Sunday, August 16, 2015

Development is neither a financial nor a technical problem but a political problem, and the aid industry often makes the politics worse

From The Logic of Effective Altruism by Angus Deaton. Deaton is echoing a conversation I had with my mother just a few hours ago. She lives in England and we were discussing the intractability of the refugee crisis in Europe. We lived in Europe through the latter half of the last century and particularly in the 1960s-80s, the refugee crisis was generally more limited in number but, critically, different in nature.

Then the issue was whether a refugee was a political refugee whose life was deemed to be in reasonable danger. Today, virtually all the refugees assailing Europe are economic refugees. Everyone sympathizes with their plight in their dysfunctional home countries but that does not militate against the negative impact they have on destination country budgets, culture, crime, economies, etc., not least of which is the impact on the already resident disadvantaged groups.

Deaton's comments are in the context of a discussion centered on a new book, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference by William MacCaskill. We know that much, if not most, of developmental giving in the past fifty years has at best been ineffective and at worst destructive to developing nation economies, no matter how good have been the intentions. The barrier to development is not knowledge or resources, it is the will of the political establishment to undertake what is known to work.
More broadly, the evidence for development effectiveness, for “what works,” mostly comes from the recent wave of randomized experiments, usually done by rich people from the rich world on poor people in the poor world, from which the price lists for children’s lives are constructed. How can those experiments be wrong? Because they consider only the immediate effects of the interventions, not the contexts in which they are set. Nor, most importantly, can they say anything about the wide-ranging unintended consequences.

However counterintuitive it may seem, children are not dying for the lack of a few thousand dollars to keep them alive. If it were so simple, the world would already be a much better place. Development is neither a financial nor a technical problem but a political problem, and the aid industry often makes the politics worse. The dedicated people who risked their lives to help in the recent Ebola epidemic discovered what had been long known: lack of money is not killing people. The true villains are the chronically disorganized and underfunded health care systems about which governments care little, along with well-founded distrust of those governments and foreigners, even when their advice is correct.

In today’s Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has discovered how to use Singer’s utilitarian calculus against his own people. By providing health care for Rwandan mothers and children, he has become one of the darlings of the industry and a favorite recipient of aid. Essentially, he is “farming” Rwandan children, allowing more of them to live in exchange for support for his undemocratic and oppressive rule. Large aid flows to Africa sometimes help the intended beneficiaries, but they also help create dictators and provide them with the means to insulate themselves from the needs and wishes of their people.

No comments:

Post a Comment