“Even Nothing Is Something”

Periodically an adjunct professor from the United States comes to teach a class here at the Africa Theological Seminary. Besides teaching, they really don’t have a whole lot to do, so (with some of these people) I end up spending evenings talking with them about stuff, in general. A couple weeks ago a new professor arrived on campus. I introduced myself after our weekly chapel service and when he learned that I had been in Kenya for almost a year, he said he had some questions for me.

Later that evening we sat outside and he told me about this village he “has a heart for”. Every time he teaches at ATS in Kitale he travels about an hour “into the bush” to visit this village. No water. No electricity. The school has dirt floors. He really feels like he needs to do something. He asked my opinions on several well known aid and development programs and agencies. World Vision (excellent theory of change, but no evidence proving it’s efficacy). Compassion International (weak theory of change, but rigorous evidence proving it’s efficacy). Hope International (fine work, but less than promising in a community with no water, electricity, and – likely – weak access to markets).

Like so many people who experience the reality of life in a village like the one he visits, he feels an inextricable (perhaps even spiritual) feeing to to do something. I went to bed that night thinking about everything I’ve learned through my studies in college and through my experiences in Panama, Ghana, and Kenya. I wrestled with this feeling to do something, felt by so many (including myself). As slumber set in, I lazily concluded: sometimes something is nothing.

Maybe due to the smallness of the aid and development community or perhaps the bigness of the on-line blogging community, an article was written about just this topic as I lay awake in my bed. The Center for Global Development (an independent think tank in DC) Views from the Center blog published a piece entitled “But Isn’t Doing Something Better than Doing Nothing?” by Willa Friedman, who found herself in a predicament, similar to my own, with her mother’s Dining for Women group.

On a recent trip home, I visited my mother’s Dining for Women group, where her friends raise money for small projects in developing countries, while learning more about the surrounding issues. I went to provide some background on education in Kenya. After telling me how much I’ve grown since the last time they’ve seen me, the members of the group asked for my thoughts about various aid or charity programs that they’ve heard about. After I hesitantly admitted some skepticism about the ability of a lot of interventions to generate noticeable improvements in well-being, one looked at me and asked, somewhat incredulously, “But isn’t doing something better than doing nothing?” At the time, I responded vaguely, with “Well, I’m not sure,” and wandered off to get another delicious homemade brownie.

I get it. It’s really uncomfortable to sit by when people are suffering. And this discomfort should motivate action. But this doesn’t mean that all well-intentioned somethings are better than nothing.

This is just the kind of jaded opinion many who spend time studying and working on development projects possess. Reason being: much of what is happening in developing countries doesn’t work and (setting aside the waste of financial resources) actually makes things worse. This conclusion, however, is not just from Western aid and development workers with experience in developing countries. Teju Cole, Nigerian novelist and essayist, echos this same conclusion in his rant (I mean reaction) to the #Bringbackourgirls mania. Willa continues:

Yesterday, the American Economic Review published two excellent articles that clearly demonstrate this point. Each paper identified a situation in which there appears to be strong evidence that aid resulted in an increase in violence.

Demonstrating such causality isn’t easy. Simply comparing places that get aid with places that don’t will not show the impact of aid, because aid is often targeted to places that are worse off. Finding that these places are more violent would merely demonstrate correlation, not a cause-effect relationship. Each of the papers uses a brilliant identification strategy to get around this issue, with devastating findings.

Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, in their paper US Food Aid and Civil Conflict, exploit a powerful determinant of food aid that has nothing to do with the place getting the aid. It turns out that an excellent predictor of how much food aid the US sends is how big the wheat surplus is in the US. The paper shows that when there’s more rain in the US, there’s more wheat production, and the US sends more food aid abroad. So the authors compare places that happened to have a famine during a year of good rains in the US (therefore, more likely to get food aid) with places that happened to have a famine during a year of bad rains in the US (less likely to get food aid). They find that this aid increases both the likelihood and the duration of civil conflict.

Benjamin Crost, Joseph Felter, and Patrick Johnston , in their paper Aid under Fire: Development Projects and Civil Conflict, estimate the impact of a World Bank-funded project in the Philippines in which eligibility for the program is determined by a fixed poverty threshold. Municipalities above this level are ineligible, while those below are eligible. The poorest and the richest are different, but those very close to the cut-off are very similar. By comparing subsequent violence in these municipalities, the authors find that this aid program increased the number of casualties.

Both of these papers are also important because they address causes of conflict over which someone has control. Poverty or natural resources may also cause variation in violence, but they’re a bit harder to change. Aid is a policy lever.

(Note: For those less familiar with the publishing environment of academic economic literature, the American Economic Review is super-prestigious and a publication in it essentially places any academic on a tenure track. I say this to point to the quality of these studies. Put some stock in what they say, even if you don’t understand the statistics.)

Both of these papers point to the reality of aid programs not only failing to make things better but actually making things worse, a lot worse, as in causing more people to die due to civil conflict.

To be clear, (and as Willa points out) this does not, in any way, indicate that all aid projects are useless. Or that we should turn our back on aid. That sort of discussion paints with a brush much to broad to be fruitful and is the kind of oversimplification that typically causes projects to fail. The main point is that the world is a complex place, and incredibly so in developing countries with cultures and political systems foreign to ‘us’. There are certainly plenty of evidence of aid projects creating measurable and sustained benefits.

The feeling to do something is indeed nobel. I wish not quelled it. For those who share this feeling, especially those who feel the need to do something in a foreign culture and political system, ‘doing something’ must be done with tact, humility, and nuance. Most projects fail because of oversimplification and hubris. It is so hard for someone to come from a country where most things work to say, “I don’t know” in a country where most things don’t, but it is absolutely necessary. To do something well, we need to shed the ‘God complex’. The idea that we think we know we know what to do. We must constantly be open to learning through trial and error. Trying something new, measuring the impact, tweaking it, trying it again, measuring the impact again. This is how we ‘do something’ well.

Occasionally in this process, the conclusion that doing nothing is the most effective way to do something comes to the fore. In this case, with the appropriate understanding and knowledge, doing nothing is doing something.

This may be a bit disheartening and maybe a little discouraging. It is, however, sober and really the best way ‘we’ can do something that actually helps.

To end on a more positive (and humorous) note, this conclusion also happens to be the overarching lesson of nine incredible seasons of Seinfeld.

P.S. If you are a US citizen (and I believe the UK as well) one really easy way to help the global poor around the world (and life in general at home) is to push and vote for immigration reform. The current system slows the US economy and keeps poor people in poor countries poor.

1 thought on ““Even Nothing Is Something”

  1. Pingback: Top Posts of 2014 | Jeff Bloem

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