The aid debate doesn’t work, but it can be fixed

Three weeks ago I joked of a broken ceasefire of words between eminent development economists Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs. My attempt at levity regarding a protracted debate proved to be far more accurate than I intended.

Sachs replied to Easterly in Foreign Policy by also praising the latest Gates letter and then Easterly replied in turn. More debates were held on Twitter and another economist, Princeton’s Angus Deaton, joined Easterly in praising  a book critical of Sachs. For good measure, Easterly then responded to Bill Gates’s letter which, like Sachs, asserts the aid has worked.

Foreign Policy even thinks the debate is silly.
Foreign Policy even thinks the debate is silly.
Benjamin Pauker

To continue my previous metaphor of battle, the war over aid broke out this month. The problem is that the metaphor is wrong as is the conversation between economists.

The aid debate simply does not work. As someone who has been following it closely it is clear that opposing camps are unwilling to concede ground. The recent back and forth is not worth re-counting because nothing new is being said by any of the sides involved (if you have to know what happened, this is an excellent recap).

Easterly ended his Foreign Policy hoping that the debate is over, it would be for the best if he is right. Why? Because aid is not a single thing. Treating it as such lets proponents cast aside glaring problems and opponents ignore successes.

It is easy to fall in the trap of arguing over whether aid works or it is an utter failure. Figures like Sachs, Gates, Easterly and Deaton have all been important to the field of development. Sachs can rightly claim victories like the reduction of malaria deaths due to the free distribution of bednets. A capable advocate, Sachs worked with major humanitarian organizations and governments to get bednets into the hands of families across sub-Saharan Africa.

In that case, aid worked. The problem arises when single victories are held up as proof that all aid works. That simply does not stand up to evidence and basic reason. The truth is boring, but vitally important: some aid works and some aid does not. Further, the claim that aid causes development is tenuous at best.

Even Emma Thompson is sick of the aid debate.

The polarizing cases make sense from both an advocacy and rhetorical perspective. Sachs, Gates and aid supporters used broad-based claims to galvanize action. Saying that aid works is palatable to people who are opponents to aid for wide-ranging reasons. For fellow advocates, the claims are an empowering call to do more and act now in order to save lives. Health is generally the target because it is an area where aid has demonstrably worked and provides a clear case for the spending of money: fewer people are dying and more are living longer.

Criticisms of aid by Easterly, Deaton and others tends to be a reaction to the advocates. The critics find examples where aid has failed or how it has been used to prop up totalitarian regimes. Given the broad claims of the success of aid by advocates, critics then engage on the same rhetorical level by saying that aid has failed. It plays into people’s concerns about wasted government money, corruption and the jaded aid workers who have experienced more failure than success.

What results is disagreement that is more akin to left and right opponents on MSNBC and Fox News duking it out over the federal government. Facts and nuance be damned, government is either a horrible beast that steals money or it is the benevolent protector of all that is good. That is just simply not the case.

Not only that, it is damaging. People get riled up over the big idea battles and then start applying it to precise examples. Government haters say Obamacare is an expansion of powers over the US people and a way to extract more money. The argument is as silly as the suggestions that it has solved the problem of healthcare in the US. Actually determining what parts of US healthcare are working and failing will make things better.

Aid is exactly the same. Nobody should be asking whether or not aid works. The question is unhelpful. There is a debate to be had regarding aid, but it needs fixing.

We need to ask when certain types of aid work/fail and why. Ken Opallo recently posed (corrected) some of the kinds of questions that should be answered.

  • Under what conditions does aid make a difference?
  • What can we do to increase the efficacy of aid?
  • What kinds of aid should we continue and what kinds should we abolish all together?

These questions, and many more, are the ones that I hope to answer here on Humanosphere. With hundreds of millions of lives at stake, the business of doing good deserves scrutiny. Failures should be weeded out and successes championed. In the case of malaria bed nets, there are limits to distribution and increasing evidence of mosquito resistance to the insecticide used in the nets. New tactics are needed to control and possible eradicate malaria.

It is possible that aid could be a part of the malaria effort going forward or maybe it’s usefulness has expired. There are academics and reporters who are trying to answer these kinds of questions. That is where we are headed with Humanosphere.

I owe some credit to Brett Keller and Lee Crawfurd for already raising some of these ideas. They were in some way influential and I’d be remiss for not giving them their due credit for sparking these thoughts.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.

  • David Aronson

    And don’t neglect Acemoglu and Robinson’s contribution to this debate, with the article they published in The Spectator on the 25th. They argue that foreign aid has largely failed to promote development because policymakers have been loath to use it to tackle the predominant problem facing poor countries: Their continued exploitation at the hands of their own predatory (or extractive) elite.

  • Humanicontrarian

    Good piece. My take, in a nutshell? I always thought Easterly and Sachs were arguing apples and oranges. Don’t we need to distinguish between when aid works in terms of contributing to something good, an improvement such as Sachs’ malaria example, and where aid works in terms of contributing to development? Does aid lead countries, communities, people down the path of self-sufficiency? Or does it perform some other good, but is delivered in such a way and through such an apparatus as to undermine the self-sufficiency?

    • I absolutely agree. Those are exactly the types of questions that should be discussed and debated.