Waylaid Dialectic

April 8, 2010

Easterly v Singer

William Easterly debates Peter Singer on bloggingheads.tv.

Surprisingly – given Singer’s support of aid and Easterly’s non-stop critique – it’s a civil enough affair.

Easterly does an admirable job improving Singer’s drowning child metaphor, but fails elsewhere. In particular, it’s odd how little he seems to know about the actual world of development practice, and of efforts to reform it. After implying that there’s an absence of campaigns to improve aid he waxes lyrical about the need to increase the participation of aid recipients in aid projects. Good idea. But hardly new. Next time he’s in England he should stop through Sussex, and maybe see if he can get hold of these two, almost out of print, books by this, nearly unheard of, author. (He could also read this critique while he’s at it, and possibly this follow up too.)

He also condemns tied aid. Great. But once again not new. Same with fragmentation. Campaigns such as One and Make Poverty History have been raising these issues for years, and they’re at the heart of the Paris Declaration (the donor nations’ own statement of intent).

Of course, none of the issues above have been resolved yet – so all power to Mr Easterly in his efforts to keep the flame burning. But it would be nice – given his propensity to ridicule aid practitioners (the One campaign in particular) – if he acknowledged that he isn’t the only one pushing for change.

More generally, Easterly’s comments are symptomatic of a larger issue – it’s surprising how few academics working on development related work really understand the work of aid agencies and NGOs: the trade offs involved; the role of politics and ideology; and the long, winding road towards (we hope) better practice. Which is a pity, because the two communities – practitioners and academics – have a lot to offer each other.

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