Tea and the “narrative of Terror”

Even as [Three Cups of Tea] appears to provide a self-critical and humane perspective on terrorism, [this] article argues that it constructs a misleading narrative of terror in which the realities of Northern Pakistan and Muslim lifeworlds are distorted through simplistic tropes of ignorance, backwardness and extremism, while histories of US geopolitics and violence are erased. The text has further facilitated the emergence of a participatory militarism, whereby humanitarian work helps to reinvent the military as a culturally sensitive and caring institution in order to justify and service the project of empire.

From a 2010 article by Nosheen Ali{{1}}{{2}}, cited by Jon Krakauer in “Three Cups of Deceit.”

I have to admit I cringed when I read Mortenson's description of the Waziri men who he claimed kidnapped and held him for 8 days: “Six Waziri men with bandoliers criss-crossed on their chests slumped on packing crates smoking hashish from a multinecked hookah." The gang's leader is a nearly comic parody of the sinister swarthy villain, wearing "rose-colored aviator glasses" and a "thick black mustache that perched, batlike, on his upper lip."

The men come across as barely human savages as they "attack" their meal of roast lamb "with their long daggers, stripping tender meat from the bone and cramming it into their mouths with the blades of their knives."

One of his barbaric abductors was "a wild man with a matted beard and grey turban...shouting in a language [Mortenson] didn't understand."

What fully completes this disturbing picture is evidence that the kidnapping was fabricated out of an uneventful visit, with Mortenson the honored guest of his alleged abductors, one of whom is in fact a researcher at a Pakistani think tank.

The stereotyped, dehumanizing account of these alleged kidnappers is not an isolated occurrence, either. Ali argues that the whole book  recreates the "redemptive narrative of terrorism" advanced by the U.S. Military...while generating a simplistic portrait of Pakistanis that undermines their actual connection with Westerners. (To be fair, the book was mostly written not by Mortenson but rather by the journalist David Relin; "Mortenson" here refers to the dramatized character in Three Cups of Tea.)

Compare this version of the "other" to that present in another aid story, Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure The World. Both books are, as Ali points out, "stories of American humanitarian heroes engaged in international development" only Mountains beyond Mountains, well, isn't so demeaning:

Mountains beyond Mountains embodies a politicised and historicised humanitarianism. It links Haitian poverty and disease directly with structural processes, and details the various ways in which the US military–corporate complex has led to the repression and impoverishment of Haitians. Focusing on the ‘interconnectedness of the rich and the poor’, and on ‘transformation, not education’, Mountains beyond Mountains emphasises the relationality of the American self and Haitian other.

In Three Cups of Tea the relationality of the American self and Pakistani other disappears in a discourse of poverty and ignorance that is largely closed, self-evident and self- affirming—and thus orientalising.

[[1]] Unfortunately a gated link; NYU has a subscription.[[1]] [[2]] UPDATE: Here's the ungated version.[[2]]

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An Ignorant Perspective on Libya

Tax time prompts many of us to ponder what our tax dollars pay for. This year I thought, just a bit, about the most recent significant (if still relatively small) addition to the U.S. budget. I came to the conclusion that--for various reasons--I know next to nothing about what is happening or is likely to happen. Men and women in power know much more about the situation than I do, and have decided that it is prudent to intervene militarily. I wish I knew why. I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to succeed at regime change. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to bring democracy. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to save more lives than it costs. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign leaders to know what’s best for Libyans. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect we’re not training and supporting thugs. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect we won’t inspire future outrage and violence. But I dont.

I wish I knew why, this time, the long history of disastrous foreign military intervention will find an exception. But I don’t.

I wish I knew why, this time, procedural safeguards on grave decisions are not important. But I dont.

F.A. Hayek once argued, albeit in a different context, that such astounding ignorance as mine calls for staunch adherence to principles rather than the expedient pursuit of concrete objectives. I just don’t know enough to judge this or any prospective case for military intervention by its own merits. Lacking the detailed knowledge necessary to distinguish this from other cases of intervention, I am left leaning on what I know about the success and consequences of military intervention generally. But I can’t know beforehand whether Libya will be an exception.

So I’m stuck with my principles, like  Jeffersons recommendation of “peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none,” along with some more basic rules. They don’t work every time. But that’s not the point. When they’re held firmly--even dogmatically--as principles, they do better than someone as dumb as me could manage.

Maybe that makes me a lunatic. Maybe those in power do know the exceptional merits of this case. Maybe they know why dropping bombs and shooting missiles makes sense this time. But I don’t.

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest.

- F. A. Hayek

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Evil values are also long-lasting

Academic development economists have become newly interested in cultural values, and one of their most common findings is that cultural differences between regions and towns last a very a long time. I confess I'm a fan of this research. But even I was surprised when a paper at NYU's Development Seminar yesterday showed that if your (regional) ancestors persecuted Jews in 1348-50, you were more likely to become a Nazi in the 1920s and 1930s.

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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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Inception Statistics

We’ve had a lot of very heated debates on this blog about the uses and abuses of global statistics—most recently on estimates of poverty, maternal mortality, and hunger—with a certain senior Aid Watch blogger inciting the ire of many (not least those who produce the figures) by calling them “made-up.”

A new study in the Lancet about the tragic problem of stillbirths raises similar questions: If stillbirths have been erratically and inconsistently measured in the past, especially in poor countries with weak health systems, what then are these new numbers based on?

Of the 193 countries covered in the study, the researchers were able to use actual, reported data for only 33. To produce the estimates for the other 160 countries, and to project the figures backwards to 1995, the researchers created a sophisticated statistical model. {{1}}

What’s wrong with a model? Well, 1) the credibility of the numbers that emerge from these models must depend on the quality of “real” (that is, actual measured or reported) data, as well as how well these data can be extrapolated to the “modeled” setting ( e.g. it would be bad if the real data is primarily from rich countries, and it is “modeled” for the vastly different poor countries – oops, wait, that’s exactly the situation in this and most other “modeling” exercises) and 2) the number of people who actually understand these statistical techniques well enough to judge whether a certain model has produced a good estimate or a bunch of garbage is very, very small.

Without enough usable data on stillbirths, the researchers look for indicators with a close logical and causal relationship with stillbirths. In this case they chose neonatal mortality as the main predictive indicator. Uh oh. The numbers for neonatal mortality are also based on a model (where the main predictor is mortality of children under the age of 5) rather than actual data.

So that makes the stillbirth estimates numbers based on a model…which is in turn…based on a model.

Showing what a not-hot topic this is, most of the articles in the international press that covered the series focused on the startling results of the study, leaving aside the more arcane questions of how the researchers arrived at their estimates. The BBC went with “Report says 7,000 babies stillborn every day worldwide.” Canada’s Globe and Mail called stillbirths an “epidemic” that “claims more lives each year than HIV-AIDS and malaria combined.” Frequently cited statistics included the number of stillbirths worldwide in 2009 (2.6 million), the percentage of those stillbirths that occur in developing countries (98%), the number of yearly stillbirths in Africa (800,000), and the average yearly decline in stillbirth over the period studied (1.1 percent since 1995).

Only one international press article found in a Google search, by AP reporter Maria Cheng, mentioned the possible limitations of the study’s estimates. Not coincidentally, that article interviewed a source named Bill Easterly.

Despite the disinterest of the media, this is a serious problem. Research and policy based on made-up numbers is not an appealing thought. Could the irresponsible lowering of standards on data possibly reflect an advocacy agenda rather than a scientific agenda, or is it just a coincidence that Save the Children is featured among the authors of the new data?

[[1]]From the study: “The final model included log(neonatal mortality rate) (cubic spline), log(low birthweight rate) (cubic spline), log(gross national income purchasing power parity) (cubic spline), region, type of data source, and definition of stillbirth.” [[1]]


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Memo to the WHO: Blocking health worker migration is not the answer

This guest post is written by Michael Clemens and Amanda Glassman. Through this Sunday, April 17, the World Health Organization (WHO) is seeking comments on its plans to monitor compliance with a global code of practice on the international migration of doctors and nurses.

We think there are better, cost-effective ways to improve health workforces in developing countries than compliance with this code that is self-contradictory, unlikely to help the poor, and ethically problematic.

First, the code contradicts itself. It establishes that all health workers—like all people—have the right to leave their countries to seek a better life (section 3.4) and that the international movement of health workers between two countries benefits both of them (section 3.8), through skill formation and technology transfer… and then it says that such movement must be stopped. It urges all countries to seek zero international movement of health workers—both by filling all their health sector positions with locals (section 5.4) and by stopping the recruitment of health workers from countries facing shortages (5.1), that is, the poorest countries where conditions for health workers are the worst. This contradiction is as baffling as saying: “You may drive anywhere you wish, now that my friends have taken away your car.”

Second, the self-sufficiency and anti-recruitment strategies endorsed by the code—certain to harm poor-country health workers—are unlikely to improve basic health outcomes for others in the most vulnerable poor countries. Blocking a Mozambican surgeon from stepping across the border into South Africa does little to remedy a long list of problems that primarily determine poor health outcomes in Mozambique: poor sanitation, tainted water supplies, lack of malaria prevention, little incentive for health workers to serve rural areas, a disconnect between health workers’ advanced skills and the basic needs of the poorest, risky sexual practices among the public, absenteeism at ostensibly staffed clinics, constraints on income and education that limit the public’s demand for formal health care, lack of pharmaceuticals, needless legal barriers to private practice for underserved communities, and so on.

Finally, while the benefits of forcibly blocking that Mozambican doctor from entering South Africa are unclear, the harm is perfectly clear. It certainly limits her freedom in a way that no one at the WHO would want their own freedoms restricted. Whether her movement is blocked by denying her entry at the border, by eliminating all the jobs she could have taken (self-sufficiency for South Africa), or by concealing from her any information about those jobs (banning anyone from recruiting her), the effect is equally ethically troubling. Her movement is stopped by others, against her will, without consulting her. Worse, it is usually done by people enjoying vastly higher living standards than she can enjoy in Mozambique, living standards that most of them enjoy by birthright.

Fortunately, there are good alternatives to coercive barriers on health worker movement. A team of World Bank health experts recently studied the human resource policies of Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, and the Dominican Republic, and found several other ways that all four countries could improve the effectiveness of their health workforces:

[S]ignificant weaknesses were found in policies and practices related to recruitment, deployment, transfer, promotion, sanctioning, and payment methods of public sector health workers. Recruitment processes are plagued by delays and not targeted to areas with staff shortages. Salaries and allowances are not being used to provide strong incentives for increasing rural practice and lowering absenteeism. Available wage bill resources are often not fully spent, and even when they are, considerable scope is available to use these resources more strategically. Thus, improving recruitment, deployment, transfer, promotion, and remuneration practices is just as important—and maybe more important—than expanding the health wage bill in addressing health workforce challenges.

In other words, there is much that countries can do to make their health workforces more effective—with the side effect of decreasing health workers’ incentive to emigrate—even without spending much more money.

Likewise, Dr. Churnrurtai Kanchanachitra and co-authors have just offered a long list of ways that developing countries can strengthen health workforces without coercing health workers’ movement. These include creating incentives for health workers to work in rural areas; dealing with other constraints like financial barriers and poor-quality health services that might be even more important in affecting health outcomes; and creating partnerships between hospitals from sending and receiving countries.

The WHO has chosen instead to focus on blunt instruments of coercion in its code of practice. But governments are not bound to the code, and may make better choices. As the WHO considers its guidelines for monitoring compliance with that code, it should reconsider the sections relating to self-sufficiency and anti-recruitment and strike them from the final version. We urge governments and the WHO to work constructively with the many alternative tools available to improve developing-country health outcomes and health systems without the troubling methods of coercion.

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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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If North Dakota were Zambia...

The Wall Street Journal had an article yesterday about the emptying out of the middle of the US. Controlling for ethnicity, the picture below shows in the darkest shades of red the greatest declines in the white population from 2000 to 2010:

What if we had a law that everybody had to stay in their home state? What if North Dakotans had to stay in North Dakota despite the collapsing economy there? Then wages would collapse and we would have very poor North Dakotans. Happily no one would dream of such a stupid law.  Instead we have middle class North Dakotans moving to other places voluntarily, where employers want to hire them voluntarily. And so (former) North Dakotans stay middle class.

For states...but not for countries. We treat migration usually as a non-option if Zambia has an economic decline, so Zambians stay there and get even poorer as the economy declines.

This is the great point made by Lant Pritchett in a classic article and in a CGD book. Why can't we start treating Zambians like North Dakotans?   If their home economy is declining, let them move to other places voluntarily, where employers want to hire them voluntarily. Why do we recognize the right to live wherever you want for North Dakotans and not for Zambians?

Response to David in comment below: yes things could be good for the North Dakotans left behind BECAUSE OF all the North Dakotans that have left. Just think of supply and demand for labor -- if the spur to migration was a downward shift in demand for labor, then having a lot leave shifts back the supply of labor and wages can remain the same. WITHOUT migration, North Dakota wages would have collapsed, which is what actually does happen in the migration-not-allowed Zambias of the world.

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Has NGO advertising gone too far?

by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk. Over the last couple of years, we have seen a lot of criticism of how international NGOs advertise and fundraise. There’s a new term – “poverty porn” – and a new emphasis on thinking seriously about the true impact of advertising.

I’ve heard three main arguments against oversimplified NGO advertising...

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Nation not part of "Democratic Revolt" international media story presumptuously holds election

A nation that does not fit into the media narrative on the Worldwide or Arab-wide Democratic Revolution went ahead and held an election today. Leading media representatives complained that there was no room for media attention to the historic, pivotal election in the nation of 74 million registered voters. "I mean there are no Arabs in Niger, are there?" said leading journalist Woodscott Tarleton. "We can barely keep up remembering the capitals of all those Arab countries like Iran."

Voters in the largest nation in sub-Saharan Africa expressed keen interest in the fragile fortunes of the ruling party, but no international reporters were able to be present in the country. "We are already overstretched sending reporters to cover the Arab Revolt from Morocco to Azerbaijan," said news executive Barnaby Cotswold, " not to mention the Japan earthquake and  Tiger Woods' play in the Masters. If  they really wanted the international press to judge whether the elections were free and fair,  couldn't they have waited a little?"

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World Bank to Bloggers: Drop Dead

UPDATE: Bill receives WDR2011 in Sunday 12:30pm email from World Bank. Should we complain now that he is getting special treatment? This morning we learned that the World Bank does not consider bloggers journalists. According to Bank policy, it won’t give press accreditation to bloggers, denying them access to the media briefing center where new reports are released under embargo before they are published for the public.

In this case, the report we won’t be allowed to see an advance copy of is this year’s World Development Report, on Conflict Security and Development. It’s due to be released to the public on Sunday night.

I was shocked, actually, since the World Bank is usually ahead of the curve when it comes to technology and communication. They have dozens of internal blogs which they encourage their staffers to post and comment on. Many of these these blogs don’t shy away from substantive debates about real development issues, including thoughtful self-criticism (a relevant example is this blog post by a World Bank staffer questioning whether anyone even reads the WDR any more, which makes us think they would WANT bloggers to write about it, but that’s another story).  Last year, the Bank opened up a new, user-friendly site with free access to 2,000 development indicators, and is hosting a competition to develop new apps that take advantage of this data.

We’ve given the WHO flak for shutting down debate saying that they “don’t participate in discussions on blogs” and shamed the UN for telling us they “didn’t have a communication policy for blogs.” But the World Bank? I expected so much better.

The White House has been accrediting bloggers since 2005, as do many US cities and states. Even the Millennium Challenge Corporation (a US aid agency) treats print and new media journalists equally.

I’m drafting an email to the Bank’s media department about this and encourage other bloggers to do the same. If we start now, we might just receive accreditation in time for the World Bank's 2015 "Mainstreaming New Media to Facilitate Progress of Democratizing New Technologies"  report.

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Finally, the definitive guide to creatively manufacturing your own research result

From the brilliant xkcd (also the creator of this classic in statistics humor).

We couldn’t resist using this as a way to illustrate some of our early wonky posts complaining about the suspected practice of “data mining” in aid research.

In aid world, research looks for an association of some type between two factors, like economic growth and foreign aid. But since both growth and aid contain some random variation, there is always the possibility that an association appears by pure chance.

“p < .05” is our assurance from the researchers that the probability that their result came about by coincidence is less than 1 in 20, or 5 percent, which is the accepted standard.

But the aid researchers—like the jelly bean scientists—are eager to find a result, so they may run many different tests. The problem, as Bill explained it, is that:

The 1 in 20 safeguard only applies if you only did ONE regression. What if you did 20 regressions? Even if there is no relationship between growth and aid whatsoever, on average you will get one “significant result” out of 20 by design. Suppose you only report the one significant result and don’t mention the other 19 unsuccessful attempts.…In aid research, the aid variable has been tried, among other ways, as aid per capita, logarithm of aid per capita, aid/GDP, logarithm of aid/GDP, aid/GDP squared, [log(aid/GDP) - aid loan repayments], aid/GDP*[average of indexes of budget deficit/GDP, inflation, and free trade], aid/GDP squared *[average of indexes of budget deficit/GDP, inflation, and free trade], aid/GDP*[ quality of institutions], etc. Time periods have varied from averages over 24 years to 12 years to to 8 years to 4 years. The list of possible control variables is endless….So it’s not so hard to run many different aid and growth regressions and report only the one that is “significant.”

And the next thing you know, there’s a worldwide boycott of green jelly beans…

UPDATE by Bill 12 noon: I asked around some journalist contacts of Aid Watch at leading newspapers how much awareness of this problem there is in the media, and got a fairly clear answer of ZERO.

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Aid Watch Government Shutdown Edition

UPDATE 12 noon: Comments show today we are in one of those dysfunctional audience relationship posts: we assume you can read our minds, and you assume we are idiots (see end of post).

Here at Aid Watch we are definitely NOT interested in contributing to the partisan diatribe gaining force on BOTH sides of the aisle.  We do wonder if the prospect of the US government shut down (still looming at time of publication) provides an experiment in feedback and accountability.  Maybe the government could use the experience to get some much needed responses on what we citizens do and do not value, and then come up with very crude guidelines for future cuts and not-cuts:

UPDATE 12 noon: This is one of those days where we left unstated many assumptions and qualifications, which was conclusive proof that we are idiots. 

Notice that we used the word "notice" the shutdown on public services, not "are direct beneficiaries of that service who feel its impact instantaneously and observably."  We believe voters and interest groups in their "noticing" can speak up about programs even if they are not direct beneficiaries (like aid) and they are also capable of looking forward to the long run.

A blog post makes one illustrative post, it's not a Ph.D. dissertation. Our illustrative point is that the shutdown provides one kind of  (highly imperfect) feedback on what public services are essential and which ones people notice (in the broader sense just described). Government programs that nobody cares about except the providers and employees and contractors for that program MAY be considered to POSSIBLY be a candidate for spending cuts or elimination.


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Barefoot on Broadway (Warning: gross feet pics)

Vivek Nemana is an NYU graduate student and a student worker at DRI. I’ve been working at DRI long enough to recognize bad aid, and yet my skin still tingles when I watch the TOMS Shoes’ One Day without Shoes video. I know, I KNOW…but I just can’t help being swept away by montages of beautiful young people “taking action” set to a backdrop of a dramatic Matisyahu song. So I bared my feet for the cause:



Sure, this whole event really just helps TOMS sell more shoes, and sure, it was cold and raining in New York, and sure, I solicited bewildered stares, watched mothers shield their daughters from me, and possibly contracted hepatitis, but wasn’t I raising awareness about the real, complex challenges facing developing countries? Because wouldn’t African people hate to be shoeless on a rainy day in the Village, too? Also, do you think I could be a foot model?

TOMS, a for-profit shoe company, likes to use highfalutin’ NGO buzzwords like “accountability,” “awareness” and “change” in its marketing. It just published its first “giving report.” Which is fantastic…except that the campaign reinforces the stereotype that Africans are so pathetically destitute that they need anything we can give them, while allowing us to ignore both the condescending implication that the only hope for the poor is our charity, and the negative impacts of gifts-in-kind on local economies.

I also attended a One Day Without Shoes event held by the TOMS Shoes club at NYU. When I prodded my fellow students a bit about why they supported TOMS, the main message I came away with (and here please note my sample size n=2) was that people should buy the shoes because, with little time and disposable income to spare, it’s an easy way to be charitable with the things we do already.

In a way the attitude itself makes sense – it’s a fundamental economic principle -- but it manifests itself in a giving model (and this goes for BOGO and gifts-in-kind in general) that runs backwards. Instead of taking a fundamental problem that people face – say, unsafe conditions for children – and thinking of what they need to help solve it, this model takes a solution – shoes – and staples it to some problem that people have. And by attempting to view the whole spectrum of issues through this single-dimensional proto-solution, it’s easy to forget about all the unintended consequences.

It’s obvious that the TOMS aid-vertising works, that it can successfully generate a huge grassroots-style movement of well-intentioned people by not only playing into their sense of justice but also providing them with a way to “do something.” But, as I ended my own half-hearted participation in One Day Without Shoes, I remained unconvinced that easy aid could ever be good aid.

What I am certain of, however, is that nobody should EVER have to walk around barefoot in Greenwich Village.

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Stories our data tells us: 3 Ways of Looking at a Dictator

Next installment in our popular (for wonks maybe?) series on the volatility of growth outcomes under autocracy: What if we have it backward, and growth volatility causes autocracy?

The picture below shows the association between per capita growth outcomes and a measure of "individualist" values.

Once again the most striking thing is the high variance of growth outcomes under collectivist values, and a much lower variance under individualist values. Which causes which? One plausible story is that collectivist values evolve in highly volatile environments in which people long for collective insurance mechanisms -- like the family/clan/nation coercing the most successful members of the family/clan/nation to sacrifice their rewards for everyone else. In safer environments (those on the right in the graph), it's easier for individuals to assert their rights and responsibility to fend for themselves and keep the rewards of their own efforts.

Of course, individualism is also highly correlated with actually having democracy, while collectivist values predict autocracy.

We have now had in our series 3 different stories for why autocracies have higher variance of growth outcomes:

  1. Growth volatility under autocracy is all about the benevolence of Lee Kuan Yew versus the malevolence of Mobutu.
  2. It has nothing to do with autocrats, it is just there's more measurement error in low income economies (which are typically also autocracies).
  3. OK maybe it is autocracy, but high volatility causes autocracy, not the other way around (TODAY'S POST).

The present author seems to have evolved beyond the dreaded two-handed economist to being a three-handed economist. Actually, there are other tests we could do to discriminate between stories or to apportion how much each accounts for the outcome.

But I have a different point -- we are often tempted to stop too soon, to tell just ONE story that could --horrors! -- depend partly on our self-interest and preferences.

Story #1 has been the default most-popular-girl-in-the-class so far. It's convenient for the autocrats(!), and for those who aspire to advise them and give them aid.

Stories #2 and #3 are more about the limits of expert knowledge and influence, which sounds like yet another way to be unpopular.

Technical Notes:

“Individualism” is obviously a slippery concept both in theory and in measurement. This exercise (from work in progress by this author) tried to get a rough measure by averaging over 3 independent measures: (1) the World Values Survey asks each respondent (Question E037) to identify themselves on a 1 to 10 scale from People Should Take More Responsibility (1) to Government Should Take More Responsibility (10). (2) Hofstede (1980,2001 ) surveyed IBM employees in a sample of countries around the world and used factor analysis on the answers to construct a spectrum from “collectivist” to “individualist” values. (3) Schwartz (1994, 1999) used answers on a survey of values from 15,000 schoolteachers around the world to construct a measure going from “person as embedded in the group” to “person viewed as autonomous…who finds meaning in his or her own uniqueness.” Each measure was normalized to have mean zero and standard deviation 1 where positive values are in the direction of more individualism, and then a summary measure used an average over any or all of the 3 measures available for each country.


 Hofstede, Geert H., 1980. Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Hofstede, Geert H., 2001. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations, second ed. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Schwartz, Shalom H., 1999. Cultural value differences: Some implications for work. Applied Psychology International Review 48, 23–47.

Schwartz, Shalom H., 1994. Beyond individualism/collectivism: new cultural dimensions of values. In: Uichol, Kim, Triandis, Harry C., Kagitcibasi, Cigdem, Choi, Sang-Chin, Yoon, Gene (Eds.), Individualism and Collectivism: Theory, Method, and Applications. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

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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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UN Revealed to be Gigantic 66-year-old Hoax

“I can’t believe it lasted this long,” said “US Ambassador to the UN” Susan Rice, laughing, “Who would really believe that there is this magical agency that would, like, be responsible for solving all the problems in the whole world?  That nobody else can solve? Or even wants to?” “I really thought it would come out when that prankster Ban Ki Moon put Libya on the "reformed" Human Rights Council in 2010,” said Rice, “after there was a backlash against Libya CHAIRING the old Human Rights Commission. Who would fall for that?”

Ban, who in real life is a much-loved writer for 30 Rock, also bet “UNCTAD Secretary-General” Supachai Panitchpakdi three shots of Glenlivet that he would never get more than 15 crisscrossing arrows into one UN diagram. He lost the bet.

A team of investigative reporters finally broke the story after receiving a tip from a group of concerned Azerbaijani citizens who recognized their “Ambassador” as a child soap opera star from the 1970s. As details began to emerge, Ban and Supachai locked themselves in the General Assembly Complex, which was discovered to be 30 floors of luxury condos, restaurants, and health spas.

Reporters found in the rest of the UN building the remains of old mainframe computers.  These computers, manned by a few technicians, were created to run programs like the UN Automatic Document Software, which produced for many decades 300-page documents with language like:

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, …. promote greater coherence among the development activities of different development partners; ….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…

UN Computers also ran the revolutionary Promise ReMaker Software, which every 15 years reiterates and reaffirms in stirring language the International Goals made 15 years earlier. Other programs issued new batches of imaginary data every year on per capita income, employment, gender, income distribution, and nutrition.

Josette Sheeran, the “World Food Program Executive Director,” who is really a heavily tattooed computer hacker from Boulder, Colorado, said “It’s amazing all these programs can now fit onto a single MacBook.” She sighed, “we didn’t want to move the huge mainframes out of the building for fear we would get caught.”

“Now the hoax is over,” said Rice sadly, “it’s a bit of a shame.” Sir Mark Lyall Grant KCMG, Her Britannic Majesty's Permanent Representative from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the United Nations, agreed: “Now where are we going to send those problems we are too cowardly to address ourselves?”

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Does growth reflect good and bad dictators, or just good and bad statisticians?

As a previous post showed, autocracies have high variance of growth outcomes (also illustrated in the graph above). The usual interpretation is that benevolent autocrats cause good outcomes while malevolent autocrats cause bad growth outcomes.  Democracy has checks and balances that prevents malevolent people from having too much power to generate bad outcomes, but also restrains the good ones from doing what they want to achieve the great outcomes.

Unless this is completely wrong. Autocracy is only one dimension of society, after all, and is heavily correlated with other dimensions that could cause high dispersion of development outcomes, such as dependence on commodity exports, dependence on agriculture, civil wars, and ... BAD STATISTICIANS (?!)

Bad statisticians make a lot of measurement mistakes. Average growth over 1960-2008 might have zero mistake ON AVERAGE, but there will randomly be some countries with a string of exaggerated growth rates. Other countries will randomly have a string of underestimated growth rates. So the variance of growth will be higher the worse the data quality -- which is exactly what we see in the picture.

Of course, I am not saying China or Singapore or Taiwan have high growth (and Liberia has horrible growth) ONLY because of measurement error. Other indicators confirm the East Asian booms -- but are we really sure growth was 6 percent per capita per year, instead of 4 percent per capita per year?

How bad is bad quality data? Alwyn Young at LSE has a fascinating recent paper in which he points out:

although the on-line United Nations National Accounts database provides GDP data in ...constant prices for 47 sub-Saharan countries for each year from 1991 to 2004, the UN statistical office which publishes these figures had, as of mid-2006, actually only received data for just under half of these 1410 observations and had, in fact, received no constant price data, whatsoever, on any year for 15 of the countries for which the complete 1991-2004 on-line time series are published.

So for 15 African countries, "bad quality data on real GDP growth" really means "NO data on real GDP growth".

Next time you are praising an autocrat for a glorious growth record, remember you may really just be praising an incompetent statistician.

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