In defense of being mean-spirited: response to a critic

People on Twitter yesterday and today called attention to this thought-provoking critique of yours truly (from Chris Conrad at his blog The Big-Push: Development and Aid Effectiveness)

I did want to take issue with one of Easterly's tweets from yesterday, in which he sardonically impugns USAID's efforts in Afghanistan, suggesting that the most benefit Afghanis have realized from USAID's years of war-time effort is the use of USAID-labeled vegetable oil cans to set up live WIFI nodes in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

...This is a very unproductive and mean-spirited use of anybody's time.  I honestly have no idea what Easterly expects the response to such a post to be -- this adds nothing to the debate, and perversely co-opts what is otherwise very positive news into an outlet for his nihilistic worldview.

To be intellectually consistent, I have to praise criticism of myself as much as I advocate criticism of aid agencies. So thank you, Chris, for taking the time to give me thoughtful feedback. I read something like this and I re-examine if I am going too far in ridiculing unproductive aid organizations. I will consider whether to dial it down.

At the same time, I still believe in vigorous criticism of aid when it deserves it. In other fields, we recognize a constructive role of even very harsh criticism. Alec Baldwin joked at the Oscars last night that James Cameon had sent his rival director and ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow a good-luck present of "a Toyota." This is a mean-spirited joke at the expense of a corporation that has years of quality service to consumers except for one recent accelerator pedal malfunction. And Toyota deserves every bit of it.

"Aid effectiveness" is a sleep-inducing word that has resulted in endless rounds of summits and declarations ("Accra Agenda for Aid Effectiveness, etc.) and little action. USAID is a politically entrenched bureaucracy that has gotten away with scandalous waste of billions of aid in Afghanistan. A mean-spirited joke at their expense is among the least of the consequences they should suffer.