The Negative Highway

UPDATE 1:30PM: More "Breezewood"s! See end of post UPDATE 11:15am March 9: the Negative Subway (see end of post)

I used to drive often from Washington DC to Ohio and would pass fuming through  Breezewood PA, victim of a hijacking. Where there should have been a simple interchange of Interstates 70 and 76, the locals had conspired with the road builders to dump you on a short stretch of a stoplight-heavy road, PA State Highway 30, in between.

This generated a lot of jobs for the locals, of course, in all the motels, gas stations, and fast food places clustered along this road,

I am just in the middle of reading Bourgeois Dignity by Deirdre McCloskey and was amused to learn there what an ancient practice Breezewood was emulating.

The city of Bordeaux in the 1840s demanded that a railroad designed to go from Paris to Madrid break in Bordeaux to create jobs for porters, hotels, and cabs. The great liberal economist Frederic Bastiat pointed out that EVERY city along the way would want the same thing. Taken to extremes, most of the economy of France would consist of "job creation" for porters, hotels, and cabs working every few kilometers of what Bastiat called a "negative railroad," in lieu of workers producing rather better things like wine, cheese, and railroad cars.

It's not much of a stretch to apply the metaphor to other forms of protectionism, like protecting inefficient domestic industries against imports to "save jobs."

Fortunately today, most special interest protectionism is defeated most of the time, so  there are not a huge number of Breezewoods in the US interstate system, or metaphorically, in our rich modern economies as a whole. The political economy of why poor countries stay poor includes Breezewoods.

I no longer do the drive, so I've finally escaped Breezewood PA. Next time you pass through, please cuss them out for me.


Tim Ogden in the comments below identified another on the same PA turnpike. I then checked out the rest of the PA turnpike and found also another one at I-99 and I-76. Moving on to my home territory, the Ohio Turnpike around Toledo used to have something even worse than "Breezewood" to get from I-80 to I-75. I remember long ago my uncle arriving at my home in Bowling Green and launching into a tirade about this. There must have been enough people like my uncle to change things, and now there is a direct interchange. However, there is still a "Breezewood" to get from I-80 to I-475 south of Toledo.   

Wait, I'm supposed to be writing a paper! get back to work!

UPDATE 11:15am March 9: the Negative Subway. A reader points out another mis-function similar to a Breezewood -- public transit systems that don't reach the airport. This could be explained by the airport being out too far, but there are plenty of examples of nearby airports without transit access. The brilliant designers of the New York subway managed to send no less than 7 separate subway lines near or close to LaGuardia airport (which was built eons ago), but none of them reach it. New York's taxi drivers are extremely grateful for the Breezewood Subway.

Read More & Discuss

The Answer

....that no single key, no formula can, in principle, solve the problems of individuals or societies; that general solutions are not solutions, universal ends are never real ends.... ...that liberty--of actual individuals, in specific times and places--is an absolute value; that a minimum area of free action is a moral necessity for all men, not to be suppressed in the name of abstractions or general principles so freely bandied about by the great thinkers of this or any age, such as ... humanity, or progress...names invoked to justify acts of detestable cruelty and despotism, magic formulas designed to stifle the voices of human feeling and consience.

This is Isaiah Berlin describing the views of the great Russian thinker Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), although I think he was also describing the views of the great Russian thinker Isaiah Berlin. It's from one of my all-lifetime-favorite books, Russian Thinkers. (HT Dennis Whittle for reminding me of the Herzen chapter.)

Berlin presents the lite version of Herzen in a direct quote from his autobiography:

'Human life is a great social duty,' [said Louis Blanc], 'man must constantly sacrifice himself for society.'

'Why?' I asked suddenly.

'How do you mean "Why?"-but surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society?' [said Blanc]

'But it will never be attained if everybody makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself.'

Another version of this I heard a long time ago, not sure where:

The purpose of life is to live for others.

Then what should the others live for?

Read More & Discuss

QDDR: we can hardly contain our excitement

Aid Watch is as excited as everyone else to get a leaked, advance summary of the Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review, (HT Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy) which is a critical part of the US government process to set its priorities  on Development.

We love to seize occasions where we can be more positive to reward positive things happening, and not be our usual snarky selves.

Today is not one of those occasions.

Some highlights of the QDDR:

It would concern us that the QDDR is as aggressive as previous efforts we have complained about that want to merge Defense, Diplomacy, and Development. Fortunately this alarming militarization of development only covers actual or potential Failed States which according to the above Map in the QDDR is the entire developing world.

The review recognizes that US suffers from “insufficient internal coordination”of existing officials, offices and bureaus and so proposes to…create new officials, offices, and bureaus: Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights; a new Office of the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and Environmental Affairs; a Special Coordinator for Sanctions and Illicit Finance; a Bureau of International Energy Affairs.

The QDDR is very persuasive that the US government needs to set priorities, that it should focus on development issues where the US government has a comparative advantage, which turn out to be…all development issues: sustainable economic growth, democracy and governance, food security, global health, climate change, and humanitarian assistance.

We could go on, but let's mercifully draw this discussion to a close, and move on to something more useful, like trying to think of an iPod playlist of songs most relevant to development.

Read More & Discuss

Eyes Wide Shut: Philanthropy Action on the "Rescheduled" Sachs vs. Clemens/Demombynes debate

Tim Ogden at Philanthropy Action issues a petition for the "rescheduled" (quotes in original) Sachs vs. Clemens/Demombynes debate on evaluating Millennium Villages, which was supposed to happen last Wednesday, to be indeed, well, rescheduled.

He asks for all of us to be watching whether this indeed happens. Aid Watch is always in favor of more Watching, so we support Tim's petition.

Read More & Discuss

Millennium Villages: Moving the goalposts

Here on the blog, we’ve been following the progress of the Millennium Villages Project, a joint effort from the UN and Columbia’s Earth Institute that has introduced a package of development interventions in health, education, agriculture and infrastructure into 14 “clusters” of villages throughout 10 African countries. In response to a critical paper by Michael Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes, the MVP architects published a statement last week that they said would “clarify” some “basic misunderstandings” about the project. This statement caught our attention because—I would argue—what it is actually doing is seeking to reframe the debate about the project, and redefining project success in different, less ambitious terms.

“The primary aim” of the project, the MVP architects write, “is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals in the Project sites, as a contribution to the broader fulfillment of the MDGs (Evaluating the Millennium Villages: A response to Clemens and Demombynes, October 2010, emphasis in the original). Also important, they say, is to clarify what the MVP is not: “The MVP is not testing a rigid protocol for implementing MDG-based outcomes…The MVP is not claiming or aiming to provide a unique or “optimal” model for achieving the MDGs.”

This sounds fine unless you’ve read the many other MVP project reports and documents that clearly outline other, different, major goals and indicators of success.

For example:

So, in this context, what’s even more revealing about this new statement is what it does NOT say. It does not mention that the improvements to the villages will be self-sustaining, or even moving towards self-sustainability by 2015, although that notion was at one point advertised as a “central proposition underpinning the Millennium Villages concept” (MVP FAQ, late 2006). In this case, the clarification seems more like a retrenchment, a moving away from the ambitious claims made at the project’s optimistic outset.

The new MVP definition also backs away from talking about interventions “undertaken as a single integrated project” that will serve as “proof of concept that the poverty trap can be overcome” (as stated in the PNAS paper cited above). In fact the impact of the project as an integrated whole can’t be demonstrated, the MVP authors argue, because some of the same improvements at work in the Millennium Villages (insecticide-treated bednets, subsidized fertilizer and seeds, for example) are also present in many of the surrounding villages.

Before, the project was defined in its own materials as a research experiment (a “proof of concept” carried out first in “research villages”) to prove that a package of development interventions delivered in a particular way can help lift the very poorest people living in rural Africa out of poverty forever. In today’s new formulation, the MVP is a means to show that by spending an amount roughly equal to 100 percent of the village’s per capita income on already “proven” interventions, for a period of 10 years, it can allow that village, for at least one moment in time in 2015, to step across the finish line demarcated by the Millennium Development Goals.

If the project continues to define success in these narrower terms, it will effectively shift the focus away from any obligation to show that the positive things achieved in the Millennium Villages are self-sustaining beyond the 10-year life of the project, or to prove that they are actually a result of the project itself.


Screen shot of the top of World Bank's Africa Can...End Poverty Blog last Friday:

That notice was removed; here’s what the same blog tells us, at the bottom of the post, today:

UPDATE: Another view from Chris Blattman.

Read More & Discuss

And now going for the Aid Watch record on global charity cluelessness…

Aid Watch received the following tidbit from a trusted source. It was posted on a community list-serve:

Does anyone have any old men's size  8.5-9.0 sneakers they would like to get rid of? Like, lawnmowing sneakers, that sort of thing?  I'm running a mud race on Sunday and at the end the muddy destroyed sneakers will be donated to Green Sneakers, a non-profit that recycles old sneakers and donates them to people in need around the world. If you have a decent pair that can withstand a mud run, I'd be happy to take them off your hands.

Despite the great popularity of Aid Watch posts like Nobody wants your old shoes (by Alanna) and  A suggestion for the 1 million shirts guy (by Laura) it would be safe to say that all of us in this business still have a little  educatin' left to do.

Read More & Discuss

The Millennium Development What?

This is a joint post written with Claudia Williamson, a post-doctoral fellow at DRI. If you’re reading this blog, and especially if you’re in New York City right now, you’re probably familiar with the Millennium Development Goals. Besides being the focus of this week’s United Nations summit, they are just (according to the UN) “the most broadly supported, comprehensive, and specific development goals” in human history. Should we fail to meet them by 2015, (according to Oxfam) “we are likely to witness the greatest collective failure in history.”

They are the Hollywood blockbuster of development targets. They may not be nuanced or realistic, but they bring in lots of money.

For the rest of the world, who may have never been inside a white Land Cruiser, or can’t tell a CIDA from a SIDA, who’s ever heard of the MDGs?

In the latest wave of the World Values Survey, taken from 2005 to 2008, people in countries around the world were asked this question.

In the US, the world’s largest donor, only 5 percent of people surveyed were willing to admit that they had heard of something called the Millennium Development Goals. (Another survey from 2010 which posed the question slightly differently found that 10 percent of Americans had heard “a lot” or “some” about the MDGs, while 89 percent had heard “not much” or “nothing at all.” Either way you slice it, more Americans now believe the US president is a Muslim (18 percent) than have heard of the MDGs.)

In Japan, the second largest donor included in the survey (there are unfortunately no figures for the UK), 11 percent had heard of the worldwide targets. The Germans and Swedes scored the highest among donors, with 27 percent and 31 percent awareness, respectively.

When we plotted data from the World Values Survey against per capita income (data from the World Development Indicators) we found a negative relationship between income levels and the percentage of respondents who had heard of the MDGs.

Ethiopia, the poorest country in the sample and a large aid recipient, registered the highest MDG awareness, at 66 percent. Mali (47 percent) and Zambia followed (44 percent).

So people in countries that receive aid are more likely to be aware of the MDGs than people in the countries that give it. This probably doesn’t come as a shock. After all, aid policy in recipient countries affects people’s daily lives, determining for many whether they will get a loan for their small business, whether their crops will be competitive at market, whether their child will be vaccinated against a deadly disease. But aid policy in donor countries makes little difference to most. Simply put, people know when it pays to know.

Many people who think the MDGs are deeply flawed as specific development targets still support them because they believe they can be effective tools for advocacy in rich donor nations. And they have been effective at raising aid budgets over the last ten years. But as a tool to raise awareness among the wider population in wealthy countries about the problems facing poorer nations, the MDGs have fallen short.

Read More & Discuss

Be careful what you export

Our distant ancestors had a biological constitution awfully similar to our own, and, like us, only 24 hours in a day. Arguably the main reason we have so much better lives than them is that we have better ways of doing things (broadly conceived). So it makes a great deal of sense that much of the work in development planning and foreign aid consists in exporting ways of doing things. Technology and scientific know-how are the most easily obvious examples, but we also export methods of organization and governance. People in poorer nations don't have the nice things we do, so it must be because their ways of doing things aren't as effective as our own. If we could just convince them to do things the way we do them then everyone would be rich, and Bill wouldn't get any reception in Ghana either. So wealthy nations have spent a lot of time trying to export their newest and best makes and models of laws, regulations, and government agencies to the rest of the world.

One problem with this approach--one among many--is that it assumes that our every institutional and organizational innovation is beneficial. We call this "Whig history." And while it's hard to argue that wealthy nations don't have an overall mix of institutions better adapted to producing wealth, it's quite another to assume that they're superior (at wealth production) to poor nations' institutions on every margin. It could be that the evolution of our ways of doing things has taken a wrong turn in one or more spheres of activity.

Two recent articles raise the concern of Whig history, in ways relevant to ongoing debates in development. Eustace Davis writes at African Liberty that:

Governments world-wide are struggling to solve the problem of deficiencies in their schooling systems.  Politicians, teachers, educationists, administrators, employers, parents, politicians, policy analysts and students have differing ideas on how the problem should be solved.  All agree that something is wrong.  All have ideas on the kind of tinkering that is needed to fix the problem. The framework within which schooling functions is seldom or ever questioned; a framework that is little changed since schooling was nationalised in England in the late 19th and in the US in the early 20th centuries...

Schooling systems everywhere have become frozen in time. Schools are configured much as they were, and function in the same way they did, a century ago. A 1910 child would feel very much at home in a ‘modern’ school environment, whereas everything else in the world we live in has changed dramatically over the past 100 years.

Davis is concerned that the whole world copied England's public educational institutions after they changed for the worse (see also James Tooley's work on this topic).

And this article reports on the work of historian Eckard Höffner on 19th century Germany's copyright law, or lack thereof. Höffner argues that the absence of copyright law facilitated the spread of knowledge that was critical to Germany's industrialization and flowering scientific community. There is certainly no shortage of debate about the role of intellectual property in international development, but most of it assumes that IP law is wealth-enhancing in wealthy nations. Are we sure? How sure should we be before we export our IP laws?

Are these convincing examples of Whig history gone wild? Are there others?

Read More & Discuss

Constructivist cartography

The development blogosphere recently lit up with news of South Sudan's plan to rebuild some of its urban centers in the shape of various animals.

The plan elicited no shortage of guffaws, as is appropriate. But in the interest of maintaining AidWatch's contrarian reputation, this post argues that we should be careful about focusing our ridicule on the Sudanese. Criticism should to be leveled at the appropriate target: cartography! constructivism.

Cartography actually suffers from the same schizophrenia that besets economics. At its best, it provides striking depictions of and keen insights into the bottom-up forces shaping social reality. (Even the burgeoning subdiscipline of cartozoology--obviously salient to the Sudanese plan--usually focuses on this important descriptive work.)

But, like economics, cartography has also been employed as a tool of central planners. The Sudanese are not alone in having put to paper visions of grandeur that seem goofy upon reflection. At least one such cartographical monument to the hubris of constructivist planning actually exists: Evita City in Argentina.

The point is this: we can and should mock the absurdity of the Sudanese scheme. But it should be mocked for its faith in central planning. Reinforced stereotypes of incompetent African rulers are at their most harmful when they serve as an excuse for wealthy governments and international agencies to throw their weight around, for that merely replaces domestic planners with foreign planners. These maps are a fine example of the absurdity of constructivism and the demeaning character of collectivism; it would be shame for them to contribute to more of the same.

Besides, I'm less worried about actual cartographical collectivism than the figurative kind.

Read More & Discuss

US gets a strategy to meet the Millennium Development Goals – please explain

UPDATE: UN Dispatch disagrees, we respond (see end of post). Although the eight goals that seek to reduce the global burden of hunger, poverty and disease were agreed upon by aid donors almost 10 years ago, and most of the goals come due in 2015, the world’s largest donor has never had a strategy to achieve them. Obama campaigned on the promise of making the MDGs “America’s goals,” but the first year and a half of his administration has not yet delivered on this promise.

On Friday, though, the US released a document written by USAID which declares that the US “fully embraces the MDGs” and “will put innovation, sustainability, tracking development outcomes, and mutual accountability at the heart of our approach to development, and, consequently, to the MDGs.” The administration is delivering this strategy just in time for the MDG summit in September.

I recently came across a paper by David Hulme that frames the fierce debate around the value of the MDGs nicely. According to Hulme, the viewpoints

… range from the high modernists, who take them at face value and are optimistic that they are a blueprint for the transformation of the human condition (Sachs,  2005); the strategic realists, who don’t believe the MDGs are a blueprint for action but believe they are essential to stretch ambitions and mobilise political commitment and public support (Fukuda-Parr, 2008); the critics, who see them as well-intentioned but poorly thought through – distracting attention from more appropriate targets (or nontargets) and more effective policies and actions (Clemens et al, 2007; Easterly, 2006);  through to the radical critics, who view them as a conspiracy obscuring the really important ‘millennial’ questions of growing global inequality, alternatives to capitalism and women’s empowerment (Antrobus, 2003; Eyben, 2006; Saith, 2006).

The US strategy is notable in that it is not internally coherent according to ANY of these alternative MDG world-views.

By doing a strategy at all, the US would seem to have placed itself firmly in the high modernist camp and to have rejected the critics’ view. But a curious feature of the new US strategy is its failure to mention the goals by name, or to strategize progress specifically towards any of the agreed-on indicators. From the critics’ point of view, this is certainly better than the UN Millennium Project’s strategy, which created a 449-step comprehensive strategy to reach the 8 goals and 18 targets. But with no concreteness on goals or indicators at all, one wonders what exactly was the point of the new US strategy according to the “high modernist” approach.

As far as “mobilizing political commitment,” it’s perhaps telling that the report is subtitled “Toward 2015 and Beyond,” which reads like an unintentional acknowledgement that the MDG exercise has already failed for 2015 – something on which this blog opined a year ago. But then again, we are a little confused why the US is now jumping on the MDG bandwagon when the band is starting to pack up their instruments.

Could it be that there should be a fifth Hulme category – the “PR view,” according to which the MDGs are a politically costless way for any given aid donor to create a positive image of benevolence towards the world’s poor, which is sadly unrelated to whether the goals are actually achieved?


UPDATE Monday August 2, 3:22 pm: Duncan Greene of Oxfam GB more optimistically reckons that this strategy shows “how quickly Shah and USAID have won back lost political ground from other government agencies;” UN Dispatch interviews Rajiv Shah;  Porter McConnell of Oxfam US says the development community is still waiting for the administration’s long-promised global development strategy.

UPDATE 2 Tuesday August 3, 11:36 am: Mark Leon Goldberg of UN Dispatch has responded to this blog post, arguing that The US MDG Strategy is More than a PR Ploy! and represents real progress:

….It was only five years ago that we had a freelancing UN ambassador [John Bolton] who thought he could get away with erasing the mere mention of the MDGs from a UN Summit…. Fast forward to 2010 and not only is the United States embracing the MDGs, but the administration has made it an organizing principal of US foreign policy.

Sure, the new US willingness to engage with the UN, and this new MDG strategy document, may represent progress in repairing the fractured relationship between the US and the UN. In the annals of UN bureaucratic infighting this does indeed sound like a revolutionary change.

But on the more important question of whether this change in orientation on the MDGs will make a real difference in the way that the US and other donors deliver development assistance to the world’s poor, we’re going to need more than just an official statement of intentions before we can conclude that real progress is being made.

Read More & Discuss

FT: Celebrities urge G8 to make new unkept promises to keep previous unkept promises

Oh how we wish it would be otherwise! What will it take? Alan Beattie writes on the G8 in the FT:

It stretches the most elastic mind to envisage the collective wrath of Scarlett Johansson, Annie Lennox, Bill Nighy, Kristin Davis and Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan, but it descended on the heads of the Group of Eight this weekend.

The obsolescence of the G8 has long been discussed during interminable and inconclusive international gatherings. It became increasingly absurd to discuss various issues – the global economy, finance, trade, geopolitics, energy, terrorism – with the behemoths of the emerging market world absent.

One by one, those central issues migrated to the G20. Paradoxically, given its composition, the G8 responded by focusing on development issues affecting the poorest countries.

The G8’s relationship with aid recipients in the developing world is that of a dysfunctional and abusive spouse. It promises good behaviour, reneges and then vows to be better next time.

...the returns to be gained from cajoling and criticising the G8 were increasingly questionable. Intensive lobbying by development advocates and celebrity campaigners extracted plenty of promises but not commitments that reliably bound group members.

At least Alan fulfilled his pre-meeting prediction that he would be able to use the words "interminable and inconclusive" once again in a G8 story, not to mention coming close to his fantasy G8 column that we featured on this blog before the meeting.

Read More & Discuss

The lure of starting from scratch

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.

Read More & Discuss

If an evaluation is released on the internet and no one comments, does it make a sound?

The release of the Millennium Villages Project mid-point evaluation has so far been met with no discernable public response. Strange, since the release is billed as the “first major scientific report on progress after three years of MVP activity.” Doubly strange, since the MVP is an ambitious project that reaches into nearly all areas of its 500,000 recipients’ lives, and proposes, in scaled-up version, to completely change the architecture and delivery of aid to Africa.

So why the silence? Two possible reasons come to mind. Perhaps:

  1. The evaluation doesn’t contain much that is unexpected or useful, and/or
  2. No one really cares about evaluation.

We knew that the report would give the mid-point results of a longitudinal study comparing data from 300 Millennium Village families collected when the project began and again three, and five years later. (Although this is no longer the midpoint of anything, as the project has since expanded from 5 to 10 years.)

The new data give a picture of encouraging results across all sectors compared to the baseline. In Mwandama, Malawi, for example, bednet use for children under five increased from 14 percent to 60 percent and malaria prevalence for all age groups fell from 19 percent to 15 percent. Maize yields increased dramatically from .8 tons per hectare to 4.5 tons per hectare.

Such short-term results are positive in the sense that they describe real, immediate changes in the lives of thousands of very poor people. But they are not surprising given what we know about the level of resources and intensive technical expertise invested in these villages: the project doubles the size of the local economy—it is roughly equivalent to a 100 percent increase of per capita income per year (see here for calculations from Michael Clemens).

Unfortunately the results are also not that useful: Three years is too short a period to know how to interpret this dramatic increase in maize yields, for example. Is this consistent with normal variation in crop yields? Was 2006 an unusually good or bad year for maize? We don’t know.

The results also don’t help us determine whether current and future resources should be shifted away from other existing or even yet-to-be invented approaches, towards the MVP template. Will those short-term gains last beyond the timeline of the project? Can the project become self-sustaining?

Again, we don’t know, in part because not enough time has passed. Consider this anecdote from a New York Times blog series by Jeff Marlow on the Millennium Village of  Koraro, Ethiopia:

In 2005, all fertilizer was given away, leading to a significant increase in food production. Fertilizer subsidies were then progressively rolled back; by last year, only 50% of the cost was covered. For the 2009 growing season, the project tried something new: farmers were given loans for fertilizer, but they are expected to pay back the full cost plus interest when the harvest comes.

For many Koraro farmers, this is a daunting challenge. “The project used to help us with fertilizer,” says Brhana Syum…“But now it’s very expensive, and there’s no way to pay for it all.” Many farmers facing similar constraints have chosen to scale back their farms, thereby requiring less fertilizer, rather than face enormous debts…

So this particular push towards sustainability has come up against some obstacles. It may yet succeed, or it may fail. We don’t know the end of the story.

Supporters of the project argue that the individual interventions have already been proven: for example, we know that using better seeds and adding fertilizer will increase crop yield. But what the MVP says it is proving with this evaluation is the “value and feasibility of integrated community-based investments”—that is, the whole package of interventions, as well as the management systems used to deliver them. And this is precisely what the MVP does not have the data to demonstrate.

This evaluation repeats the call to scale up the project within existing project countries and expand to new ones, as quickly as possible. But the MVP as a whole remains an untested and unproven intervention, while the lives of Millennium Villagers—their habits, beliefs, livelihoods, and sources of authority—are  inevitably being changed in profound ways. This evaluation does nothing to change the argument of my previous post that the MVP should live up to their promise to be a ‘proof of concept:’ to be seriously and independently evaluated, and proven to work—beyond immediate short-term effects—before it is scaled up.

If you were sick and someone offered you a drug that hadn’t been tested, would you take it? And even if you would, would you want hundreds of millions of people whose lives depended on it to forego other types of treatment and take that drug too?

Read More & Discuss

Was Africa set up to fail on the Millennium Development Goals?

“Africa far from reaching Millennium Development Goals”

News report on African Development Bank conference, May 28, 2010

“No country in sub-Saharan Africa is on course to achieve all the Goals by 2015.”

United Nations, Key Messages for September 2010 Summit

“It is easy to see that Sub-Saharan Africa lags on all the MDGs.”

World Bank and IMF, Global Monitoring Report 2010, full text download page here

Africa has had some successes and good news in the last decade, and has made much progress on some social indicators over a longer period. Why isn’t that reflected in this drumbeat of universal failure on the MDGs?  The answer is that Africa was set up (probably unintentionally) to fail on the MDGs.

This set-up to fail is not well known, probably because you have to go through some really boring details to document it. One problem with the MDGs is that success on a goal is very sensitive to how you define the goal. There are actually three different choices you have to make to define a goal in 2015 relative to the 1990 baseline. Let’s use primary enrollment as an example, and say that a random country went from 50 percent primary enrollment in 1990 to 90 percent enrollment in 2015.

(1) Do you define the goal in CHANGES or in LEVELS (e.g. the change in primary enrollment from 1990 to 2015, or the level of primary enrollment attained in 2015)?

If your answer to (1) is CHANGES, you still need to make two more decisions:

(2) Will it be PERCENT CHANGE or ABSOLUTE CHANGE (e.g. percentage change in primary enrollment (90-50)/50=80%, or the absolute change (40 percentage points)?

(3) Will you use the USUAL social indicator or its REVERSE (e.g. percent enrolled OR percent NOT enrolled)?

(1) defines two possible indicators of LEVELS vs. CHANGES, and the different combinations of (2) and (3) create 4 different ways to define CHANGES. The MDGs did not make consistent choices, but actually use 4 out of the 5 possible combinations for MDGs 1 through 7, as shown in the table (where the actual indicator used is highlighted in yellow).

These choices are not neutral. Initial conditions determine whether a given choice makes it easier or harder to meet the Goal. Most obviously, if you have a LEVEL goal (primary enrollment, gender equality), the further away you are at the beginning, the harder it is to meet the goal.  This was true for Africa for MDGs 2 and 3. (A plus sign shows whether each way of stating the goal would have INCREASED the probability of Africa making it, a MINUS sign indicates the choice of goal made it harder for Africa, relative to other countries with different initial conditions).

If you have a high initial level then a PERCENTAGE DECREASE is harder to achieve.  This was true for poverty (MDG 1)  and child mortality (MDG 4) in Africa. It was also true for MDG 7, because the REVERSE INDICATOR was used (percent WITHOUT clean water instead of the USUAL INDICATOR:  percent WITH clean water).

If you have a low initial level, on the other hand, a PERCENTAGE INCREASE would be easier to achieve. If the MDGs had been set in terms of PERCENT CHANGE in the USUAL INDICATOR (as it was for MDGs 1 and 4), then Africa would have easily met MDGs 2,3, and 7 on primary enrollment, gender equality in enrollment, and percent with clean water, and all of the above statements about universal African MDG failure would be nonsense.

Instead, each of the goal choices made for MDGs 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7 made it HARDER (if not impossible) for Africa to meet the goals, compared to alternative, equally plausible choices. ANY consistent choice of goal type except LEVELS would have made it easier for Africa to meet some of the goals.

The craziest statements implicitly made above are that Africa is failing on MDGs 5 and 6 (67% reduction in maternal mortality and reversing spread of AIDS), since there were NO data on these indicators for the benchmark year of 1990 (actually  hardly ANY reliable data for any year until very recently).

So this is SO boring, and who cares? Nobody, apparently, because the sweeping statements about Africa failing are made every year without anyone bothering to check the details. Because Africa ALWAYS fails, right?

I published an academic paper on all this here in 2009, with a working paper version available since 2007. Michael Clemens and Todd Moss and Clemens, Moss, and Charles Kenny had made related criticisms as early as 2004-2005. Michael Clemens in 2004 described how Africa's progress in education was impressive by both historical and contemporary standards. The MDG crowd are aware of these papers. For example, the World Bank and IMF quote them in their recent Global Monitoring Report 2010 . This report acknowledges “what low-income countries {mainly African} achieved before the crisis {on the poverty and social indicators}  is indeed remarkable.” But this point was soft-pedaled and has had no effect on the endlessly reiterated "Africa fails on all MDGs" line.

I think the MDG design was unintentional after some conversation with the original creators of the goals, who did not intend the MDGs to be applied at the regional or country levels. What is less forgivable is the aquiescence in making Africa look like a failure after the bias was clear to anyone who would bother to check. Of course, there are areas and time periods where Africa has done badly, but is that any reason to take the successes and make them look like failures?

Read More & Discuss

Lant Pritchett and the hot Indian shower

A great story from Lant Pritchett, writing in the comments section of David Roodman’s blog, about how the development industry sets goals and targets. The way we articulate our goals affects how we set about achieving them.

I was living in India and discussing arrangements for household water supply with some development colleagues of mine. After about half an hour of pretty fruitless discussion I said, “Let’s step back. Tell me your long-run vision of the household water sector in India.”

They said “Our vision is that India meets the target that every household lives within half a kilometer of an improved water source capable of providing 40 liters of safe per person per day.”

I said, “I see the problem. My vision of success is that every Indian can take a hot shower inside their own home.”  The difference is that one can imagine meeting the first goal “programmatically” or with a series of “interventions” while the latter clearly requires endogenously functional systems.

No one I know wants to have to go to a group meeting to take a hot shower. They want to turn the tap and it works.

Their whole discussion, on whether microfinance is an example of “aid building a thriving, disruptive industry that enriches the institutional fabric of nations” or “an unfortunate work-around for the failures of mainstream financial systems to serve the poor,” is worth reading.

Read More & Discuss

Jeff Sachs’ intellectual empire gets new funding

There’s a new way to study development: a masters degree in the practice of development. The MacArthur Foundation announced ten universities to receive funding for the new degree program yesterday, bringing the funding from MacArthur for this project to $16 million. The first students matriculated at Columbia University in 2009, and by 2013 the foundation expects the programs to be producing 400 graduates a year from around the world.

The two-year degree is multidisciplinary—the health sciences, the natural sciences and engineering, the social sciences, and management—with a focus on application and fieldwork.

Since today’s problems—like climate change, poverty and sustainable development—are interconnected, students need to be prepared to think across disciplines, so the argument goes. If ending global hunger (Millennium Development Goal number one) requires technical knowledge of health and nutrition, agronomy, agricultural supply systems, as well as managing organizational change, then this degree proposes to equip graduates with basic knowledge on all those topics.

The idea for the new global program comes from the Earth Institute’s Jeffrey Sachs, an architect of the Millennium Development Goals, and John McArthur, the head of the NGO that supports the Millennium Village Project, who articulated their vision in a 2008 report on education for development professionals.

Here’s what this program assumes the world needs more of:

a new generation of development practitioners who can understand the “languages” and practices of many specialties, and who can work fluidly and flexibly across intellectual and professional disciplines and geographic regions.

This sounds pretty good. In fact, I’m a generalist myself, which is how I ended up in this job, where I write about a global health issue one day and an economics paper the next.

But what if what the world really needs more of something else? What if it needs more specialists, more people with deep knowledge about the regions they study and work in? What if it needs people who are well-versed enough in their own disciplines to be critical of half-baked development ideas cooked up by aid planners who know just enough about every topic to believe they have the answers?  What if the world needs more specialists to evaluate the quality of the work in each specialty?

Curriculum and course materials proposed by the central “Secretariat” for development practice are housed in Columbia’s Earth Institute. Will the new programs produce students with a standardized, narrowly-prescribed view of how to approach development problems? Or will the melding of disciplines encourage critical thinking and help straddle the theory-policy divide, making global cooperation run more smoothly and international aid more effective?

I hope it’s the latter. But here’s one discouraging clue: The draft 2009 syllabus for the development practice degree’s required “foundation course,” offered at Columbia and several other universities around the world through web conferencing, reads like a synopsis of the degree itself. And all the readings for the course’s introductory week, the week devoted to foreign aid and policy, and the week on the Millennium Villages Project are authored by either Jeff Sachs, John McArthur, the Millennium Villages Project scientists, or the UN.

Hat tip to Michael Clemens.

Read More & Discuss

Never-before-seen video of a peacekeeping intervention to end war

Short clip:

From Twitter: undispatch @undispatch:

@bill_easterly instead of trying to be funny, can you actually explain your beef with peacekeeping?

Well, @undispatch, if you click on the category, "aid goes military" at the bottom of this post, you will get more than you probably want to hear from this blog on this topic. You are also welcome to check out my New York Review of Books article Aid goes military!

For the video, HT James Rauch at UCSD. Would anyone like to nominate someone most likely to be the real life counterpart to Robur in this video?

Read More & Discuss

The magical 0.7 percent

The blog of Laurence Haddad, director of the UK-based Institute of Development Studies, pointed us towards the just-released manifestos of Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties. Both manifestos declare their intention to codify into law the development target of 0.7 percent of national income allocated to aid. From the Tories:

A new Conservative government will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income as aid…We will legislate in the first session of a new Parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.

The Labour Party:

We remain committed to spending 0.7 per cent of national income on aid from 2013, and we will enshrine this commitment in law early in the next Parliament.

While such a bipartisan commitment to ensure consistency of development funding is something the US could only aspire to, perhaps it is time for a word of caution on the origins and relevance of that target for our friends across the Atlantic, courtesy of Michael Clemens and Todd Moss:

First, the 0.7% target was calculated using a series of assumptions that are no longer true, and justified by a model that is no longer considered credible…. Second, we document the fact that, despite frequent misinterpretation of UN documents, no government ever agreed in a UN forum to actually reach 0.7%—though many pledged to move toward it. Third, we argue that aid as a fraction of rich country income does not constitute a meaningful metric for the adequacy of aid flows. It would be far better to estimate aid needs by starting on the recipient side with a meaningful model of how aid affects development.

The 2007 paper, Ghost of 0.7%: Origins and Relevance of the International Aid Target (ungated version here), gives a fascinating historical look into the machinery of global development cooperation, showing how the target came to be, and how promoting such a nonsensical target could be harmful. Their summary concludes:

The 0.7% target began life as a lobbying tool, and stretching it to become a functional target for real aid budgets across all donors is to exalt it beyond reason. That no longer makes any sense, if it ever did.

Read More & Discuss