Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Well-Placed Skepticism

Easterly mourns that his and others' critiques are not heeded and the same, tired arguments appear in the same manner as before. In studying the effectiveness of aid criticism, he begins to despair of its usefulness. It's mostly the Millennium Villages Project not listening at the moment, with another, British-led MVP preparing to strike out in a non-randomized fashion in an area of Ghana chosen by the Ghanan government (endogeneity, anyone?).

Barder, who is much more optimistic about what aid accomplishes than Easterly, is also skeptical. He's skeptical that we even need to convince people that development is a good thing. Therefore, the arguments that we need more aid in the national interest are missing the target. People need to be convinced that the aid is effective, and then they jump in gladly, he argues from past focus group sessions. Part of that conviction comes from greater humility in promising what aid can do: we can build schools (ensuring high quality education is harder); we can vaccinate people; we can produce improved seed varieties ethically that increase production; we can do very specific, small-sounding interventions. "The more we defend aid mainly on the basis that it is in our national interest, the more likely it is to be bent to our short-term commercial and strategic interests, the more ineffectively it will be used, the harder it will be to demonstrate its benefits, and the greater the justification for public scepticism." The comments are well-worth reading, particularly the argument that the national interest argument is needed in convincing many US conservatives to work with multilateral organizations.

On net-positive spillovers from emigration (aka Brain Gain, the opposite of the Brain Drain).

Easterly has argued that it was a mistake to give so much aid to Egypt, though the evidence for the conclusion is nothing but a pie chart showing that a lot of aid went through government hands. Birdsall says the question is pretty difficult to answer. "As Nicolas van de Walle shows here, leaders get worse at leading the longer they stay. He recommends donors exit if a leader stays more than 12 years." But does that mean that things (which ones?) would be better in Egypt, Israel, and the Middle East if the US had stopped sending aid that direction 18 years ago? Or as Douthat puts it:
“But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.”
Oh, and if you're going to forecast the future, make sure you aren't wrong in Romania just in case they decide to try you as a witch.

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