Apparently, “the Aid Debate is Over.” We Can All Go Home Now.

I was just checking out Bill Easterly’s (author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good) article in the January issue of Reason, “The Aid Debate is Over.” (I wonder if he noticed that he had written an article called “The Big Aid Debate is Over” back in October of 2013.)

Yet again, Easterly uses Jeff Sachs as his academic punching bag. Sometimes I wonder if those two really just like each other a great deal, but go to great lengths to hate on each other in public.

I’m somewhat interested in his derisive tone towards technology:

Jeffrey Sachs’ formula for ending poverty was appealingly simple. All the problems of poverty, the famous Columbia University economist argued, had discrete technological fixes. Bed nets could prevent malaria-spreading mosquito bites. Wells could provide clean water. Hospitals could treat curable diseases. Fertilizer could increase yields of food crops.

Through a recent book on Sachs by Nina Munk (author of: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty), he goes on to expose the failings of Sachs’ “Millenium Villages” experiment. Sachs wanted to test the hypothesis that throwing money at the poor and solving their basic ills would get the wheels rolling and free them from the chains of poverty for good.

Sachs’ technical fixes frequently turned out to be anything but simple. The saga of Dertu’s wells is illustrative. Ahmed Mohamed, the local man in charge of the effort, discovers that he needs to order a crucial part for a generator that powers the wells. The piece takes four months to arrive, and then nobody knows how to install it. Eventually a distant mechanic arrives at great expense. A couple of years later, Munk returns to find Mohamed struggling with the same issues: The wells have broken down again, the parts are lacking, and nobody knows how to fix the problem.

Easterly then moves on to use Sachs “failures” to criticize the current trend in development which uses small targeted programs which lend themselves to easy evaluation and implementation. People will often work on localized water development programs, or experiment with ways to help small farmers. Behavioral economists will attempt to use cash incentives to get parents to send their children to school. The thinking is that if projects are too big, they become unwieldy and impossible to properly implement.

Easterly believes that development should come from releasing countries from the shackles of bad policy. If the economic policy of a country is too intrusive or bureaucratic to allow the market to function properly, the policy should be changed.

We can now see that aid and development are two distinct topics that should each have their own separate debates. If today’s development economists talk only about what can be tested with a small randomized experiment, they confine themselves to the small aid conversation and leave the big development discussion to others, too often the types of advocates who appeal to anecdotes, prejudice, and partisanship. It would be much better to confront the big issues, such as the role of political and economic freedom in achieving development.

I mostly agree with Easterly’s position. The problems of poverty are mostly problems of the market. Even within Kenya, for example, high value companies must follow a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to do business, following 10 procedures and taking an average of 32 days from initial application to license. To put it in perspective, in the States, you’ll have to jump through 6 hurdles and it will take you five days. In developed countries, that’s considered extreme. In New Zealand, there’s only one step and it takes all of four hours.

Setting up a fruit stand may be easy, but profits slim, business slow and tax revenues are impossible to collect. Setting up a new wage paying transport company to move massive amounts of fruits from producers to markets efficiently is a bigger bureaucratic challenge, though the long term benefits are massive. Reducing the number of gatekeeper would go a long way to allowing these industries to grow.

However, aid and social programs are not ineffective. Though Easterly loves to beat up on Sachs, painting aid with a broad brush is unsatisfying. Sure, the water pump in one village may break, parts may be difficult to obtain and expertise hard to find when things go wrong, but the simple fact is that some people are getting water where they couldn’t before. Internationally funded distributions of bed nets have reduced malaria incidence and mortality all across the continent. There are a lot of kids alive today who would have died a decade ago.

Naively, I measure social progress through dead kids. There’s no way to measure the level of devastation that families feel when children needlessly die and the negative impacts on society and development are vast. Anything which keeps kids from dying is a good thing.

My view is that the macro and micro level development strategies need to work in tandem. Bed nets need to be distributed and water pumps provided. Aid programs which increase access to capital and training need to be strengthened. Evaluation of programs will be important to insure that waste is minimized and report successes. But we also need to see the end of unnecessary regulatory hurdles which do nothing but foster corruption and hamper the ability for countries to develop their market sectors.

Aid programs and market oriented regulatory reform developing countries will insure that short term problems are ameliorated and insure long term sustainability of current gains. While probably patently obvious, a combination of these two strategies will go a long way toward improving the public health and making sure that kids don’t die.


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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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