Unusual evidence of the intense demand for quality schooling

Every parent knows admissions decision time is incredibly stressful, both for them and for their offspring. The Wall Street Journal reports that surging admissions to the best schools have made it even more stressful, and some wonder whether it's worth it:

...worries that fewer spots were available in the schools this year after siblings and legacy applicants were factored in, as well as parents' complaints that some children had been shut out unfairly from some schools.

"It's madness," said M. Starita Boyce Ansari, a Manhattan philanthropy adviser, "...they should be able to enjoy their lives instead of being subjected to all this pressure"

Oh, I forgot to mention, the group of applicants who are subject to all this pressure are: 4-year-olds.

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What aid critics could learn from movie critics

The Wall Street Journal yesterday had an article on "2010: worst movie year ever?". Movie critics have a way with words that leaves us aid critics in the dust.

Hollywood is fighting a war on numerous fronts, and losing all of them.

And movie critics are even worse at something aid critics are often accused of: much more focus on the negative than on constructive positive suggestions -- "just stop."

Stop making movies like "Grown Ups," "Sex and the City 2," "Prince of Persia" and anything that positions Jennifer Aniston or John C. Reilly at the top of the marquee. Stop trying to pass off Shia LaBeouf—who looks a bit like the young George W. Bush—as the second coming of Tom Cruise. Stop casting Gerard Butler in roles where he is called upon to emote. And if "Legion" and "Edge of Darkness" and "The Back-up Plan" and "Hot Tub Time Machine" are the best you can do, stop making movies, period. Humanity will thank you for it.

Scorchingly negative movie critics are like aid critics in their social function -- clear away all the bad stuff to make room for the good stuff. Without movie critics, we'll have an octogenerarian Sex and the City 8. With critics, we have some hope of some day having another Godfather or Annie Hall.

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The coming end to China's rapid growth

China's remarkable growth rate is unlikely to last. No country in history has managed to grow nearly so fast for so long. "China is defying the law of gravity at the moment," says New York University economist William Easterly, who has tracked economic development for decades. "But that doesn't mean that gravity is wrong."

From 1900 to 2000, NYU's Mr. Easterly says, per-capita growth of all countries ranged between 1% to 3% a year. Nearly all the nations on the high end so far, he says, are democratic capitalist countries — and the additional growth over long periods of time made them rich.

"When we make too much of growth spurts," he says, "it like making too much of a basketball player who has a hot hand."

From last week’s Wall Street Journal.

And here is some more substance (possibly spurious) to rationalize why China's growth will slow down, for those of you unhappy with impersonal statistical tendencies.

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Thank you, World Cup fans, I now understand institutions for development

UPDATE July 8, 2010 12:10pm: link to a great new article on the spontaneous evolution of rules in the history of football (see end of post) I learned a lot from the furious debate that followed the post about rules vs. norms, regarding whether Uruguay cheated Ghana.

My original notion was that intentionally breaking the rules to prevent a loss was cheating, and that it was too bad norms prevalent in Football World did not penalize such behavior more fiercely so that it wouldn’t have happened in the first place. (A column in today’s Wall Street Journal agreed with me. Maybe we’re just both fervent Ghana fans.)

But let’s shift now from normative to positive economics. Do the norms in the Football World let you sometimes break the rules intentionally and suffer the official penalty, without any further normsy punishment of everlasting disgrace? From the numerous comments the post received (assuming they weren’t all concealing Uruguayan ancestry), the answer appears to be yes. (Read the comments on the original post; also read Steve Horwitz's great post on the blog Coordination Problem.)  Many commentators pointed out similar intentional rule violations in American sports, which the norms of American sports fans appear to tolerate. Norms in sports (as in economics) evolve spontaneously to fit the needs of participants (fans, players, or businessmen), and so deserve some respect before a rush to judgment. Possible cautionary lesson #1: arrogant people (code word for Americans) should not pass judgment on other societies they don’t understand (like Football World).

Other people pointed out the complexities of rule systems that include penalties for breaking the rules. You don’t want excessively draconian penalties (like the death penalty for contract violations or handballs), or nobody would engage in mutually beneficial activities in the first place, like contracts or football matches. And, with that caveat, no penalty system can be perfectly designed so that it never pays to break the rules in any and all situations. Some egregious case where it paid to break the rule could cause an over-reaction towards excessive penalties or dysfunctional rules (possible examples in financial and economic reforms as well as football).

Norms play a useful role in not only strengthening the incentives to keep the formal rules, but also in complementing the formal rule-formal penalty system. Norms can handle the subtleties of when intentionally breaking the rules and accepting the penalty is OK and when it is not. So for example, social norms might forgive a businessman who chooses to break a contract because of something unforeseen like a fire in his factory, but not so much a businessman who lied about whether there was really a factory fire. In football, I assume fan norms would still be pretty tough on a minor football player on one team who intentionally causes a long-lasting and disabling injury to the best football player on the other team. Possible cautionary lesson #2: Norms are complicated. Norms may evolve in a useful way that no single person can fully understand. Norms can be smarter than I am or you are.

Back to normative economics: I can still express my own opinions – I still think Ghana should have won. Now, that that’s over: Go Spain! (Sorry, Dutch and German fans, but none of your banks’ foundations awarded my research institute 400,000 euros.)

UPDATE July 8, 12:10pm:  just found a great new article on the history of football (in its many varieties) as an example of the spontaneous emergence of rules (HT Facebook friend Gonzalo Schwarz).

UPDATE 2: PS if my memory is correct, neither Netherlands nor Spain were beneficiaries of any of the egregious rule violations and blown calls by refs during this World Cup. Maybe playing by the rules is a winning strategy after all.

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Hips don't lie about aid

UPDATE December 14, 2010: The Guardian refers to this post in hosting a discussion of the role of celebrities in development. I'll get some grief for celebexploitation on this one... but what the heck..

The celebrity aid phenomenon is not going away any time soon, so one wonders ... are there any celebrities doing it better than others?

The Wall Street Journal had an interview with Shakira about her philanthropy efforts.

There are a few things to like:

(1) Shakira is concentrating on a place she knows well -- her native coastal Colombia, including her hometown of Barranquilla. Points for local knowledge compared to Africa-touring celebrities who wouldn't know a fufu stick from a groundnut. When she visits her projects, she's visiting people she knows.

(Another nice touch is that the journalist interviewing Shakira is also from Barranquilla.)

(2) She's starting to work with impoverished Latino kids in the US -- another group she knows well from her own life experience. More points for local knowledge.

(3) She's focusing on primary and secondary education, which apparently she again feels strongly about from her own experience.  Points for specialization.

Where did the revenue from the world's most valuable hips go?

Shakira’s latest contribution went to our hometown. In February 2009, the Barefoot Foundation inaugurated a $6 million K-12 mega-school. El colegio de Shakira, as it is known locally, gets only praise. A friend described it to me as an American institution, by which she meant state-of-the-art. The complex includes an auditorium, chemistry labs and even air conditioning. “Parents receive English classes and computer skills,” Shakira says, “and the entire neighborhood can play soccer there.” Families look for every possible way to move close to the school.

So, getting away from the idea that this blog will always and everywhere ridicule any celebrities doing philanthropy, here's a case that looks better than many others.

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The “smart power” military-industrial complex takes off

What do Lockheed Martin Corp, Northrop Grumman Corp, and L-3 Communications Inc. have in common? Yes, all are top 10 Pentagon contractors. But they are also increasingly winning lucrative government contracts to implement “smart power” or “nation-building” programs—like educating peacekeeping troops in human-rights law, sending anthropologists to Afghanistan to understand local culture, mentoring Liberian prosecutors to combat corruption and crime, and rebuilding airports and government ministries.

Hillary Clinton and others in the administration have helped pave the way for this shift by calling for a “smart power” approach in which the 3Ds—defense, diplomacy and development—are mutually reinforcing (which we respectfully acknowledged by giving the 3Ds idea our Grand Prize for Worst in Aid).

From yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

Defense firms are eager to oblige. "The definition of global security is changing," says Lockheed's Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Stevens. He wants the maker of the Air Force's most advanced fighters to become a central player in the U.S. campaign to use economic and political means to align countries with American strategic interests

Last year, Lockheed had two of its highest profile programs, the F-22 Raptor fighter and a fleet of presidential helicopters, ended by the Obama administration. Now, Lockheed is one of several defense firms expected to bid for a new State Department contract to support "criminal justice sector development programs world-wide," that could be worth up to $30 billion over five years.

Africa won’t be overlooked:

Africa—where few U.S. troops are stationed—is a major focus. Many countries on this continent already are, or risk becoming, failed states. While they previously hadn't been considered a threat to the U.S., that view is changing. Somalia's nexus of terrorism and piracy is one example of how destabilized countries can become a redoubt for al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

The U.S. military is already overstretched between Iraq and Afghanistan. So the Pentagon is eager to send defense firms to fill the gaps, in the hope that investing millions in training or advisory programs today may stave off a regional calamity that could cost billions in the future.

"Africa certainly is an area of interest to our U.S. government customers, and what's important to our customers is important to us," said Lockheed's Mr. Stevens.

UPDATE: Vijaya Ramachandran reminded us on Twitter that she had a related post "Blurring the Line Between Defense and Development" on the CGD Blog:

In a little-noticed move in January, private military contractor DynCorp bought 100% of the shares of international development contractor Casals & Associates ....The .. merger suggests a blurring of the line between development and defense in the private sector, as well.

...what happens when unarmed development project managers and heavily armed private security providers work under the same company brand? How will local people respond to a company employed by both USAID and the U.S. military?

On the other hand, there are some clear advantages to the new approach....

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How the war on AIDS was lost

There was an alarming article in the Wall Street Journal on the reverses of previous advances in AIDS prevention in Uganda, plus running out of US funding for AIDS treatment. The war on AIDS is being lost. Here are the facts:

  1. There were an estimated 2.7 million new infections worldwide in 2008; 1.9 million of them were in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The number of people added to treatment each year is also increasing rapidly, but not rapidly enough to keep up with new infections. Worldwide in 2008, 1.1 million people were added to treatment; 825,000 of them in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  2. New global funding for AIDS has grown rapidly over the past decade, but funding from the US government for major programs  PEPFAR and the Global Fund (a large portion of total AIDS funding)  now appears to be leveling off.

Despite the goal of “universal access to treatment” (a Millennium Development target that was supposed to be met by 2010),  only 44% of people in need of ARV treatment in Sub-Saharan Africa were actually receiving it. Now, as the WSJ story and other reports document, sick people are being turned away without treatment, and many who contract HIV in the future will have no hope of treatment.

Last year the WHO country representative in South Africa warned that "At the rate we are going, with new [HIV] infections rising it will be almost impossible ... to keep providing free treatment to those who need it."

How did this enormous tragedy occur? Perhaps because the global health community concentrated on AIDS treatment and neglected prevention (which they never figured out how to do). As was pointed out by David Roodman in Monday’s blog post, public attention and activism is a finite resource. In AIDS, virtually all of it was spent on treatment (led by the 3 Bs - Bono, Bill Clinton, and Bill Gates - and 1 W) and very little on prevention.

Despite AIDS  getting unprecedented amounts of funding, funding was never going to be unlimited.   So there was going to a treatment funding crisis sooner or later, as Mead Over recently pointed out.

This current crisis was anticipated by writers like Helen Epstein, Daniel Halperin, David Canning, and Over. All have issued pleas for emphasizing AIDS prevention and given practical advice on doing prevention. All have been ignored.

Will there at last be a new war on AIDS that emphasizes prevention, that saves the next generation?

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The iPad and women's rights

Within seconds of the unveiling of the iPad by Steve Jobs, Twitter lit up with women complaining and/or joking that the name immediately made them think of a certain feminine hygiene product. #iTampon was the #1 trending topic on Twitter yesterday and remains so this morning. Could this be one of those unintentionally revealing moments that women's rights in the US has not come as far as we thought? That women did not have enough voice or power within a major US corporation for it to anticipate this  marketing blunder?  That this wouldn't have happened if the head of Apple were named Stephanie Jobs?

That maybe along with dumping all over those evil Third World men that keep women down, awareness that there is a wee shortfall in women's equality in the First World?

Another lesson from this episode is the democratizing power of Twitter. None of the major newspapers (defined as the 3 that I get every morning: NYT, WSJ, and FT) mentioned the controversy in print today. Maybe women don't have enough voice or power at newspapers either.  (The WSJ does have an online article on it, although it is mostly just describing what happened on Twitter.) But Twitter is a more democratic medium that allowed women (and their male friends) to voice bemusement, anger, and ridicule. One small step for women, maybe some day a giant leap for womankind.

UPDATE: Dennis Whittle points out that sanitary pads actually ARE a development issue.

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The vacuous top and the resourceful bottom in the Haiti crisis

Meeting about Haiti in Montreal on Monday, representatives from 14 donor countries and the European Union came together and committed to a detailed, specific, well-coordinated plan … to come up with a plan. Chairman of the Conference, Canada's Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon:

We have a shared vision on the way forward, one plan that ties us all together. ... Clear vision, co-ordination and adherence to principles of aid effectiveness will be essential.

Stay tuned for the follow-up meeting to be held at the UN in March.

In the meantime, though, stories are filtering through from aid workers on the ground confronting practical constraints of bottlenecks and distributions…not waiting around for plans.

A team of US doctors who were among the first medical responders in Port-au-Prince described their experience in a scathing WSJ op-ed:

…Our operation received virtually no support from any branch of the U.S. government, including the State Department. As we ran out of various supplies we had no means to acquire more. There was no way to transfer patients we were poorly equipped to manage (such as a critically ill newborn with respiratory distress) to a facility where they would get better care. We were heartbroken having to tell patients suffering incredible pain we could not perform their surgery for at least a day….

Later, as we were leaving Haiti, we were appalled to see warehouse-size quantities of unused medicines, food and other supplies at the airport, surrounded by hundreds of U.S. and international soldiers standing around aimlessly.

The international relief and development blogger Tales from the Hood is now blogging from Port-au-Prince:

Wyclef Jean complained on Oprah about air-drops during week one: “My people are not animals…” And I would, of course, completely agree. They’re not animals. And I’d agree that air-drops are or should be a last-resort means, and are not standard relief distribution procedure. But then this is hardly a standard situation…. Back-of-the-cocktail-napkin estimates say that better than half of distribution events in Haiti since the earthquake turn violent, that violence ranging from beneficiaries beating each other up over bags of rice, to full-on looting of the truck, to shots fired and people killed. And his suggestion that perhaps he should coordinate distribution in Haiti is straight up the dumbest thing that I’ve heard in a very long time. … Maybe I should produce his next album?

A letter from the co-founder of the NGO SOIL, Sasha Kramer, provides a somewhat different perspective:

For centuries Haiti has been portrayed as a dangerous country filled with volatile and threatening people, unsafe for foreigners.

…this wall of fear … has had very serious implications for the distribution of the millions of dollars of aid that have been flowing into the country for the past 10 days. … much of the aid coming through the larger organizations is still blocked in storage, waiting for the required UN and US military escorts that are seen as essential for distribution, meanwhile people in the camps are suffering …

And then Kramer notes the contrast among the Haitians themselves.

The most striking thing I have noticed … is the level of organization and ingenuity among the displaced communities.  Community members stand ready to distribute food and water to their neighbors, they are prepared to provide first aid and assist with clean up efforts, all that they are lacking is the financial means to do so.

If you know of good first person accounts being written by aid workers in Haiti, please add them in the comments.

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Hillary illustrates perils of fuzzy human rights concepts

Hillary-wsj.gif There is an interview with Hillary Clinton in today’s Wall Street Journal. Matthew Kaminski of the Journal asked her:

Why push human rights and democracy so hard in Africa, and not in Russia or China? Some see a double standard.

Excellent question! Hillary answers:

First I think it is important to stress that human rights remain a central driving force of our foreign policy. But I also think that it's important to look at human rights more broadly than it has been defined. Human rights are also the right to a good job and shelter over your head and a chance to send your kids to school and get health care when your wife is pregnant. It's a much broader agenda. Too often it has gotten narrowed to our detriment.

Uh oh. Is Hillary saying:

Don’t emphasize so much the traditional human rights where you can actually hold someone like Chinese and Russian rulers accountable – like the right for dissidents not to be tortured, jailed, and killed –

Because we are going to add fuzzy human rights where you can’t hold anyone accountable—rights to jobs, shelter, education, health?

Rights to basic needs have enormous moral appeal, but do they work? Progress on the first kind of human rights has happened because you could hold somebody accountable, while there is little evidence that second kind of human rights has pragmatically contributed anything to better employment, shelter, education and health (as this blog previously argued). So shifting emphasis from the first to the second slows down progress on the first, while doing little on the second.

And if the second acts as an excuse to not speak out on the first kind of traditional human rights,as Hillary seems to say...NOT good.

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