Poverty: Is there an app for that?

by Tate Watkins. Tate is a research associate at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Last week the World Bank issued a announced an upcoming event called Random Hacks of Kindness. Tech developers will gather at locations around the world to try to “create open solutions that can save lives and alleviate suffering.” Random Hacks of Kindness began in 2009 as a partnership between the World Bank, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and NASA. Its goal is to “produce practical open source solutions to development problems” by bringing together development experts and software developers.

Initiatives like Random Hacks of Kindness, one example of the wider push to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to solve development problems, have produced useful tools; for instance the SMS service that helped people communicate with family and friends after earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. But billing efforts like these as capable of producing “solutions to development problems” is misguided at best. This level of hype brought to mind recent overpromising headlines, like: “IT can meet Africa’s Millennium Development Goals” and ”Nations Call for ICTs to Tackle Disease.”

After reading about Random Hacks of Kindness, I asked UC Berkeley ICT for development expert Kentaro Toyama what he thought about them. Toyama responded:

Anyone imagining that a day or two of hacking will produce solutions to development problems, even in some small part, is either a technologist drunk on her own self-image who believes that she’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge with technology, or a World Bank officer drunk on his own self-image who believes that he’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge by motivating some technologists. In any case, it seems clear they are the kind of folks who don’t learn from history.

We should be wary of being distracted by technologies that can solve some direct problems but will never be able to solve underlying development problems. If an app gives a mother access to maternal health information, but she doesn’t have access to basic healthcare, how much good will it do her?

Toyama, who blogs humorously as the ICT4D Jester, was more optimistic about the initiative’s ability to build capacity of programmers in developing countries:

[T]o the extent that these events generate excitement around the ability to develop software in developing countries, they are fantastic…Among the things that make a country “developed” is its intrinsic capacity to create, adapt, and master technology.

Similarly, much of what makes a country “developed” is an emergent system that permits and promotes problem solving.

To paraphrase and adapt a point made previously on this blog: Direct solutions to problems (say, aid programs that use ICTs to locate disaster survivors) may be worthwhile as benefiting a lot of people. But a long list of many such solutions is not development. Development is the gradual emergence of a problem-solving system.

No one really believes that there’s an app for development, but we sometimes seem to talk like there is. We should keep sober our expectations about what ICTs can and cannot accomplish, because getting drunk on techno-hype is sure to cloud our understanding of underlying development issues -- like why certain places lack the problem-solving systems that afford mothers access to basic healthcare.

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Coming out as a feminist

UPDATE 9 am, Saturday, May 7: Another round with Matt (see comment below), another unnecessary reassurance for Offended White Males: yes I completely agree that nobody is automatically guilty or evil based on their gender and race.

Jessica Mack from the great blog Gender Across Borders, interviewed me on feminism in development yesterday, find it here. I had never voiced before what I said in the interview. Some were pleasantly surprised, a few forgot to include the word "pleasantly."

One commenter on Gender Across Borders kindly offered to play the role of Offended White Male. Matt complained about my references to "our paternalistic fantasies.” Matt said:

That has got to be one of the most offensive things I’ve read in quite a while about my intentions as a white male....It’s not ok to generalize women, but it’s ok to generalize white guys?

Matt, please relax.  Which do you think is closer to the truth: (1) there is way, way, way too much talk about white male paternalism in aid, or (2) it has been a verboten subject and it's time we talked about it? I say (2). In conclusion, thanks for saying you agreed with 95 percent! and out of respect for you and other readers, I hereby agree to retract nothing.

A shortened version of the interview follows here:

You talk about the concept of paternalism in global development. I’m curious what the concept of feminism means to you, and what relevance it has for understanding global development.

Most of the time, I talk about the paternalism of rich people toward poor people. I don’t think there’s much explicit racism in aid and development, but there is still a condescending or superior attitude toward poor people, that we can fix their problems. I think there is a gender dimension as well, though I haven’t really talked about it much in my work. I think I could talk about it a lot more.

It’s not an accident that the word paternalistic is the notion of father taking care of and supporting. A lot of discourse in aid is often about helping women and children. Aid agencies offer this appealing image of innocent women and children that are helpless and need our help. ... If you go through a bunch of aid brochures online, I bet that in the vast majority of them you ....will only see women and children...

It seems to me that some of the most insidious examples of bad aid have to do with women and children.

There’s a very powerful incentive to use that imagery for campaigns. They’re about the victims being women and children, but we’re covering over a lot of stuff. We rich white males – speaking as a rich, white male – are trying to alleviate our own guilty conscience not only toward the poor of the world, but also toward women in our own society. There’s still a lot of sexism and discrimination in our own society. We move the gaze away from that inequality and toward another remote part of the world to indulge our paternalistic fantasies.

Yet in crises like Darfur, women really are exponentially more vulnerable. How do you portray this reality so that women aren’t tokenized?

Of course women are vulnerable to violence and rape in a way that men are not. But we should not go all the way to the stereotypes ...Women in poor countries – and this is a big generalization – are incredibly resourceful. They’re achieving an awful lot. So, to peddle this stereotype of the helpless , pathetic woman that can’t do anything on her own – that’s really destructive and will definitely result in bad aid. Whereas if we find ways to let women tell aid givers what they need so that they can help themselves, that’s going to be much more successful.

.... What’s really at the heart of development is recognizing that everyone has equal rights.  I think the most fundamental thing that needs to happen in development is the recognition of equality in rights: poor, rich, male, female, every ethnic group and every religion.

What do think of some of the stories that Nicholas Kristof portrays? He’s gotten flack for “exploiting” stories of women and girls in order to evoke responses.

I respect Kristof. ... It’s impossible for anyone, including me, to be pure in this business. It’s just so difficult and complicated.

What do you mean by “pure?”

I mean to get things exactly right in terms of motivating people to get involved, not discourage giving, and yet at the same time respect the dignity of poor people.

Right, I think it has to be an ongoing process, but a self conscious one, a very self aware one.

Self awareness is very important. ...the idea of reciprocity. Any time you’re portraying a victimized woman in the Congo a certain way, turn the tables and try to think how you would feel if you were that woman and someone in a rich country far away was portraying your story. If you don’t pass that test – if you say, ‘no I would hate that,’ then you shouldn’t do it. Reciprocity is really at the heart of equality.

Is there a need for more women in global development, or perhaps more feminists?

What’s really needed is a lot more straight talk in our conversations ... that there’s still is a lot of oppression of women going on in poor and rich countries. We need to acknowledge that fact and not hide it behind buzzwords. Honesty makes it easier to find the things that will change power relationships. We have to also recognize the unintended power of development to strengthen women’s positions. Economists talk about development increasing the demand for brains relative to brawn. As economies get richer, the demand for brains goes up and that strengthens the position of women because they have the brains, and now a lot more bargaining power.

It’s funny to me that honesty turns one into a dissident in global development.

I know, it’s strange.

That’s where I see the role of feminism, and in global development too: continually questioning the institution, an appreciation for the process, and a whole lot of self-awareness. The more dissidents the better.

I agree!

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Development before security...is a killer

In an article that just might have been overshadowed by bigger news out of the “AfPak” region Sunday night, the New York Times reported on USAID’s project to build the Gardez-Khost Highway in Afghanistan. This 64-mile stretch of road meant to connect the two mountainous southeastern provinces of Paktia and Khost is shoddily constructed and incomplete after 3 years.

Not least among the problems was that construction began before the region was cleared of insurgents. “You are talking about pushing development before there’s security,” said a former American government official who was involved in the project.

“And you have military or politically driven timelines and locations which make no sense, or which force us into alliances with the very malign actors that are powerfully part of the broader battles we are fighting,” the official said. “No one steps back and looks at the whole picture.”

What is the cost of “pushing development” before security?

One answer: Although originally budgeted at $69 million, USAID has spent  $121 million on the project so far, and now says it expects to spend $176 million.

Another answer: Any remaining American credibility as a development actor in Afghanistan.

A better answer:

… Despite all the money spent on security…there have been 364 attacks on the Gardez-Khost Highway, including 108 roadside bombs, resulting in the deaths of 19 people, almost all of them local Afghan workers.

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All Cups, No Tea

Another humanitarian hero has tumbled off his pedestal. It remains to be seen whether Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling “Three Cups of Tea,” will be able to avert a total reputation meltdown. But last Sunday's 60 Minutes broadcast and a thorough exposé by Jon Krakauer provide convincing evidence for some serious allegations...

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A Tale of Two Tails

The following post by Dennis Whittle is cross-posted from his blog Pulling for the Underdog. Dennis is co-founder of GlobalGiving. This past weekend I took my three and a half year old son to Princeton to a colloquium on foreign aid.  Speaking were senior people from both the aid industry (including Raj Shah, Administrator of USAID) and academia (including Angus Deaton, one of the best professors I have ever had).  There was a spirited discussion of whether aid "works."

Afterwards, my son asked "Dad, doesn't the distribution matter as much as the mean?"

"Yes," I replied.  "It does. In fact, the distribution may be more important than the mean. Professor Deaton would be proud of you for pointing that out."

Let's assume that aid impact can be measured on a scale of -4 (horrendously harmful) to +4 (miraculously wonderful).  Figure 1 shows the implicit belief of most aid cheerleaders.  The average impact is +1, with most of the impact greater than zero.  The cheerleaders say "Yes, there is a small part of aid in the shaded area under the curve that has negative effects, but those examples get too much publicity.  We really need to do a better job of publicizing and explaining the large area under the curve that represents positive impact."

By contrast, the critics feel that Figure 2 is more accurate.  They believe that the average impact is -1, with the vast majority of projects (the non-shaded area under the curve) having an impact less than zero.  The impact of some projects even approaches the nightmare of -4.  Most critics will concede that there are some projects (the shaded area) that have a positive impact, and if pressed they will offer some personal examples.  (Professor Deaton offered certain health projects, for example.)

The important question is not whether aid as a whole "works," which has been the subject of a large number of papers in recent years.  The real question is what the distribution of impact is.

So, readers, here is your homework assignment: 1) Do you consider yourself a cheerleader or critic? 2) Please download a blank version of the graph here, fill in your own guess at the distribution and email it to me.  3) Describe what types of projects you feel fall into the category of effective.  I will post a follow up with selected responses and insights.

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Are celebrities good for development aid?

by Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte Recent New York Times coverage of Madonna’s “Raising Malawi” school project has once again drawn attention to the role celebrities play in raising awareness and funds for international aid. But at the same time, the report—which chronicled the collapse of Madonna’s poorly-managed venture—brings negative exposure to “good causes” for Africa.

There was a similar case in January, when an Associated Press story on corruption in The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was picked up by 250 media outlets worldwide with headlines such as “Fraud plagues global health fund backed by Bono.” Would the media spread with such great interest a story of lavish spending in any run-of-the-mill private school in Malawi or of corruption in the United Nations? Probably not.

The Global Fund is now known as “celebrity backed,” and almost no news story of the recent corruption saga has been without reference to Irish rock star Bono and celebrity philanthropist Bill Gates. Celebrities draw attention and stir emotion. But now, the opportunity to link development aid mismanagement or lavish spending with global celebrities has led to negative publicity.  People all over the world are interested in what is happening to “Bono's Fund” or “Madonna’s Malawi.” Yet, as is often the case with celebrity-driven media, the stories actually provide little information on what is going on in The Global Fund or in the countries where it works, or in the education sector in Malawi.

We explore this phenomenon in Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World (just released by the University of Minnesota Press).  In the book, we examine what happens when aid celebrities unite with branded products and a cause. The resulting combination—what we call “Brand Aid”—is aid to brands because it helps sell products and builds the ethical profile of a brand. It is also a re-branding of aid as efficient and innovative, based on “commerce, not philanthropy.”

In the case study of Product (RED), a co-branding initiative launched in 2006 by Bono, we show how celebrities are trusted to guarantee that products are “good.” Iconic brands such as Apple, Emporio Armani, Starbucks and Hallmark donate a proportion of profits from the sale of RED products to The Global Fund to finance HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa. In essence, aid celebrities are asking consumers to “do good” by buying iconic brands to help “distant others” —Africans affected by AIDS. This is very different from “helping Africa” by buying products actually made by Africans, in Africa, or by choosing products that claim to have been made under better social, labour and environmental conditions of production.

In Product (RED), celebrities are moving attention away from “conscious consumption” (based on product information) and towards “compassionate consumption” (based on emotional appeal). To us, this is even more problematic than the risk of negative media attention that celebrities bring to development aid.


Lisa Ann Richey is professor of development studies at Roskilde University. Stefano Ponte is senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies. To read more, see their book Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). Join the conversation on Facebook or on Twitter: @BrandAid_World


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The Aid Contest of the Celebrity Exes

A high-profile charitable foundation set up to build a school for impoverished girls in Malawi, founded by the singer Madonna …has collapsed after spending $3.8 million on a project that never came to fruition…. the plans to build a $15 million school for about 400 girls in the poor southeastern African country of 15 million — which had drawn financial support from Hollywood and society circles…— have been officially abandoned. - Madonna’s Charity Fails in Bid to Finance School, New York Times, March 24, 2011

Over a year later, [Sean] Penn is still in Haiti and his initial ragtag group of medics and fixers has grown into a team of 15 international workers, 235 Haitians and hundreds of rotating medical volunteers. In addition to coordinating sanitation, lighting, water and security for the Pétionville camp, J/P HRO runs two primary care facilities, a women’s health center, a cholera isolation unit and a 24-hour emergency room. It has pioneered a rubble removal program that has become a model for other N.G.O.’s, and it has developed one of the most effective emergency response systems in the country, using state-of-the-art bio-surveillance techniques and helicopters to reach cholera-stricken communities in remote areas.

The Accidental Activist, New York Times Style Magazine, March 25, 2011

Why is Sean Penn doing so much better than his ex-wife? Can comparing their stories provide any lessons for aspiring celebrity humanitarians?

Round 1: The initial premise. Spending $15 million on a school for 400 girls in a country where the government education budget is only 10 times that is just a bad idea. And Madonna was slow to heed the advice of the philanthropy consulting group she hired, which, according to the Times

told her that building an expensive school in Malawi was an ineffective form of philanthropy, and suggested instead using resources to finance education programs though existing and proven nongovernmental organizations.

Sean Penn also arrived clueless, speaking neither French nor Creole nor NGOese. However, according to the NYT (Vanity Fair and CNN profiles tell a similar story), Penn at least came without preconceived notions of what to do.

Winner: Sean Penn, by a hair

Round 2: Level of  cluelessness about operations of own charity. While Madonna visited Malawi for some photo ops, she wasn’t involved in the day-to-day operation of the project. From the Times: “She and her aides offered no explanation of why, given her high interest in the project, she had not noticed the problems as they began unfolding.” In contrast, Sean Penn appears totally hands-on, living in Haiti and learning by doing:

“For the first six months, I …was basically pretending I knew what the hell I was doing — yelling a lot and getting things done with blackmail. Now I’ve got a lot of really experienced, great people around me, and they can do the same things, cutting through stuff just as fast, but in slightly more, uh, legitimate ways.”

Winner: Sean Penn (minus points for strong-arming...but bonus for adaptability??)

Round 3: Wasteful spending. A Raising Malawi project audit revealed “outlandish expenditures on salaries, cars, office space and a golf course membership, free housing and a car and driver for the school’s director.” None of those perks for Sean Penn and his staff, who spent 2010 sleeping in tents (like most NGO workers in Haiti, but never mind) and “prides himself on running a lean operation.”

Winner: Sean Penn

So Sean Penn emerges as the clear victor here. But if what Madonna’s charity did wrong was obvious, what Penn has done right is still unproven. It’s admittedly a stretch to derive any serious aid lessons from a 3,000-word New York Times Magazine Style profile, and I am not aware of any serious evaluation of Penn’s project. But if it holds up to greater scrutiny, let the aid battle of the celebrity Exes be a lesson – and a warning – to the next generation of celebrity do-gooders.


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Does Japan need your donation?

Many aid bloggers and journalists are doing a good job communicating a nuanced message about how to respond to the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. From Stephanie Strom, writing in the New York Times:

The Japanese Red Cross…has said repeatedly since the day after the earthquake that it does not want or need outside assistance. But that has not stopped the American Red Cross from raising $34 million through Tuesday afternoon in the name of Japan’s disaster victims…

The Japanese government so far has accepted help from only 15 of the 102 countries that have volunteered aid, and from small teams with special expertise from a handful of nonprofit groups…

…[M]any of the groups raising money in Japan’s name are still uncertain to whom or to where the money will go…

Holden Karnofsky, a founder of GiveWell, a Web site that researches charities, said he was struck by how quickly many nonprofit groups had moved to create ads using keywords like “Japan,” “earthquake,” “disaster,” and “help” to improve the chances of their ads showing up on Google when the words were used in search queries.

“Charities are aggressively soliciting donations around this disaster, and I don’t believe these donations necessarily are going to be used for relief or recovery in Japan because they aren’t needed for that,” Mr. Karnofsky said. “The Japanese government has made it clear it has the resources it needs for this disaster.”

Robert Ottenhoff, president and chief executive of GuideStar, a Web site that provides charity tax forms and other resources for donors, said donors themselves were to blame for the fund-raising frenzy.

People who really want to support charitable organizations and good works, Mr. Ottenhoff said, should base it on a desire to support something they already understand and believe in.

The Japanese are world-renowned experts in disaster preparedness, relief and recovery, and Japan is the third largest economy in the world. There should be no mistake that the Japanese government and Japanese organizations are well-equipped to take the lead.

Our best advice for people who feel moved to give by the tragedy in Japan: Give generously, in cash, to an organization that you trust, and don’t restrict your donation. This way, your charity can use the funds for Japan if it turns out they are needed. If not, then it is free to use your donation for another purpose, like the dozens of under-reported, large-scale disasters that CNN isn’t featuring today.

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World Vision Super Bowl Shirts: the Final Chapter

Remember back in February when World Vision’s proud announcement that they were sending abroad 100,000 Super Bowl champion T-shirts emblazoned with the name of the losing team, as they have for the last 15 years, provoked aid blogger ire? We’ve been following the controversy—and occasionally piling on joining in—and here’s the latest. In an email to Aid Watch, World Vision disclosed that total transport and administrative cost per T-shirt was 58 cents, which is uncomfortably high relative to low market values (a quick spot check  produces estimates ranging from 20 cents to $1.20 for a T-shirt) in Africa's saturated second-hand clothing markets.

World Vision also sent us documents from two districts in central in Uganda* that received donated clothing, although NOT specifically the loser Super Bowl T-shirts that started this whole controversy. We learned that the donated clothing was used as part of World Vision’s health programs which aim to “improve access to better health services, safe water and sanitation.” Specifically, World Vision said:

Provision of clothing was done for women and children in extremely poor conditions to protect them from weather and to raise their self-esteem. Providing clothing also served to increase trust among the beneficiaries and encourage them to participate in other health services, including voluntary counseling and testing for HIV.

This led us to focus on the health and HIV/AIDS sections as we sifted through the documents for answers to two questions which arose in the debate.

First question we asked: Can World Vision show that they rigorously assess the need for gifts-in-kind in the communities where they work?

World Vision answered: Needs assessments are carried out by national offices, and the rigor of these assessments varies from office to office.

What the documents showed: World Vision sent us one program design document from the final phase of a 12-year, multi-sector program that ended in 2010, and one needs assessment from a neighboring region (WV couldn’t find the needs assessment for the 12-year project).

The needs assessment identified the most important problems faced by the community, and made recommendations how WV should deal with them. It did not discuss at any point the clothing needs of villagers, or how clothing donations might alleviate any of the problems mentioned in the 67-page report.

The program design documents, intended to “point out gaps that still exist in the community as expressed by the people,” made only one mention of gifts-in-kind. “Gifts in kind will be planned for on annual basis and this is meant to supplement the project fund in achieving project planned activities.”

The main report did not mention a need for clothing. However, I did learn that the region described is among those most heartbreakingly affected by HIV/AIDS, with high numbers of orphans and child-headed households, and after some digging I found an HIV/AIDS sub-report embedded within the main report that did mention clothing:

Most of these [orphaned children] lack care and support in terms of emotional coping, physical requirements like food, shelter, clothing, and limited access to basic social services like education and health.

Another embedded sub-report (actually a proposal for outside funding to support HIV/AIDS orphans in the area) was more specific:

Special needs will be identified for each of the selected families and the project will organize to procure and provide the essential needs for the children and guardians. These will include beddings, bicycles, clothing, cooking pans, washing basins and water tanks.

Our conclusion on the first question: No.

Second question we asked: Can WV point to any evidence that the 15-year distribution of Super Bowl T-shirts, or, more broadly, any distribution of clothing, has "facilitate[d] good, sustainable development"?

World Vision answered: No, “because the Superbowl clothing isn’t a program. It’s a donation. We evaluate the results of our programs…many of the programs where we use GIK have been enormously successful in facilitating good, sustainable development. Our evidence for that would be individual program evaluations from a variety of national offices.”

What the documents showed: WV sent us one annual report and program evaluations for each phase of the same 12-year project discussed above. After hours of reading, a picture emerged of a community decimated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and valiantly struggling to provide support for the large populations of vulnerable children made orphans or adopted into already over-stretched extended families.

An annual report from 2006 gave the only specific accounting of the type of gifts-in-kind distributed:

GIK was received and distributed to children and these included 115 pairs of canvas shoes, 50 pairs of baby shoes, 900 T- shirts, 225 Gin trousers, 500 pairs of socks, 125 dolls and 200 blankets. This benefited 1615 children in the community.

In a report from the first phase of the project, evaluators noted that some villagers were able to sell eggs from a poultry project to buy clothes (this shows that clothing is available for purchase in the community, and probably not at prohibitive prices for most people). Clothing was also mentioned as an obstacle to achieving the program’s “Christian Witness” objective: the poor don’t attend church because “they lack good cloth to put on and feel not worth attending.”

Regarding World Vision’s ability to show success in facilitating sustainable development through their programming in general, the 2006 evaluation said “tracking changes…attributable to World Vision support” is “quite difficult” because over the course of the 12-year project priorities and goals shifted, and because early baseline measurements don’t match up with later evaluations.

Nonetheless, the final report attributed many positive health outcomes to project activities. For example, reduced malaria incidence; improved sanitation practices; and reduced prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

We don’t see any basis for attribution of these outcomes to World Vision, since the program was not designed in such a way to make such attribution possible. The resources provided by World Vision—clinics built, medicines supplied, HIV awareness courses given—are characterized as improving health outcomes, but also as very thinly spread over a large area with acute health needs.

As to sustaining project gains as WV funding ends, WV reported that local organizations have been trained in skills like proposal writing, resource mobilization and networking so that they can take over WV services. Villagers in the final survey said they learned “vocational, business management, leaderships, improved farming, HIV/AIDS care, positive parenting, and sanitation management skills,” all of which would provide a “pillar to further development in this area.”

Our conclusion on the second question: While we appreciate WV’s transparency in sharing these documents with Aid Watch, we have to conclude that the answer is no. There is no real evidence in these hundreds of pages of reports that the clothing donations are more than a minor afterthought to World’s Vision’s health programming (although gifts-in-kind are a major source of World Vision’s revenue). Given the aforementioned costs required to ship donations from the US abroad there is no development-related reason to continue this outdated, dependency-creating practice.

*World Vision asked us not to publish the names of the regions, or any other identifying information about the projects.


Related posts:

In Zambia, Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl: Why is World Vision perpetuating discredited T-shirt aid?

World Vision responds to blogger questions


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The World According to USAID

Higher resolution file here.

This animated cartogram, created  by William and Mary student Ashley Ingram and blogged by Mike Tierney at AidData’s The First Tranche, shows aid flows from the US government to the rest of the world from 1985 to 2008.

To produce these maps, the geographic area of a country is replaced by the dollar value of its aid, so that the size of a country fluctuates from year to year depending on how much money the US sends it for development assistance. At the same time, the countries are shaded lighter or darker according to per capita income levels.

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On Sustainable Sustainability: A UN Prose Poem

UPDATE 2: Another proposal received from Unconfirmed Sources: Politicians supporting UN funding will be required to incorporate all of the text below into one of their own speeches to their own voters. UPDATE: Just got a new proposal from the Center for Unacceptable Common Sense: Anyone funding UN should internalize the effect of their funding on creation of UN prose. First proposed tax on you: you are required to read all 1000+ words below and recite once for every $100K of funding.

Experimenting with a new literary form, cutting and pasting phrases from a UN report into a work of prose poetry (from the UN 2008 report Achieving Sustainable Development and Promoting Development Cooperation):

productive and interactive discussions during the high-level policy dialogue with the international financial and trade institutions on sustainable development in the context of climate change, development cooperation and the threats to the global economy. Participants emphasized the need for greater coordination among the institutions.

A key message of the Forum was the need to build a broader consensus around the aid effectiveness agenda.

These events have served to deepen the discussions and promote consensus building in partnership with key stakeholders on issues in the Council’s agenda.

a Ministerial Declaration, which underscored the need for urgent, collective and collaborative action by all

members of the international community in several areas of global concern

Moreover, new challenges require urgent attention and collective action.

to facilitate inclusive policy dialogue and policy review on key development cooperation issues

to contribute to the latest efforts for promoting collective solutions, including strengthening governance, creating markets for sustainable development, strengthening global cooperation,

.. underlined the need to generate political will to put prudent policies into action

new challenges, many of which require our urgent attention and collective action.

At the same time, challenges also offer opportunities. The need to engage all key actors in this process is widely recognized. We must persist in pursuing truly concerted action

All countries certainly need policies and institutions that are flexible and tailored to their changing domestic and external circumstances and their individual challenges.

framework is not sufficiently responsive to development issues that cut

across multiple sectors such as human rights, gender equality and environmental sustainability. The Development Cooperation Forum should give due attention to these cross-cutting imperatives.

will enable the Council to move forward with firm commitment and strong political will to implement.

need to develop coherent and integrated approaches to development, which place the issue of sustainability at the center of development strategies.

have brought renewed dynamism to the implementation of development goals, by promoting greater

interaction among the different constituencies. The inclusion of civil society organizations, parliamentarians as well as local government and private sector representatives is essential in sustaining the engagement and commitment of all stakeholders in bridging the implementation gap.

..has become much more than just a month-long meeting in New York. The substantive session is a culmination of the various activities

..can benefit from the Council’s thorough work based on extensive regional consultations, global consultative forums and above all its broad-based engagement, which provides all perspectives to multilateral deliberations. I believe that Council’s deliberations and debates during this session would

greatly enrich discussions and outcomes of the important development related

conferences and events. The Council has shown that it is increasingly becoming better equipped to assess

progress on the ground and galvanize action at national, regional and international levels.

New global, regional and local approaches are needed given the unprecedented confluence of crises that at times require conflicting solutions.

Given the complex situation, he enumerated several policy options for governments to consider.

He stressed that policy makers need to respond flexibly,. No one country can overcome all the complex and

inter-related challenges on its own. Therefore, {he} called for international cooperation to help find global solutions to interrelated global problems. International institutions should not operate in isolation.

a unique opportunity to re-energize the mutual accountability framework

He appealed to governments and international financial institutions to take a more proactive approach to rapidly evolve coherent policy frameworks and incentives

Yet, in an interdependent world, many of the threats and challenges cannot be met by governments acting on their own. They require collective international action. Multilateral solutions, based on full participation and open dialogue, remain the best hope for providing a secure economic future for all.

We need a clear view of what is to be done at the global level, what at the regional level, and what at the national level. At the same time, short-term crises require their own strategies. we really do need a long-term strategy, aside from the immediateemergency needs

the international community agreed on a mutual accountability framework for development cooperation. Pursuant to that framework, developing countries have taken important steps to strengthen governance and improve the quality of their economic policies and institutions

..actively engaged in supporting the agenda outlined, working closely with countries and in partnership with bilateral agencies and multilateral institutions.

the World Bank looks forward to still closer partnership with the Economic and Social Council, to make the alliance between Council’s political message and the Bank’s comprehensive development focus even more effective and fruitful.

As part of the efforts to strengthen the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Member States, …mandated the Council to convene a high level biennial Development Cooperation Forum to review trends in international development cooperation, including strategies, policies and financing; promote greater coherence among the development activities of different development partners; and strengthen the normative and operational link in the work of the United Nations.

as a key venue for global dialogue and policy review of the effectiveness and coherence of international

development cooperation. … Forum also reaffirmed the demand for an inclusive and universally recognized space for discussions on international development cooperation. By giving voice to a wide range of stakeholders, including civil society, parliaments, local governments and the private sector, the Forum gave promise of becoming an effective global platform for representative, participatory and multistakeholder dialogue on major development cooperation issues.

Stakeholders are encouraged to continue to engage in the upcoming consultations and to interact with the

Council and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs to ensure that all voices are heard in the preparations for the Forum. The Department will also continue to provide impartial, professional and responsive policy analysis and review of gaps and obstacles to effective and coherent international development cooperation.

And in other news, the UK announced it was eliminating funding to four UN aid agencies.

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Why we'll always have benevolent autocrats

Last Friday, Bill gave a talk at the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia.  NYU-Wagner student Christopher Faris summarized the speech over on the Wagner blog, and gives a great run-down of the audience reaction at Columbia:

...Easterly argued that the theory of growth-boosting 'benevolent autocrats' (think China's economic boom) is, at best, not proven and at worst a compelling but flawed idea to which development practitioners hopefully cling - to everyone's detriment.

But the benevolent dictator is a powerful and compelling idea, dating back at least as far as Plato's Republic. Despite the carefully constructed argument and engaging delivery, the audience of ambitious internationalistas seemed unconvinced, if the questions were anything to go by.

Most questioners (professors and students) wanted to believe in the abiding power and potential for a benevolent technocrat to guide countries through transition; to protect the nation's economic well-being from the foibles of the electoral process; or in the cultural appropriateness of more autocratic leadership in some countries at certain points in their history.

All of which got me to thinking (with apologies to Carrie Bradshaw):

  • Maybe international development students are committed to the idea that, through our education, ideas and energy, individuals can advocate for good policies and make the world a better place;
  • Perhaps we want to believe in the power of strong, technocratic leaders, benevolently steering developing nations through the rapids of the global economy and pro-poor reform;
  • Maybe, just maybe, we are all benevolent autocrat wannabes?

[Easterly's discussion of cognitive biases] added up to a pretty compelling argument against benevolent autocrat theory - or at least a strong case for us to be wary of buying it too easily...

But then came the questions. Once the SIPA professors finished, almost all were from international students (with a Latin and East Asian trend), and almost all betrayed an unshaken faith in benevolent autocrat theory.

So if Professor Easterly failed to convince, why? A few suggestions: because the biases he enumerated are indeed powerful shapers of thinking; because his audience was committed to the possibility of making a difference through their actions; because a more laissez-faire approach to international development is a tough sell to idealistic students.

But further: Easterly described what developing economies should aim for (to transition to innovation-rich modern economies, harnessing local knowledge, and with democratic political systems containing checks and balances against autocratic tendencies) but was light on details of how to do it. He offered a compass bearing but no map. Perhaps we, students and practitioners of development, want maps - especially at this thrilling time of autocrat-toppling. And we want to be able to help. We have a strong pro-action bias.

Mr. Faris generously skipped the possibility that the argument was just WRONG, but he has good insights into the resistance to the argument even if it's correct.

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World Vision responds to blogger questions

Editor's Note 10:45 am 2/18/2011: Thanks to all the commentators, you really wrote a new post for us today. We have emailed World Vision follow up questions, especially taking them up on their offer to provide examples below. They said they will respond by middle of next week as they get their national offices to respond. In an email to the communications  department at World Vision, we collected and forwarded a few of the questions posed by aid bloggers in their posts (now up to 50, and counting) about the controversy over the 100,000 misprinted NFL T-shirts World Vision distributes as gifts-in-kind aid every year. On Wednesday evening we received World Vision's response, which we are publishing here in full:

1. Can WV show that they rigorously assess the needs of the communities they work in for gifts-in-kind (GIK)?


World Vision’s assessments of the need for supplies and of the impact a supply donation may have on the local economy are done by individual national offices as part of a strategic programmatic response.  As a result, when we set our strategy for GIK procurement each year, we ask each national office send us requests for resources they need and to do so after assessing the need for supplies and their ability to procure supplies locally.

The rigor of those assessments varies based on the national office providing the information.  Each World Vision office is an independent entity, with its own board and charter.  World Vision has deliberately worked within its international partnership to increasingly empower national offices regarding the assessment, design and implementation of its programs.

If it’s helpful, I can try to get you copies of some example assessments from some national offices so that you can get a sense of what those assessments look like.

2. Why does WV use a much larger share of GIK than other similarly sized nonprofits?

Depending on how you calculate the “size” of a non-profit (annual revenue, number of countries of operation, staff size, etc), World Vision doesn’t use a much larger share of GIK than other non-profits.

In fact, there are really no other organizations with a comparable size to World Vision, U.S. with the same operational mandate.

3. How did WV calculate the ‘fair market value’ for these shirts?

World Vision hasn’t valued this year’s donation of NFL-related clothing because we have not received the products yet. Unfortunately, the numbers listed in the blog post and a press release shouldn’t have been released – they were rough estimates that weren’t related to each other and don’t reflect how World Vision will value the clothing.

In general, World Vision calculates “fair market value” for any of its donated supplies based on standards set by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB).  As a side note, the FASB recently established a new definition for valuing supply donations and as a result, there is a great deal more clarity in the way that all non-profits value supply donations.  While not all NGOs have yet implemented the new FASB standards, World Vision has.

This process is based on current standards required to value all forms of GIK donations.  While there may be a discussion about what the value of a particular item should be, the objective standards we follow are essential to guide our valuation approach.  It may worth discussing whether the current standards need to be improved; but for now, those are the standards with which we need to comply.

4. Has WV tried to evaluate the results of this program? Can WV point to any evidence that the 15-year distribution of Super Bowl T-shirts has "facilitate[d] good, sustainable development"?

The short answer is “no” because the Super Bowl clothing isn’t a program. It’s a donation. We evaluate the results of our programs.  Some programs are successful. Others less so.  But their success is based on the quality of the program’s assessment, design and implementation, not solely on the use of one tool or another.

Many of the programs where we use GIK have been enormously successful in facilitating good, sustainable development.  Our evidence for that would be individual program evaluations from a variety of national offices, but we can provide some examples if those are helpful.

In Summary: For World Vision, GIK is a resource in a robust tool kit.  We endeavor to use it in situations where it’s appropriate and in ways that are skilled, but like any tool, it’s not inherently helpful or hurtful.  A hammer can do a great deal of damage if you use it poorly, but it can also be a necessary piece of equipment when you’re trying to build something.

Our perspective on this greater debate is that the resource (GIK) can be used in ways that are very helpful.  It can also be used in ways that are destructive.  The answer isn’t to toss the tool.  The answer is to make the tool work better and to become more skilled at when and how to use it. World Vision continually seeks ways to make our work more effective in all areas, including how GIK is integrated into a full development strategy and the constructive elements of this ongoing conversation are a part of that continual effort to improve.

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In Zambia, Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl: Why is World Vision perpetuating discredited T-shirt aid?

Editor's Note 4: 10:45am 2/15: @saundra_s reports there are now 36 bloggers that have posted on this (excluding WV itself or its staffers), of which 35 are against. One more against here from faith perspective. Now have a Twitter hashtag #100kshirts.

Editor's Note 3: 8:45am 2/15: heard from @WorldVisionUSA finally! got this direct message on Twitter: "Thanks for following WV! For even more opportunities to get involved, check us out on Facebook."

Editor's Note 2 3:30pm: still silence from the @WorldVisionUSA palace as more bloggers post and more protesters gather outside in Aid Twitter Square.

Editor's Note 10:16am: Sorry World Vision, Aid Watch committed a major factual error due to the incompetence of one of our alleged experts. This supposed NFL and zoological expert with the initials W.E. initially got the team wrong in the picture, it is the losing 2007 team Chicago Bears.

As it has for 15 years, World Vision took credit last week for accepting the donation of 100,000 unwanted Super Bowl T-shirts from NFL merchandisers to ship to poor people across the world.

The T-shirts are the result of NFL merchandisers printing championship shirts for both teams in the Super Bowl so they’re prepared to immediately sell to fans of the winning team, whichever one that turns out to be. The merchandisers get a tax deduction for donating the losing team’s shirts (saying that the losers actually won) to World Vision, and World Vision (according to their website) ships the shirts abroad, this year to Armenia, Romania, Zambia and Nicaragua.

(Saundra S has a great post explaining the financial incentives that keep this arrangement in place. Among other things, World Vision uses the shirts to fictionally lower its overhead cost ratios, great for bragging about its efficiency.)

To quickly reiterate some of the arguments against SWEDOW (Stuff We DOn’t Want) aid:

  1. It’s not needed. Seriously, neither the developing world as a whole nor the specific recipient countries named by World Vision suffer an undersupply of T-shirts.
  2. It’s not cost effective. The cost of collecting, sorting, shipping and distributing bulky, low-value items like a bunch of T-shirts does not justify the (very questionable) benefit. And don’t forget to include the opportunity cost, the lost chance to allocate those same, considerable resources to provide something better, like clean water or medicine. (A World Vision PR rep told the New York times in 2007: “Where these items go, the people don’t have electricity or running water.")
  3. It can perpetuate local community’s dependence on free handouts and stifle home-grown economic initiatives, not to mention putting out of business local shirt sellers.

In comparison to the storm of protest that greeted aid neophyte Jason Sadler (aka the 1 Million Shirts Guy, aka Mr. Haterade) when he launched his idea to send a million T-shirts to Africa last year, the unexemplary behavior by aid behemoth and standard-setter World Vision has provoked far fewer critical posts.

Self-preservation-minded aid bloggers who work with World Vision might be  rationally self-censoring, and we've also heard reports that some bloggers received email requests not to blog about this topic.  This episode may reveal the current limits of the burgeoning power of by-the-people aid criticism.

Then again, this week has been an auspicious one for people-power protesting policies that should have been chucked in the bin of history long ago.  As the controversy spreads, World Vision can't avoid debating these policies with their supporters and critics. Will next January see World Vision bragging about its 16th year of sending loser shirts to poor people, or will people-power finally halt this disgrace?

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Development in 3 Sentences

I liked this formulation from the blog The Coming Prosperity, posted today as a link on Twitter:

If solutions are known, need $$. If solutions are knowable, need evaluations. If solutions are evolving, need entrepreneurs.

Consumer Warnings: This comes at the end of a long diatribe against You-Know-Who (associated with $$). I'm not sure the author is a reliable guide to other people's work, since Yours Truly is incorrectly associated with "evaluations." But I still like the 3 sentences above.

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Why development history matters for the Millennium Villages Project

by Ed Carr, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina A growing volume of critical writing on the Millennium Villages project (MVP) includes blog posts, journalistic piecesscholarly works, and, recently, one partial social impact study. Nearly all point to project outcomes that could have been avoided had the project seriously engaged with the long history of field-based experiences in development.

Here, I will focus on just one example: Because the MVP did not critically evaluate the effect of its own assumptions about what works in development, a conflict between project goals and the needs of the villagers has emerged in at least one site.

The MVP is part of Millennium Promise, an effort to make progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  As a result, the MVP framed its interventions around the MDGs.  For example, in 2005 the MVP website described community participation in this MDG-centric manner:

An open dialogue [between MDG-trained teams and villagers] will cover topics such as local problems as related to the MDGs, constraints and opportunities for achieving the MDGs at their village level, initial discussions on possible solutions and approaches for achieving the MDGs, and general impressions/consensus on being included as a Millennium Villages Project site.

The project’s founders have stated that the MVP was built on the “core truth” that there are “known packages of effective and generally low-cost interventions” that can address poverty.  A review of the MVP described it as a pilot project seeking to “provide successful evidence of how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals”. The project’s focus on finding “successful evidence” for the efficacy of these packages of interventions suggests that the project has an interest in validating the importance of the problems identified in the MDGs and justifying the interventions of the MVP.

This creates a conflict of interest for the field staff of the MVP: What if the evidence does not show success? And what to do when the local community’s concerns do not align with either these solutions or the MDGs?

Those familiar with the history of development work know that such conflicts of interest are chronic. Take the classic by Robert Chambers:  Whose Reality Counts. He describes what happened when he examined a consultant's glowing report on a World Bank irrigation scheme and found evidence that the conclusions were wrong:

My points were more or less accepted, but then the matter was consigned to an indeterminate limbo.  Nothing was done.  Far from being rejected or modified, the consultant’s conclusions were published unchanged, and without reference to the criticisms....The consultants knew that the World Bank, which had commissioned the study, was keen to justify the new approach.  They knew what result was wanted.  Supported by the consultants’ unchanged report, the new approach was implemented on a large scale.  So, even if bad news is reported, it may be avoided, rejected or finessed out of sight. (p.82)

Another disconnect appeared in a UNDP/OECD evaluation of a project in Mali: “it has to be asked how the largely positive findings of the evaluations can be reconciled with the poor development outcomes (1985-1995) and the unfavorable views of local people.” (1999)

Similarly, a classic work by James Ferguson (1994) recounts a World Bank project to teach better farming techniques in a mountainous region of Lesotho, out of touch with local people who had long ago learned to abandon the poor soils of that region and work as migrants in South African mines.

There are the same significant pressures on the MVP field staff to press participants to conform to project assumptions and expectations, and to reject or finesse evidence and feedback that does not. Those designing and implementing the MVP should have addressed possible conflicts between their goals and those of the communities. They did not. As a result, I was not surprised to see this quote from a woman living in a Rwandan Millennium Village, from a recent study:

The MV has to meet with local community to learn more about what people really want because sometimes the MV brings things that the community doesn’t need or want.

This and several other issues with the MVP were easy to see from the outset (see here and here). But to recognize them required a familiarity with the history of development and a self-awareness that the Millennium Village Project itself has never shown.


Ed Carr is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina.  His book Delivering Development: Globalization’s Shoreline and the Road to a Sustainable Future was released by Palgrave Macmillan on February 1, 2011.  He blogs at Open the Echo Chamber.

Read all Aid Watch posts on the Millennium Villages project here.

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It takes more than a cow, but…girls still count

By Amanda Glassman, Director of Global Health Policy at the Center for Global Development, and Miriam Temin, co-author of Start With A Girl In her blog post on Aid Watch last week, Anna Carella took on the “Girl Effect,” using some faulty logic and evidence oversights. Marketing may have over-simplified the message in the translation of research to advocacy in the campaign, but let’s take the post point-by-point:

[The campaign…] relies…on the view that women are innately more nurturing than men, and that women’s natural strengths lie in the home as the “chore doer” and “caretaker.”

The point is that investment in women directly benefits their children and to a larger extent than if benefits were provided to men. For example, Ben Davis’ paper The Lure of Tequila or Motherly Love: Does It Matter Whether Public Cash Transfers Are Given to Women or Men?.  There is also the huge literature on the positive effects of female education and income on child health and nutrition outcomes (here).

Anna suggests that we instead focus on “structural factors that underlie men’s apparent disinterest in the health and education of their children.” Good luck with that. In the meantime, we’d like to see aid agencies put more money into proven cost-effective strategies: girls’ education, delaying age at marriage, providing greater access to family planning and supporting cash transfers for poor mothers of young children.

The “Girl Effect” is about the community-wide and intergenerational benefits of investing in girls during their adolescence; based on the premise that there are high costs to the counterfactual. In India, for example, adolescent pregnancy generates $100 billion of lost potential income, equal to almost two decades’ worth of aid (Chaaban et al 2009).

This approach does not preclude work with men and boys. In Brazil, for example, Promundo influenced young men’s gender role attitudes, leading to healthier relationships, fewer sexually transmitted infections, and more condom use.

What poor countries need to stimulate sustainable growth are not women taking out loans to buy cows, but better governance and better terms of trade with rich countries.

There is impact evaluation evidence that microfinance –like insurance and cash transfers- increases the accumulation of productive assets and smoothes consumption, both of which are good for helping poor households escape poverty. Better governance and reduction of trade barriers helps with economic growth, which is good for poverty reduction.  But there is no automatic reason why donor policies and activities related to governance and terms of trade would benefit poor adolescent girls in the near-term or be more effective than the better-studied policy options described above.

…women in developing countries already make up a larger proportion of the workforce on average than women in industrialized countries, and yet development is stalled.

Leaving aside the difficulty of defining what work and workforce means, according to 2010 UN estimates, women’s labor force participation as a share of total employment remains below 30 percent in Northern Africa and Western Asia; below 40 percent in Southern Asia; and below 50 percent in the Caribbean and Central America. The gap between participation rates of women and men has narrowed slightly worldwide in the last 20 years but remains considerable. In OECD countries, 60-80 percent of women participate in the labor market. If you want to make a link between the share of female labor force participation and economic growth, this would be a better approach. And according to that study, greater female labor market participation is positively associated with growth. Finally, other research shows that greater female labor market participation improves child schooling attainment and health, probably via income effects.

Increases in domestic violence have been observed among some female microloan recipients.

While this may be anecdotally true, there is research demonstrating that microcredit, when combined with training on gender, reproductive health and violence, can reduce domestic violence and other social ills. Examples are the IMAGE project, BRAC, etc.  In the Latin American evaluations of conditional cash transfers to women, there has been no evidence that transfers increased domestic violence. Instead, there is evidence that women enjoy new respect and negotiating power in their domestic relationships.

The girl effect has nothing to say about domestic violence, rape, the wage gap, or the many other systemic problems underlying and reinforcing gender discrimination in poor countries...

This is inaccurate.  Not in the video, but in the motivating report Start with a Girl.

This message gives more agency to Westerners than to the girls it claims to be empowering.

I don’t know who the “Westerners” are, but if you are a “Westerner” reading this blog, know that if you give some of your hard-earned money to your government or to NGOs that are investing in adolescent girls in partnership with developing countries, it could be a good thing. Just don’t get all “arrogant white man” about it.

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Aid is not just complicated; it’s complex

One of the points that we try to make on this blog is that aid, planned from an ultra high level and driven to alleviate just the symptoms of poverty, doesn't realistically address the complex problems of international development. We understand that our own economies are complex and require complex allocation mechanisms (i.e. markets; see also "failure of the U.S.S.R.") but this thinking doesn't hold when it comes to helping the poor. So consequently we come up with overly simple solutions to far more difficult puzzles. Ben Ramalingam, author of the blog (and forthcoming book) Aid on the Edge of Chaos, explains this another way in an interview with Dennis Whittle:

[I]nternational aid has been built on a very particular way of looking at the world, and this continues to dog its efforts. As a senior USAID colleague put it, because of our urgency to end poverty, we act as if development is a construction, a matter of planning and engineering, rather the complex and often opaque set of interactions that we know it to be.

...The whole system disguises rather than navigates complexity, and it does so at various levels – in developing countries and within the aid system. This maintains a series of collective illusions and overly simplistic assumptions about the nature of systems, about the nature of change, and about the nature of human actors.

So the end result of all of this is that poverty, vulnerability, disease are all treated as if are simple puzzles. Aid, and aid agencies are then presented as the missing pieces to complete the puzzle. This not only gives aid a greater importance than perhaps it is due, but it also misrepresents the nature of the problems we face, and the also presents aid flow as very simple.

Instead of engaging with complexity, it is dismissed, or relegated to an afterthought, and the tools and techniques we employ make it easy for us to do this. We treat complex things as if they were merely complicated.

What is the difference? As Ben goes on to explain, complicated systems can be modeled mathematically, but complex systems cannot.

[For complex systems,] there is no mathematical model which can say, if X is the situation then do Y. Sustainability, healthy communities, raising families have all been given as examples of such complex systems and processes. Peacebuilding would be another, women’s empowerment, natural resource management, capacity building initiatives, innovation systems, the list goes on and on. Complexity science pulls back the curtain on these processes and it can force you to think about the world you live in in a different way.

Thanks to Dennis for this pointer to Ben's work. (See also Nancy Birdsall's blog post about Dennis on the occasion of his retirement from GlobalGiving.)

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Aid Watch Rerun: The lure of starting from scratch

NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: Over the holidays, we'll be publishing reruns of some of our posts from the first 2 years of Aid Watch. This post originally ran on June 17, 2010. It is an acknowledged national characteristic that Americans believe in self-reinvention. One of our founding myths—inspired by the once unexplored and sparsely populated expanse of the North American continent—is the idea that you can head out of town, leave the encumbrances of the past behind, and start over in a new, unspoiled place.

What would happen if we brought this sensibility to development plans for poorer, more crowded nations? What if we already do?

The ingredients for Paul Romer’s solution to global poverty include an unoccupied tract of land, a charter to lay out a new set of just and commerce-promoting rules, and two or more sovereign governments. Just as Hong Kong was created as an island of prosperity by the British in China (only voluntarily this time), poor countries would lease a piece of their land to a richer, benevolent government or group of governments that would agree to administer the new city according to the rules of the agreed-upon charter.

From a new article in Atlantic Monthly by Sebastian Mallaby, we learn that Madagascar might have become the first testing ground for Romer’s charter cities idea—if not for a coup that ousted the Malagasy President in March 2009.

Madagascar’s government was anxious to attract foreign investment, and it understood that a credibility deficit held it back…Faced with this obstacle, the Malagasy authorities were open to unconventional arrangements. To boost investment in agriculture, they were ready to lease a Connecticut-size tract of land to Daewoo, a South Korean corporation, for 99 years…Romer’s proposal fit in with these adventurous ideas.…

Romer made his pitch for a charter city, and Ravalomanana responded that he wasn’t sure one was enough; if Romer could identify two rich countries willing to play the role of government trustee, it might be better to launch two parallel experiments. The president and the professor agreed that the new hubs should be open to migrants from nearby countries as well as to locals. They rose to examine a map of Madagascar on the study wall. Ravalomanana suggested building the first city on the island’s southwestern coast, which was largely uninhabited because of its dry heat. To Romer, the site sounded very much like the coastal locations that appeal most to the world’s affluent as vacation spots.

Ravalomanana’s government was toppled before any of these plans could go forward, in part as a result of violent protests over the perceived threat to national sovereignty represented by the Daewoo deal. As Mallaby points out, this failures suggests at least one flaw of the charter cities idea—that land ownership and sovereignty are explosive issues that may not be easily or peacefully negotiated away by leaders on behalf of their people. But Romer remains optimistic, and is talking to other African leaders, possibly ones with more staying power.

The charter cities idea appeals because it is bold. It promises a fresh start for people mired in the muck of old conflicts, inequality, and bad government. When Mallaby concludes “When African teenagers do their homework under streetlights, isn’t Romer right to think the unthinkable?,”  he is arguing that while there may be legitimate concerns about the ethics or feasibility of the charter cities, those concerns are made irrelevant by the overwhelming gravity and scale of global poverty and inequality.

In other words, big, desperate problems call out for big, radical solutions. Solutions that sweep away the detritus of past failure, promise to replace it wholesale with something new and better, and perhaps even alter the boundaries of the world as we know it.

The discussion about rebuilding Haiti has been full of ideas about the earthquake as an opportunity to ”start over,” “reboot,” “wipe the slate clean” and finally “get things right” (some stellar examples here). Two recent proposals brought the call for slate-cleaning back to Africa: We already blogged Professor Pierre Englebert’s suggestion in the NYT for the international community to “move swiftly to derecognize the worst-performing African states” like Chad, the DRC, Equatorial Guinea and Sudan, and in Foreign Policy, G. Pascal Zachary submitted that “no initiative would do more for happiness, stability, and economic growth in Africa today than an energetic and enlightened redrawing” of Africa’s colonial borders.

Call it the “let’s just scrap this mess and start over” approach to development.

Unfortunately, in earthquake-devastated Haiti as in troubled central Africa, the promise of starting from scratch is an illusion. It has always been true that no matter where you go, you take yourself with you—culture, history, habits, attachments and animosities come along like a skin you can’t shed. But these days there are fewer and fewer territories on our taxed and shrinking planet beyond the reach of someone’s determined claim.

These ideas share an overly-optimistic belief in a neutral, benevolent international community and its power to peacefully oversee imposed changes. All are tone-deaf to the very real degree of nationalism that does exist in basically all countries by now, regardless of whether they were misbegotten colonial creations or not. They also violate sovereignty as conventionally defined, which may be good or bad but is sure to provoke a nationalist reaction.

Early development economists working at the hopeful dawn of colonial independence believed that they really were starting from scratch. The last fifty years have shown us that they weren’t, and this has been—and remains—one of development’s biggest blind spots.

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Aid Watch Rerun: Nobody wants your old shoes: How not to help in Haiti

NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: Over the holidays, we'll be publishing reruns of some of our posts from the first 2 years of Aid Watch. This post originally ran a week after the Haiti earthquake, on January 16, 2010. The following post is by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk.

Don’t donate goods. Donating stuff instead of money is a serious problem in emergency relief. Only the people on the ground know what’s actually necessary; those of us in the rest of the world can only guess. Some things, like summer clothes and expired medicines are going to be worthless in Haiti. Other stuff, like warm clothes and bottled water may be helpful to some people in some specific ways. Separating the useful from the useless takes manpower that can be doing more important work. It’s far better to give money so that organizations can buy the things they know they need.

Some people like to donate goods instead of cash because they worry that cash won’t be used in a way that helps the needy. If that’s you, I have two points. 1) Why are you donating to an organization you don’t trust? 2) What’s to stop them from selling your donated item and using the money for whatever they want?

After Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Honduras was flooded with shipments of donated goods. They clogged ports, overwhelmed military transport, and made it nearly impossible for relief agencies to ship in the things they really needed. Those donations did harm, not good. Expired drugs had to be carefully disposed of. Inappropriate donations had to be transported away and discarded. All of this wasted time and money.

Don't go to Haiti. It’s close to the US, it’s a disaster area, and we all want to help. However, it’s dangerous right now and they don’t need “extra hands”. The people who are currently useful are people with training in medicine and emergency response. If all you can contribute is unskilled labor, stay home. There is no shortage of unskilled labor in Haiti, and Haitians will be a lot more committed than you are to the rebuilding process.

If you are a nurse or physician, especially with experience in trauma, and you want to volunteer, email Partners in Health – volunteer@pih.org – and offer your services. Or submit your details to International Medical Corps. They’ll take you if they can use you. Do not go to Haiti on your own, even if you are doctor. You’ll just add to the confusion, and you’ll be a burden to whoever ends up taking responsibility for your safety.

Don’t ignore rebuilding. The physical damage done to Port au Prince is going to take a long, long time to repair. The human consequences will have a similar slow recovery. Haiti will still need our help next year, and the years after that. It is going to take more than just a short-term infusion of relief money. Give your money to organizations that will be in Haiti for the long haul, and don't forget about Haiti once the media attention moves on.

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