Saturday, February 4, 2012

Repost: I Really Have to Talk to Bono, Fin

Here’s and idea most Americans understand: “no taxation without representation.” What would happen if that sentiment changed to read “not intervention without representation?” (p.381) I found it really amazing that for all the years aid agencies have been working with the world’s poor no one has every done a survey to ask the poor if they were any better off after the intervention of the aid agency. Lack of feedback and accountability are the main problems Easterly sees in the current aid system. Things would improve greatly with the addition of those two things.

Throughout White Man’s Burden Easterly provides examples of “Searchers” who have done little things to make people’s lives better. He thinks aid agency should work with more “Searchers” to find solutions that work on the ground instead of in the boardroom. He knows that changing the way aid agencies work is not going to be easy.


There are good reasons why these solutions are not happening already. It is partly because of the social complexity of making even simple interventions work…. It is partly because the rich countries don’t care enough about making aid work for the poor and are willing to settle for grand utopian Plans that don’t work. It is partly because nobody is actually held accountable for making this intervention work inthis place at this time. My suggestion here could be ludicrously misguided; they should be subject to skeptical examination and ex post facto evaluation just like anything else. (p. 369 emphasis his)

Accountability is Easterly’s number one gripe. Currently there’s no one outside the aid agencies making sure that the aid agencies get results. He does have a couple of ideas for how to fix the problem:



Fix the incentive system of collective responsibility for multiple goals. Have individual accountability for individual tasks. Let aid agencies specialize in the sectors and countries they are best at helping. Then hold the agencies accountable for their results by having truly independent evaluations of their efforts.
Perhaps the aid agencies should set aside a portion of their budgets (such as the part now wasted on self-evaluation) to contribute to an international independent evaluation group made up of staff trained in the scientific method from the rich and poor countries, who will evaluate radon samples of each aid agency’s efforts. Evaluation will involve randomized controlled trials where feasible, less pure statistical analysis if not, and will at least be truly independent, even when randomized trials and statistical analysis are not feasible. Experiment with different methods of simply asking the poor if they are better off. Mobilize the altruistic people in rich countries to put heat on the agencies to make their money actually reach the poor, and get angry when the aid does not reach the poor. (p. 370 emphasis his)

One of the ideas I like is the “Development Voucher”



Suppose we issue development vouchers to target groups of the extreme poor, which the poor could redeem at any NGO or aid agency for any development good they wanted – for example, vaccinations, life-saving drugs, a health worker’s visit, an improved cookstove, textbooks, seeds, fertilizer, or food supplements. The official aid agencies would set aside some of their money for an independent “voucher fund” separate from the agencies. The poor would choose both the goods they wanted and the agency they wanted to deliver the goods and would give their vouchers to that agency. The agency could then turn in the vouchers to the voucher fund for real money to cover the costs of providing the development services. (p.378-379)

The explanation goes on for a few more paragraphs. The idea also includes “village vouchers” for things like roads, schools, health clinics etc. Easterly admits that the voucher idea might be the stupidest idea ever but so many ideas have already failed. A crazy plan might just be the way to go. With a voucher, system aid agencies would be forced to actually meet the needs of the poor and they would have to provide good service or the people would take their vouchers elsewhere. Just like in any other market place. The idea needs testing to see whether it would really work.

Here’s Easterly’s basic plan for aid reform:

Agents of assistance have to have incentive to search for what works to help the poor. If you want to aid the poor then:
1) Have aid agents individually accountable for individual, feasible areas of action that help poor people lift themselves up.
2) Let those agents search for what works, based on past experience in their area.
3) Experiment, based on the results of the search.
4) Evaluate, based on feedback from the intended beneficiaries and scientific testing.
5) Reward success and penalize failure. Get more money to interventions that are working, and take money away from interventions that are not working. Each aid agent should explore and specialize further in the direction of what they prove good at doing.
6) Make sure the incentives in 5) are strong enough to do more of what works, then repeat step 4). If action fails, make sure the incentive in 5) are strong enough to send the agent back to step 1). If the agent keeps failing, get a new one.

Easterly has one piece of advice for the activist: “you can change your issue from raising more aid money to making sure that the aid money reaches the poor.” (p.384)

As you can probably tell, Easterly has convinced me that things cannot go on the way they have been. Bono has made much of pointing out that what he’s advocating is a different kind of aid then the aid that has come before. My recent communication from the Global Fund has proved to me that nothing has changed.

Easterly has a “compare and contrast” chart early in his book that looks at something written in 1857 by socialist Robert Owen. Easterly compares various passages from his work to various passages in Jeffery Sachs’ The End of Poverty. The similarities are spooky. Owen’s big plan didn’t work then so why should we believe that Sachs’ similar plans will work now?


Alright. I’m done. If you want to know more you’ll just have to read the damn book.





Reposts are posts written for previous journals or other places online that no longer exist.

1 comment:

  1. I have just finished reading this book. It's good to have someone as intelligent as Easterly calling the development aid community on its various failings. It's an important book, but it's almost too revolutionary. It focuses more on shooting down current practice than offering solutions; the above covers most of the remedies suggested in the book.

    I think this book should be read in conjunction with Paul Collier's Bottom Billion, but more to the point, I think that agreement on some key concepts from the top players in economic development is sorely needed! How do we work out the best way to help countries in need, including what the limits of foreign assistance are?

    I plan to re-read this book at some point in the future, in case I have by that time forgotten its key lessons which I think are of an "inconvenient truth" nature.

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