Waylaid Dialectic

April 21, 2014

Make Hot Air History

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:58 pm
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In a field with so many big questions — does democracy promote growth on average? (probably), does aid promote growth on average? (quite possibly), can the planet industrialise within environmental constraints? (technologically probably yes; the problem is political economy) — it seems silly to devote space to a small one. But hey, this is a small blog, so…

…over the last few weeks I’ve been pondering the following: out of Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Easterly who has done more to impoverish development discourse in recent years? It’s a close run thing.

Easterly’s new book, judging by the reviews, is meandering and misleading. Sachs’ defence of himself the Millennium Villages on Econtalk was agonising.

It didn’t have to be this way: White Man’s Burden and End of Poverty, were useful books, even if they were both wrong for the most part. And both E&S have written great papers in years past (Easterly some of my all time favourite papers). Yet the inescapable fact would seem to be that both of them have become so caught up in their own Big Ideas they’ve become ideologues of the first order. (Given the ideology he advocates, the irony of Easterly doing this is particularly rich, bringing to mind Oakeshott’s critique of Hayek: “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.”)

Polemic’s fun of course, and even ideologues can still have good ideas. The trouble is development is difficult, there is a lot to learn, and nowhere near enough space to learn it in, and with all their bellowing, these two reduce that space even further.

July 29, 2012

Of Bill Easterly and Budget Constraints…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 11:19 am
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William Easterly chortles

Mr. Sachs loses AIDS debate to Mr. Budget Constraint

The World Bank hosted a debate (click on the above screen shot to get to the link for the whole webcast) on the proposition:

Continued AIDS investments by donors and governments is a sound investment, even in a resource-constrained environment.

Jeffrey Sachs and Michel Sidibé  (head of UNAIDS) argued in favor, and Mead Over and Roger England argued against. There was a show of hands of the audience pro and con before and after. As Mead Over reports, nobody was surprised that a vast majority was pro before the debate; the surprise was that a substantial minority changed their minds to con after the debate.

Mead Over has written a post summarizing the debate, paraphrasing in his words each participant’s argument (see the video linked above if you want the exact words of each). Here is Mr. Sachs:

Jeff Sachs: This debate is a sham, because resources are not really scarce. With financial transactions taxes and higher taxes on the rich we would have more than enough money to address all the health problems of the world.

Mead Over and Roger England argued that, in the real world, alas, there really is a budget constraint on health and on everything else.

The cost of pretending this budget constraint does not exist, they argued, is that the lives saved by increasing AIDS spending cause many more lives to be lost when AIDS crowds out more cost-effective health interventions.

…Sounds like Mr. Budget Constraint did win the debate.

End chortle.

Sure, there are trade-offs in the World of aid. But Sachs is clearly also right, as a proportion of GNI developed country aid budgets are puny. We could give a lot more. And by doing this ease those trade-offs a little.

Why don’t we give more aid?

There are lots of reasons, but one of them is surely the small armada of professional aid sceptics like Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly (at least in polemic mode) who argue the case against aid. Sure, there are also times when Easterly, including in this blog post, points out that some aid can work, but the overarching tone in his polemic work at least is that: donors are venal, aid doesn’t work, and that markets are enough.

These are comforting words to readers of the Wall Street journal, and to organisations funding the Development Research Institute like the Earhart Foundation, the Thomas W, Smith Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, the John Templeton Foundation. But they are also words that help the cause of those who prefer for ideological reasons that we give less aid rather than more. And because of this, they are words which play a role in constraining possible future aid increases.

And this is, in turn, helps perpetuate the ugly world of aid trade-offs, where we have to decide whether to try and save the life of someone with aids, or someone with Malaria.

To be clear I’m not saying Professor Easterly is a Bad Person, I agree with some of what he writes (a great example of Easterly supporting a good cause is here), and find his academic work useful. I also think the world of aid needs critique.

But this critique needs to be good faith rather than bad faith, and thoughtful rather than polemic. Otherwise, you just end up with less aid rather than better aid.

When Mr Budget Constraint wins he kills people, and if I were Professor Easterly I would not chuckle about this.

January 18, 2011

Fashion Correlations Continued…

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 4:40 pm

In an example of the helpful statistical work that economists so often undertake, William Easterly has examined the correlation between the fashion sense of dictators and the fashion sense of celebrities in favour of aid giving.

The trouble with such analysis, of course, is that it is often vulnerable to refutation once the data set is expanded.

And so, eager to make my name by preemptively knocking over what is sure to become a seminal study, I had a go at this. Including an additional ‘critical case’. The results can be found below.

Alas, it doesn’t seem as though I’ve shaken the original findings…

Oh well.

November 28, 2010

Post Development, Post Caring About it?

Filed under: Aid,Development Philosophy — terence @ 5:19 pm
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“The main strength of the book is that it reasserts the importance of economic growth for improving people’s lives and pulling households out of poverty. Proponents of anti- or post-development would do well to read part 1.”

~ Stuart Corbridge from his review [gated] of William Easterly’s Elusive Quest for Growth.

“If for no other reason, it is worth commending post-development for the kick up the backside it delivers to the cosy and complacent worlds of the Washington Consensus.”

~ Stuart Corbridge from his review [gated] of books by Rist, Esteva and Prakash,  Ranema and Bawtree, and Cooper and Packard.

click here to read more

September 21, 2010

William Easterly: Libertarians all talk

Filed under: Aid,Governance,Institutions,Social Justice — terence @ 1:06 pm
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Meanwhile, in a helpful post at AidWatch, libertarian aid blogger William Easterly outlines in a diagramme one of the main shortcomings of modern libertarianism: when it comes to issues such as human rights and dictatorship in developing countries, libertarians are all talk and no action.

Of course, there are times when there is no better option than not to act, but it seems to me that to declare from the outset that you’re against all intervention, whilst at the same time professing to care about human rights, is simply another strategy for thwarting change and protecting privilege, while appearing ethical yourself.

Easterly’s post is a good illustration of this. Aid agencies face a real dilemma when dealing with authoritarian states: if they provide aid they may, in effect, be propping such states up, on the other hand, if they withdraw aid they may do nothing to bring about regime change and simply harm the very people they were hoping to help. Or worse, as recent research appears to show [pdf] (h/t the Monkey Cage), rapid aid withdrawal may well lead to armed conflict.

What’s more, it’s very hard for an aid agency to openly criticise a host country: official government aid agencies aren’t actually mandated to do this (criticism must come from their political masters) and, for NGOs, criticism usually leads to being expelled – in other words withdrawing your aid.

Which isn’t to say that aid agencies should never criticise repressive regimes or that they should never withdraw their support. Rather, as I’ve pointed out before on this blog, the point is that there is a dilemma. A challenge with no easy answers. This is the sort of thing aid agencies have to negotiate all the time. And it would be nice if at some point William Easterly would stop polishing his own halo long enough to acknowledge this.

August 1, 2010

The trouble with bad reviews…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 7:39 pm
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It’s revealing, albeit depressing, I think, that William Easterly believes the roll of himself and fellow ‘aid-watchers’ to be similar to that of movie critics.

Depressing insomuch as that if one of the smartest, most high profile voices in the aid debate really thinks that development work is like making movies, and good development critique similar to movie reviews, the odds of aid getting better anytime soon are really, really low.

To spell it out…movies are simple: the good things about good movies are obvious and the bad things about bad ones pretty darn plain too. With a lot of aid work it isn’t that easy. Sure, some aid is unambiguously bad: be it SWEDOW, rent-a-dictator, tied aid, or aid bound to ideologically driven conditionality. This stuff is (usually) easy to spot, rarely helpful to people living in developing countries, and worthy of strong critique. Worthy of polemic. But in the case of a lot of aid things ain’t that clear. Did it work? Maybe. Could it have been done better? perhaps. Were there very real dilemmas involved? Definitely.

Take, for example, the case of aid to authoritarian regimes. If you give it you’ll be collaborating with anti-democratic forces and may end up empowering the regime and stymieing systematic change. If you withhold it, on the other hand, the good the aid was doing will also be withheld and there’s no guarantee that the regime will change. If you opt for the third way and only channel aid through non-governmental entities, you may end up supporting piecemeal inefficient work at the expense of the potential efficiencies of using government systems. Real dilemmas, but you’d never know about them from Aidwatch’s posts on Ethiopia, for example. I can understand the impulse for polemic in such instances, but the trouble is it really isn’t a pathway to solutions.

The other thing is, of course, that movies aren’t going anywhere. So long as people keep going to cinemas, movies will keep being made. Aid, on the other hand, is only secure as public support for it, either through private donations or taxes spent on ODA. And there’s a real danger that if too many books are written with snappy phrases in their titles such as “Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good” public support for aid may dry up and instead of giving better aid we’ll simply give less.

This of course, wouldn’t be an issue if aid indeed had done ‘so much harm and so little good’. But this isn’t the case. According to the best available cross country evidence, aid in aggregate has led to modest but real increases in recipient country economic growth rates. While there are good of examples of aid assisting in human development more generally (have a read of the book Millions Saved, or Roger Riddell’s Does Foreign Aid Really Work? for some of these.)

Just to be really, really clear: none of this is to say that aid should be beyond reproach. Or that every critic of aid is ill intended. Or that aid couldn’t be given a lot better. What I’m simply saying is that when you write about aid, when you criticise it, please don’t aspire to be a movie reviewer laying waste to the Latest Sex in the City sequel, don’t aim for the simple but memorable turn of phrase. Rather acknowledge the dilemmas and uncertainties. Think carefully about the message you really want to project. And think carefully about the way it will be interpreted. If you do this, you’ll be writing a terrible movie review, but you’d also be doing justice to the reality of aid.

May 30, 2010

Development Neologisms: Eastelytize

Filed under: Aid,Development Neologisms,Random Musings — terence @ 12:23 pm
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To Eastelytize: To propound through sermon, speech, or blog post the claim that development is far too complex to be amenable to any simplistic solution. Except your own.

Inspired by this comment on Aidwatch and also Robert Wade’s comments on Development Drums.

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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