Waylaid Dialectic

June 14, 2010

No Hughes is Good Hughes

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 6:06 pm
Tags: ,

I guess when you’ve been writing about aid and development for as long as Helen Hughes has you can be forgiven if you end up formulaic. Like a chef who’s been at their trade far too long she’s sticks with the recipes she knows. The ingredients do not vary. You have:

  • Hyperbolic claims about the state of development in the Pacific
  • Generalisations, which imply (though never state outright) that all the Pacific is fairing as poorly as are the region’s worst performers
  • Bold statements about the culpability of aid in the Pacific’s demise that are either non-sequiturs or not backed up by evidence
  • A nasty comment or two about the UN
  • At least a couple of points that just aren’t true (falsehoods or errors)
  • And at least one comment that suggest she’s actually rather repelled by Pacific Islanders.

Her most recent effort has all the usual ingredients…

Hyperbolic Claims
“A FEW kilometres from Port Moresby, Honiara and other South Pacific capitals, living standards in local villages are worse than when the first Europeans arrived.”

To choose just a few examples: estimated life expectancy at birth in Fiji is 68.7 years; in Solomon Islands it is 65.8 years; in Papua New Guinea it is 60.7 years; and in Samoa 71.4 years.

No doubt, in parts of these countries life expectancy is lower than the national average but the odds that it is lower than at European contact (remember life expectancy in most hunter-gatherer societies was less than 30) are low to say the least.

Generalising Claims
“Egregious corruption became the norm, mirrored by high crime and rural violence. Port Moresby became a crime capital to rival Nairobi and Port au Prince. Fiji, with relatively high living standards at independence, collapsed into dictatorship.”

Port Moresby is indeed blighted by high levels of crime. But the problem there is much, much worse than anywhere else in the Pacific. And Fiji is the only military dictatorship in the region.

“Men who drift into a town cannot find work and often contract HIV-AIDS, resulting in an epidemic of African proportions. If they cannot join a criminal gang of “rascals” they drift back to the village where they infect their several wives.”

PNG is the only country in the Pacific with an HIV epidemic even remotely resembling ‘African proportions’. It’s also, (possibly along with Solomon Islands) the only place you will find raskol gangs. Moreover, I’m no expert on marriage practices in the Pacific, but I rather suspect that polygamy is a lot less common than is implied by Ms Hughes.

Non-Sequiturs on Aid
“But independence sowed the seeds of the Pacific nations’ demise because aid flows per capita became the highest to any developing region.”

So let’s get this straight…because current day aid flows to the Pacific are the highest per-capita of any region, they sewed the seeds of demise three decades prior. Maybe with a time machine…

Claims about aid made in the absence of evidence
“Once it was obvious that aid agencies and their many expatriate consultants were central to Pacific economic stagnation and political collapse…”

Obvious to Ms Hughes perhaps, but given compelling competing explanations, such as geographical isolation (Polynesia), the Resource Curse (PNG and Solomon Islands), and the poor fit between formal and informal institutions (everywhere), it would be nice to see some actual evidence of this. Something she never actually provides. I’m unaware of any studies showing systematically that higher aid leads to lower growth in the Pacific. Maybe they exist, but you won’t learn of them from reading Ms Hughes.

“Non-government aid organisations with political agendas enjoy a similar suite of extraordinary privileges. The advisers who created the Millennium Development Goals aid strategy have become millionaires by exploiting the aid industry.”

Given that the average NGO staffer gets paid less than they would working for government, and a lot less than they would in the private sector, Hughes really needs some evidence here. Note that there is none.

UN Bashing
“The UN has created failed economies wherever it has been the chief architect of development in countries, including Haiti and East Timor.”

Because, you know, it wasn’t as if these countries had any problems before the UN arrived…

Falsehoods and Errors
“But they expect no help from the assistance mission, which has made no positive contribution to economic development.”

Have a look at the graph below (from World Bank data, constant 2000 USD). RAMSI arrived in Solomon Islands in 2003. Please get back to me if, having looked at the chart, you are still in any way inclined to believe that Ms Hughes’ claim is true.

GDP Per Capita Solomon Islands - USD Constant 2000

“The Millennium Development Goals are the type of policies embraced by failing economies, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.”

But the MDGs aren’t policies. They are (with the very partial exception of some of the indicators under MDG Eight) indicators of successful human development outcomes. All manner of strategies might be employed by governments to meet them.

Evidence of Repulsion
“[W]hy is it that after a decade of implementation of the Millennium Goals, backed by billions of taxpayers’ dollars, women in PNG villages choose to breastfeed piglets because pigs are more valuable than children?”


Like I said: the problem isn’t the reuse of the same old recipe. The problem is reusing it when ingredients involved are so transparently rancid.

[Update: The World Bank link in my original post didn’t work – so now I’ve just put the graph in there instead.]

May 20, 2010

Kindness, Cruelty and the Better Polity Through Suffering Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

From VoxEU:

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

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