A Week in Rewind: ‘The Great Aid Debate’

This week has been kind of a blur for development economics. The publishing of the annual letter on aid and development by the Gates Foundation sparked the dry kindling that is “the great aid debate” (or perhaps better known as Jeff Sachs vs. EVERYBODY else).

If you happened to miss all of this (a.k.a. if you don’t have a Twitter account) or if your head is spinning and you don’t know what to think; allow me to (try to) make some sense of the letter, articles, blog posts, and tweets that have been published and republished this week.

On Monday the Wall Street Journal published a summary of the annual letter on aid and development from the Gates Foundation (@GatesFoundation), which has become quite the anticipated parcel of digital mail in recent years. This is mainly because it is quickly becoming one of the only well written and thoughtful public documents about aid and development that is actually readable for the general public.

The letter had three main points: (1) “Poor countries are not destined to be poor”, (2) “Foreign aid works”, and (3) “Increasing health and life spans will not lead to overpopulation”.

To pimp the letter, Bill Gates (@BillGates) was a guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (@jimmyfallon) where he talked about the future of the world, foreign aid, and tried to settle a 25-year-old dispute with the Tonight Show. A dispute—between a biologist and an economist about overpopulation—that actually has been already settled, by an actual bet, and was recently covered by the NPR radio show Planet Money (@PlanetMoney). Spoiler, the economist won the bet.

Shortly after, Chris Blattman, (@CBlatts) an Assistant Professor of Political Economy and Development at Columbia University and an excellent blogger on aid and development graded Gates Foundation letter as if the letter was a response to an exam question. Overall Bill and Malinda (@MalindaGates) received an A-. The letter looses points for missing critical nuance on questions such as “does aid work?” and “exuberant optimism about the future of the world when simple optimism would do just fine”.

Without missing out on the opportunity Jeff Sachs (@JeffDSachs) published an article via Foreign Policy .com explaining why we shouldn’t give up on giving aid to the poor. In the article Sachs makes a strong claim that aid is actually very important to saving the lives of the vulnerable around the world, specifically preventing deaths due to malaria and tuberculosis. The piece is also obviously a response to a recent article by Bill Easterly in which he reviews a new book about “Sachs’ quest to end poverty” by the exceptional journalist Nina Munk (@ninamunk).

Meanwhile, Easterly (@bill_easterly) was tweeting sarcastic and critical remarks about the Gates Foundation letter and (of course) Jeff Sachs.

@bill_easterly: Gates: “Development during aid, therefore aid works”. Development during sunshine, therefore sunshine works.

@bill_easterly: Sachs strikes back at me on aid.

@bill_easterly: Well at least Sachs didn’t mention my bald spot.

Next comes a bevy of blog posts offering unique perspectives and thoughts on this whole debate. Due to the nature of blogs (yes, I am aware I am writing in my own blog) one has to weed through a lot of junk to find the good stuff. I have done this, and this blog post is the best of the week.

Brett Keller (@brettkeller), a blogger on public health and development living in Washington DC laments the direction “the aid debate” has gone and offers a theory on why so many aid and development experts disagree with Jeff Sachs.

The debate surrounding Jeff Sachs vs. everybody who studies aid and development as a profession is so polarizing because “it is hard to tell when Sachs is being a scientist, and when he is being an advocate. He benefits by being perceived as the former, but in reality is much more of the later”.

For some clarification on the difference between scientists and advocates use these categories: Advocates are Bill Gates, Malinda Gates, Bono, Angelina Jolie, and George Clooney. Scientists are Angus Deaton, Amartya Sen, Ester Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, Dean Karlan (@deankarlan), Michael Clemons (@m_clem), Chris Blattman, and Bill Easterly. Jeff Sachs has his feet in both camps.

The aid debate currently just asks the question “does aid work?” Perhaps we should be asking questions like: “Under what conditions does aid make a difference?” “What can we do to increase the efficacy of aid?” and “What kinds of aid should we continue and what kinds should we abolish all together?”

Quoting another blog Keller points out:

“The question “does policy work” is jarring, because we immediately realize that it makes little sense. Governments have about 20-30 different Ministries, which immediately imply at least 20-30 different areas of policy. Does which one work? We have health and education policy, infrastructure policy (roads, water, energy), trade policy, monetary policy, public financial management, employment policy, disaster response, financial sector policy, climate and environment policy, to name just a few. It makes very little sense to ask if they all collectively “work” or are “effective”. Foreign aid is similar. Aid supports all of these different areas of policy….”

Keller concludes by stating that “most smart folks working on these issues would agree that: (1) A lot of aid projects don’t work, and some of them do harm; and (2) Some aid, especially certain types of health projects, works extremely well.” Now, wouldn’t it be great if “the aid debate” focused on more nuanced and specific questions rather than unanswerable questions like “does aid work?”

Then (and this is not a joke) Foreign policy .com made this photo the background of the homepage of their website. Incredible! For perhaps the first time ever development economics became part of popular culture. I think this works perfectly with the new fantasy economist online game highlighted by the Freakonomics (@Freakonomics) blog.

Finally Bill Easterly posted something substantial to add to the craziness of the week. In a half blistering half lethargic response Easterly claims Sachs has moved on from his original “Big Push” aid claims found in The End of Poverty (2005). Just like Marx wouldn’t be Marxist, J.S. Mill wouldn’t be Millian, Ricardo wouldn’t be Reicardian, and Smith wouldn’t be Smithian; it seems Sachs is not Sachsian. Easterly also pleads for the Sachs vs. Easterly aid debate end so that he can “participate in bigger debates on development”.

Easterly adds that aid and development are now separate topics with separate debates. Sachs is now solely concerned with the debate about aid while other development economists are spending time actually thinking about development.

Paradoxically in listing the debates he would prefer spending more time on Easterly still couldn’t resist taking a jab at Sachs.

“… the bigger debates on development. Why does the development discussion show so much indifference to the most basic political and economic rights of the poor? Could the ‘benevolent dictators’ such as the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia—who Jeff Sachs often praises (he even thanked Meles in the acknowledgements to The End of Poverty)—be the problem and not the solution? Don’t we see individual rights in our own societies as both desirable in themselves and how we escaped our own poverty? Why do we see things so differently for poor societies?”

To this I tweeted: @JeffBloem: A response by @bill_easterly to @JeffDSachs and why it is time to move onto bigger (and better) debates.

To what Jeff Sachs himself replied: @JeffDSachs: @JeffBloem Easterly started debate on malaria in WMB, Ch. 1, 2006. When proved wrong, he says its time to move on, & misquotes me again.

To what I replied: @JeffBloem: @JeffDSachs Truth is you both can be “proved wrong” and “misquoted” but, you both have made a lot of people think about poverty reduction.

(I know, totally lame. How often does someone like me get to have a conversation with Dr. Shock himself—even if it is via Twitter? I just panicked.)

Next Easterly turned his attention to Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation letter in an article published in the Financial Times Opinion section. He says, “Western vanities do little to help the world’s poor”. Essentially claiming Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation care more about pushing an ideology than about what said ideology actually does in the world. A cheap point coming from someone who himself has done a lot to push an ideology in the West. (I mean, his best selling book is literally written to the “white man”.)

Easterly goes on to makes some better points:

“Mr. Gates says there has been much progress, but that “we’ll need to apply human ingenuity and act on our compassion” to keep it going. Conversely, he equates the idea that “the world is getting worse” to the idea that “we can’t solve extreme poverty and disease”. For Mr. Gates, apparently, much depends on what “we” do. But who are “we”, and who put us in charge? Mr. Gates seems to have in mind the global elite whose most prominent representatives were this week assembled in Davos: political leaders, business executives, philanthropists, academics and functionaries from international institutions such as the World Bank.”

Easterly ends as if he is not a world-renowned academic and Western elite. Saying,

“Mr. Gates is right that the world’s rich should do more to support public health programs that work. He is right, too, to decry the time wasted arguing over whether aid works. But the reason he gives – that the argument should concentrate on how to make aid work better – is the wrong one. Aid spending is a drop in the ocean of the budgets of the governments that give it and the economies of the countries that receive it. Whether it works scarcely matters for development.

The obsession with international aid is a rich-world vanity that exaggerates the importance of western elites. It is comforting to imagine that benevolent leaders advised by wise experts could make the poor world rich. But this is a condescending fantasy.”

To this I tweeted: @Jeff Bloem: Ok, @bill_easterly, @JeffDSachs, and @BillGates let’s stop the “us” and “them”, “we” and “they” distinctions.

Which was retweeted by Bill Easterly himself.

Here is my take on “the great aid debate”:

To focus on the question “does aid work?” (Which is posed in the Gates Foundation letter) is a complete, total, and tiresome waste of time.

First we need to understand what we mean by “aid”. Are we talking about aid from government to government? If so, to which ministry or agency is the aid earmarked for? Are we talking about aid for disaster relief? If so, what constitutes a disaster, does it have to be natural? Are we talking about aid from churches or small organizations giving free school supplies or building materials to churches or small organizations in other countries? If so, do we realize how little of an effect this actually has?

Next, we need to know what we mean by “work”. What is our conceptualization of development? Do we desire people to make more money? Do we want fewer children to die of preventable diseases? Do we want to decrease inequality? Do we want to build democracy? Do we want to expand realized freedoms and capabilities for all to live lives of worth and satisfaction?

We need to understand the importance of the following axiom: Behind every aid project, development program, or international NGO there is a philosophical anthropology; there is an implicit understanding of what it means to be human and a conceptualization of “the good life”.

To avoid sounding “too academic” I will spare you the reason on why it also depends on what we mean by “does”.

The correct answer to “does aid work” is… it depends on the medium of aid, where the aid is actually going, and what the implicit goal of development is for whoever is answering the question.

To answer this question correctly those who are involved in aid and development need to make evaluative decisions based on actual evidence rather than tradition or historical anecdotes or hunch or feelings or textbook theory. They need to actually talk to the people the aid targets, collect data, set up control groups, collect more data and learn if what is being done should be scaled up or shut down.

That is it. It sounds easy, but is actually challenging. It takes time sitting in the thatched roofed homes and street side businesses of the global poor. It takes specific knowledge on how to gather and analyze data. Done correctly, aid and development takes commitment and skill.

Aid and development do not have to be separate topics with separate discussions and separate debates. If we start by asking small questions about the effectiveness of individual aid projects with a distinct and shared vision of the end goal of development we can begin to make a real difference and create a better world in the future.

Economists have been debating the big questions for decades. See J.M. Keynes vs. F.A. Hayek. While these debates make for some great YouTube videos (Keynes v Hayek Part 1 and part 2) they don’t really teach us anything substantive about how the world works. The debate between Sachs and Easterly should probably be over, but not because either “won the debate”. The topic just needs to focus on smaller (more specific rather than bigger and more general) and better debates.

5 responses to “A Week in Rewind: ‘The Great Aid Debate’”

  1. […] 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). […]

  2. […] 1. A Week in Rewind: “The Great Aid Debate’ […]

  3. […] brushed over in the aid vs. trade debate. (Which apparently is still a thing, because my post on ‘The Great Aid Debate’ is still constantly one of my most viewed blog […]

  4. […] I’ve written about before, painting “aid” as a singular thing uses a brush that is a bit too wide. Aid takes many […]

  5. […] a fascinating debate in Foreign Affairs about the plight of the DRC. It has been a while since the last time I summarized a development debate, but I think it will be helpful to summarize what is going on […]

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