More and Better Aid – Bill Easterly Style

September 3, 2009

There is no inherent tension between reforming our aid system to make it more effective, transparent and accountable, and scaling up funding for projects that are making a demonstrable difference in the lives of the world’s poor.

More and better aid.

A focus on aid effectiveness alone ignores the very obvious point that there are numerous practical steps that can be taken immediately to be ameliorating the lives of the world’s poorest and contributing to poverty alleviation – a necessary foundation for development.

Why the single minded focus on aid effectiveness when we know that the limiting factor in many instances is financial.  Primary education, food production, disease control, health, infrastructure, are all in many instances limited by the funds available to be deployed on them.

Of course no one is saying that the primary barrier in all instances is financial, or that aid is a stand alone solution.  That, however, seems to be the focus of many of Professor Easterly’s writings.

His books, in many places, tell a very different story than many of the article he writes.  The short articles are, however, what many people with limited time and understanding of the issues base their opinions on to justify inaction.

It is all about your audience.

If Professor Easterly does not want to be facilitating a drop off of engagement in people who are just starting to be informed and involved in these issues he should be much more overt about it.

Squash the projects that don’t work and advocate for more aid going to the ones that do.  It is not one or the other, it is both.

More and better aid.

Finally, and I am repeating this because I have never seen a good answer to it.  Professor Easterly, in The White Man’s Burden writes:

“Put the focus back where it belong: get the poorest people in the world such obvious goods as the vaccines, the antibiotics, the food supplements, the improved seeds, the fertilizer, the roads, the boreholes, the water pipes, the textbooks, and the nurses. This is not making the poor dependent on handouts; it is giving the poorest people the health, nutrition, education, and other inputs that raise the payoff to their own efforts to better their lives.”

Is that planning?  No, it is just good common sense.  Why can’t we have more aid like that?

Why doesn’t Professor Easterly advocate for more aid to be spent like that instead of just focusing on aid effectiveness?  Has anyone heard a good answer for this?

More and better aid – Bill Easterly style.

Criticizing, Problem Solving and Searching

September 1, 2009

This piece was written for publication on Aid Watch: Just Asking that Aid Benefit the Poor.

I actually agree with much of what Professor Easterly writes and think he does some great things.  I also believe there is the potential for him to be making much more of a productive difference in the proverbial debate around poverty alleviation than is currently happening.

In that light, several colleagues and I from Students To End Extreme Poverty, have just launched a blog called Bill Easterly Watch:  Just Asking that Bill Stop Blowing Over Straw Men.  The name is pretty self explanatory.

In our opinion, NGOs and governments should be accountable – so should Professor Easterly.

Criticizing and problem solving are different.  Criticizing, in my analysis, is at best one third of the equation, and typically the easiest third.  Broadly speaking, criticizing can be the first step in positive change.  The next is figuring out – searching – what to do about it, the third is doing it, seeing what works and what doesn’t and if applicable how it can happen elsewhere.

The aid system is broken.  That is the starting point, not the ending point.  It’s easy to criticize, much harder to support or propose alternatives.  Mind you, if there were enough people focusing on the “solutions” it would be a different story and criticizing alone would be sufficient, but there are not enough people involved in meaningful ways so unless you are proposing alternatives a great deal of evidence does actually point to the potential to be discouraging more people than you are encouraging.

Unless this is the desired outcome Professor Easterly was hoping for, a strong argument can be made for amending his chosen approach.

I’ve spoken with countless people that cite Professor Easterly’s arguments as reasons for inaction, not just on aid but on the entire gamut of issues facing the world’s poorest.

Just telling someone to go out and search for solutions, when the social infrastructure is not in place to support people’s positive actions, as it isn’t, will not contribute to positive change in most instances.

We need internal and external emotional harmony to be happy people.  If we believe we are good (which most of us do) we need to reconcile our actions with our exterior environment.  What does this mean?   Good people do not ignore 9.2 million children dying every year from poverty related causes.  Therefore when confronted with this fact, if there is no social infrastructure in place (which there isn’t) allowing people to make a real tangible difference, there is a natural tendency for one to become cynical about the possibilities for change.  This also means, if you criticize an approach without suggesting a feasible alternative, chances are, except in a far too rare set of circumstances, people will give up on being involved.  I know, it’s sad hey.

Essentially, we are concerned that some of his arguments are not very well fleshed out, based on dramatic oversimplifications of complex issues and in several instances even miss the point.

The dichotomy between searchers and planners is a false one and a lot of planning is born out of searching.

The transformation of aid that is spoken about frequently here won’t happen without a critical mass of informed citizens who are willing to take actions collectively on the issues meaning you need all spheres of society involved.  This means that celebrity involvement can be a crucial component for getting people involved on an introductory level – usually the starting point for deeper more meaningful engagement – facilitating a tipping point and for norm promotion.

It doesn’t make sense to hold aid given for non development purposes to development outcomes but that’s what the $2.3 trillion in wasted aid argument, which is $15 per person per year, does.  We want to talk about that.

Students To End Extreme Poverty is all about healthy debate, accountability, innovation, searching and most of all solutions.  We believe, as is demonstrable, that aid can work, and there should be more of it that does work – more and better aid.  We think this is something that, with a little bit more prodding, Professor Easterly can support as well.

Welcome to Bill Easterly Watch

August 30, 2009

Welcome to Bill Easterly Watch.  We actually agree with a fair amount of what Professor Easterly says, however, we see the broken system as the starting point, not the ending point and we don’t think just criticizing without proposing alternatives is making a productive difference.  A point which will be elaborated on in  a future post.

This entire aid “debate” which Bill has placed himself in the center of, hinges on false dichotomies and broad generalizations.  “Huge” amounts of “aid” money have been wasted.  Most of it was given for purposes having nothing to do with development so holding it to development outcomes seems a little silly.  Until the end of the Cold War speaking about “aid” can be somewhat of misleading because it was pretty much used to buy geopolitical allies (very little went for development) so that’s pretty much a write off and useless for trying to gauge future outcomes.

Also, the “huge” amounts of wasted aid referenced by Easterly break down to be very little on a per capita basis.  $2.3 trillion in aid has been spent in the last 50 years.  That also works out to be around $15 per person per year.  Again most of which was given for purposes having nothing to do with development.  Here might I highlight the better part of the more and better aid policy demand of various advocacy organizations.

$15 per person most of which was given for non development purposes, lots of which went to technical consultants or warlords or dictators, lots of which was wasted (on the prerogative of the donors), while confronting the world’s worst pandemic disease, amidst decolonization and countless struggles for power (many of which were funded and fueled by the donors at the expense of the recipients) did not single handedly lift all of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations of the world out of extreme poverty and spur economic growth so therefore we should end aid?

I might be alone here, but the argument that you need to learn how to manage your $15 better seems  a little ridiculous.  Especially keeping in mind that the $15 we’re talking about is one week’s worth of subsidies for a cow in the EU or that in North America we spend a couple thousand annually per person on health care.  Never mind the $18 Trillion that went to bailouts let alone the $14 Billion that went to Wall Street bonuses.  Human equality?  Anyone?


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