…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
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.
March 3, 2015
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
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
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
January 15, 2015
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
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).
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
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
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
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
An interesting looking new working paper:
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
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
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?
September 1, 2014
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.