Stop! Tom Friedman said something smart, about Arab world, Afghanistan, Pakistan

This blog and this author have given poor Mr. Friedman grief in the past for babbling nonsense. So it's only fair that we give America's favorite random idea generator credit when he comes up with a surprisingly cogent paragraph:

When one looks across the Arab world today at the stunning spontaneous democracy uprisings, it is impossible to not ask: What are we doing spending $110 billion this year supporting corrupt and unpopular regimes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that are almost identical to the governments we’re applauding the Arab people for overthrowing?

Overlooking a few technical details -- such as Afghanistan and Pakistan NOT being almost identical to pre-revolt Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya -- the general idea seems vaguely correct. Why pour in US aid to finance a very unhappy political equilibrium?

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The worst-kept secret in aid: aid-receiving governments run the aid agencies

see UPDATE at end of this post

Thomas Friedman had a good NYT column about Karzai yesterday. {{1}} His column cleared up the puzzlement created by a Dallas News editorial and other very similar stories about how Obama’s visit to Afghanistan to get Karzai to clean up corruption was great for “seizing Karzai’s attention.” Now we know why there’s corruption in Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai just FORGOT to deal with it. Could one of our army doctors give him A.D.D. medication?

Friedman is more realistic about a phenomenon that has been long known in donor-government /recipient-government relationships:  the recipient is the one who runs the donor government’s policies towards the recipient government. The same happens in multilateral aid agencies. We saw this all the time at the World Bank, where the corrupt autocrats receiving our loans would let us know what conditions we should put on the loans to them.

Friedman has a pithy rule that donors routinely break:

Never want it more than they do.

Of course, when the donors want something more than the recipient, and the donors know they MUST continue the aid relationship, the recipient is in a strong bargaining position to ignore that something, and no amount of attention-seizing is going to work. As Friedman says:

If we want good governance in Afghanistan more than Karzai, he will sell us that carpet over and over. How many U.S. officials have flown to Kabul — the latest being President Obama himself — to lecture Karzai on the need to root out corruption in his administration? …. he believes he has us over a barrel and, in the end, he can and will do whatever serves his personal power needs because he believes that we believe that he is indispensable for confronting Al Qaeda…

Even in less fraught situations than Afghanistan, the donors have an extremely poor record enforcing conditions on recipients. Not only do they break the Friedman Rule, but the department for Country X in the aid agency MUST disburse its budget for Country X this fiscal year (or else it won’t get any budget next year). The recipient knows this and so can ignore the conditions. (For a more careful and technical development of this argument, see the classic paper on why aid conditions don’t work by Jakob Svensson).

The solution to the problem is as logically simple as it is politically difficult: give aid only to country governments who want IT more than we do.

UPDATE (4/1, 12:14PM): Karzai says to luncheon guests  that America is an obstacle to peace in Afghanistan. Well, THAT would really simplify the problem -- just remove the obstacle! 

[[1]]Just for the record, I usually think that whatever Friedman writes about economics is nonsense while what he writes about Middle Eastern/Central Asian politics is good. This may be because I know something about the former and nothing about the latter.[[1]]

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Democracy and development look different from inside a jail cell

One of my most inspirational experiences lately was to meet with an African democratic opposition leader whom I had long admired from afar. He earned his credentials the hard way -- he spent years in jail under the dictatorial government of his country.

While in jail, he read the foreword to one extremely popular book on The End of Poverty. The author thanked the dictator who had jailed the opposition leader for the dictator's "help and guidance" on the book, naming this same autocrat as one of "Africa's new generation of democratic leaders."

He also was not a big fan of statistical regressions that tell poor people when they are allowed to have democratic rights. He can't understand why there's a double standard: real democracy for rich countries, yet doubts about whether poor societies deserve to be free. Not to mention active support of aid organizations for authoritarian leaders. One aid organization gave their representative an award for creative financing of this same dictator while this opposition leader was in jail.

He knew that I am  in favor of democracy for poor nations, and he encouraged me to do better at making that case, partly on idealistic grounds and partly on pragmatic ones. I feel like I have let him down by not making more progress on this longstanding debate.

I am keeping the country and opposition leader unspecified, for fear of further harassment of this courageous activist by his country's "new generation of democratic leader."

Coincidentally, I read today a superb article by Carl Schramm on democracy and capitalism in the Fall 2009 Claremont Review of Books (alas the article itself is not available online). Among other things, Schramm takes down Thomas Friedman for his book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded."  Schramm says:

This is what happens in free market democracies, Friedman tells us -- an unacceptable mess ensues when there are no expert overseers to direct our affairs.

According to Schramm, Friedman's ideal system seems to be if

intellectual elites could rule us in a benign autocracy. And it likely would be benign, because intellectuals are ... so nice.

You can keep all your experts, I'll take one real democratic opposition leader anyday.

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