Er, Yes, Madam, Muslims do want liberty

There is a common view that Muslims don't share the values of liberty and democracy, as expounded by, say, to take a random example, Michele Bachmann from a few years ago. Do recent events vindicate those who had already argued there was a universal hunger for liberty? One of them was Michael Novak, who says today in a Wall Street Journal oped  (gated, sorry) today:

{There was} the slumbering yet restless desire for liberty in the Muslim of the human race would one day be awakened, even with an awful suddenness.

It may be that this is what we are seeing today, if only in a promissory note to be fully cashed in years to come. A rebellion against a cruel dictator is not same long step as a choice for a polity of law and rights; it is only a step.

Yet it took the Jewish and Christian worlds centuries to begin cashing in their own longings for liberty...The universal hunger for liberty is not satisfied in any one generation..

But let us now rejoice that in our time we have lived to see one of liberty's most fertile and widespread explosions. Islam, a religion of rewards and punishments, is -- like Christiantiy and Judaism -- a religion of liberty. History will bear this out.

David Brooks in NYT agrees on the Arab world:

many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them.

Culture is important, but underneath cultural differences there are these universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.

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On Sustainable Sustainability: A UN Prose Poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

members of the international community in several areas of global concern

Moreover, new challenges require urgent attention and collective action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

framework is not sufficiently responsive to development issues that cut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

greatly enrich discussions and outcomes of the important development related

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

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

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

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

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

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

a unique opportunity to re-energize the mutual accountability framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hillary opts for lame "transition" jargon on Egypt

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today a new US government position on Egypt, calling for a 'transition to a democratic regime.' This was also the old US government position on Egypt. As this blog has pointed out, the "transition" word is a much-used device to appear to be in favor of democracy while in fact taking no position whatsoever. The democracy scholar Thomas Carothers is one who first pointed out the emptiness of the "transition" paradigm, noting a USAID description of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 as a country in “transition to a democratic, free market society.”

In this rhetorical make-believe, EVERY country is allegedly in "transition" to democracy, even if a dicatator is the status quo. Dictators are just a temporary delay, or even maybe themselves gradually "transitioning," since the "transition" jargon leaves completely open WHEN democracy will arrive, or HOW SLOWLY the dictatorship will imperceptibly fade away.

Sorry, Hillary, you haven't actually said anything yet, please let us know when you get a bit more enthusiastic about people demanding their own democratic rights.

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Poetry of the Arab Revolt

Many sources have been quoting the Tunisian poet Abul-Qasim al-Shabi (died 1934). One of his most famous poems was "To the Tyrants of the World"

Hey you, the unfair tyrants...

...You kept walking while you were deforming the charm of existence and growing seeds of sadness in their land

Wait, don't let the spring, the clearness of the sky and the shine of the morning light fool you...

Because the darkness, the thunder rumble and the blowing of the wind are coming toward you from the horizon

Another of his poems even more quoted during current events is "The Will to Live":

If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call.

And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.

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Aid is not just complicated; it’s complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Living in Emergency

by Pierluigi Musarò, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna at Forli, and a visiting scholar at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge A few months ago I organized a conference in Bologna on the topic of humanitarian emergencies and communication. I invited the communication manager of one of Italy’s most famous and most influential NGOs, called Emergency. He accepted but told me, “You should know that we do not deal with emergency, but rather than with development and health.”

As they admitted, their concern is not emergency. So why did they name their NGO Emergency?

I believe their choice (consciously or not) reflects the way discourse in the humanitarian space has increasingly come to describe global problems as “emergencies.”

A hallmark of mainstream economic and political thought in the West is the optimistic belief in Development as a more or less steady, linear progress towards a clear goal.  But a combination of factors in the post-Cold War era has made the deviations from this narrative increasingly visible. For one, the media’s increasing ability to confront us with shocking images of suffering from places previously too remote to be imagined have created a demand that “something be done” urgently in the face of that suffering. For another, shifting international norms and commitments have generated an obligation to help distant strangers. At the same time, charities and NGOs have grown and proliferated, professionalizing their fundraising and marketing efforts.

As a result, we find ourselves living in a world of constant emergencies.

Nowadays, issues of human rights, governance, gender inequality, conflict, and poverty are all packaged and sold to us as humanitarian emergencies! Don’t agree? Watch this video from the UK’s umbrella organization for funding NGO appeals. As sirens wail, the compelling voice recites: “It is not about the right and wrong of the conflict. This people simply need your help.” But under what definition of the word is the 60-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict rightly called an emergency? In Algeria, 200,000 Sahrawis are waiting out a 36-year stalemate in refugee camps. Is it an emergency or a long-term political problem? Does the concept of “emergency” help us to grasp or solve these problems?

Emergencies by definition are sudden, unexpected exceptions to the natural order of things. They are an aberration, a tear in the fabric of normalcy, a disease in an otherwise healthy body. As such they demand urgent action, a quick cure. As NYU social sciences professor Craig Calhoun has written, “The term emergency became a sort of counterpoint to the idea of global order. Things usually worked well, it was implied, but occasionally went wrong….Where there is a discontinuity, there must be intervention to restore linearity and predictable functioning.”

What is at stake? The rhetoric of emergencies creates a powerful illusion that shapes both perception and action. Intractable problems that reveal the contradictions and limits of development are framed as emergencies, and NGOs as low cost managers that can intervene to solve these “exceptions” to the global order and put things right again.

If only it were so simple.

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Our Afr*c* P*rn problem gets worse after we try to make it better

UPDATE 9/10/10 1:30 PM: Barbara Streisand and anti-Muslim bigotry (see end of post) Yes, after that post that admitted our P*rn problem and tried to get out of it, the problem has gotten even worse, like rapidly. The original post Famine Afr*c* stereotype p*rn shows no letup has now climbed from 4th to 3rd most popular post of all time.

Number 1 popular post of all time -- African leaders advise Bono on reform of U2 -- and Number 2 -- Nobody wants your old shoes -- still have a large lead, but we are still worried.

I guess we have learned the hard way the #1 rule of the science of Public Relations -- don't do anything to give more legs to a story that you really want to go away (which I am further violating with this very post). I'm not too embarrassed about not understanding PR, since I have never met a single PR person who understood Economics as anything other than the sworn enemy of good PR. (Both sciences DO have in common a spontaneous order in which ACTIONS OFTEN HAVE THE EXACT REVERSE OF THE INTENDED EFFECT.)

Not only that, but most PR people themselves don't understand the #1 rule of PR. Just think of all the defensive, angry, clueless responses from PR people defending their organizations, which play right into the hands of their critics and INCREASE the negative publicity (Catholic Church abuse scandal, Climategate, etc.)  Actually, Aid Watch has gotten much needed publicity for the cause of Watching Aid from many such clueless organizational PR responses to our own posts.

I guess it's only poetic justice that we are the victim of my own PR ineptitude about making a bad story disappear.

UPDATE 9/10/10 1:15 PM: Thanks for the great comments, you are making me realize this is deeper than I thought.

Please read the link to the Streisand effect, in which Barbara inadvertently caused more publicity about herself in an attempt to stop publicity.

The analogy to the B*rn*ng the K*r*n story is very apt. All those critics and public officials who understandably piled on that nut in Florida with 50 followers gave him exactly what he wanted -- lots of publicity for the cause of H*t*ng M*sl*ms. Newspaper stories pointed out today that nobody had ever heard of him and his stupid and hateful ideas until the critics started piling up. So the effect of lots of criticism  is to cause exactly what the critics were trying to prevent -- a major backlash among Muslims worldwide as they hear about this one obscure idiot.

Two reactions: (1) what a great example of the law of unintended consequences! (2) what a moral and pragmatic dilemma! do you denounce a bigot if your denunciation is going to increase the effect of his bigotry?

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Africa: land of wildebeest and child soldiers

UPDATE: response to criticisms at end of this post.

(Apologies to the great blog Wronging Rights for stealing one of their headline templates.)

Big attention grabber in the NYT with this picture splashed all over the front page.

The usual mixed emotions: (1) compassion and sorrow for these and other children caught up in horrific wars, (2) alarm at exploitation of the child soldier stereotype for Africa.

Very crude data that I checked a while ago suggested that about 0.2 percent of African teenage boys were child soldiers.

UPDATE: Response to critical comments below: thanks for pointing out where I was too terse or unclear on this post. I did not mean to say the NYT should NOT do a story about US taxpayers financing child soldiers in Somalia, of course that is big news and should lead to a backlash correcting the problem.

I was worried more about the emotional buttons that are pushed by the large picture dominating the front page. These pictures obviously provoke a visceral response: how horrific to see a child with a gun. For this reason, they are used awfully often by the media (see new pictures inserted into this update). A Google images search for "child soldiers Africa" returned 2 million hits. The frequency of repetition of these photos perpetuate the stereotype of Africa as a barbaric place awash in child soldiers. Newspapers would be more likely to be sensitive in other areas, especially domestic ones, like say not frequently showing scary pictures of young black males toting guns in US cities.

The statistic I gave was not meant to imply "hey it doesn't matter because the number is small," just like it would be of no comfort to someone paralyzed by a gunshot to be told that the incidence of gunshot-paralysis is low. The statistic was meant to correct the perception that child soldiers are more widespread than they really are in Africa, I think most people would have guessed a higher number.

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Why the World Bank supports tyrants: the Gerund Defense

Meles Zenawi World Bank Ethiopia country director Ken Ohashi has a letter in the New York Review of Books responding to Helen Epstein’s charge that the Bank is supporting tyranny (which we also blogged). Ken’s letter defends World Bank aid to Ethiopia:

There are concerns about the overall governance of the country, efficiency and fairness of resource use, the risk of dependence on aid, and protection of basic human rights, as Ms. Epstein points out. We recognize these concerns, and development partners in Ethiopia take them seriously.

We start, however, with a belief that in every country people want to be self-reliant and prosperous, and to develop a transparent, accountable, effective, and efficient governance system. Ethiopia is no exception. Our task, as an external development partner, is to support that innate tendency.

However, building institutions, public and private, that assure every citizen’s right to and effective delivery of public services takes a long time; indeed, it never ends, as we can see even in the most industrialized countries. Changes are incremental, and at times they may suffer serious setbacks. It is, therefore, crucial that development partners work with the long-term process of change, always in support of it, not in control of it (which is impossible in any case).

Fascinating defense, Ken! You are saying the World Bank sees all countries with an “innate tendency” towards better governance (nicely conflating citizens’ aspirations and the frequently opposite tendencies of those in power). You can then use an all-powerful Gerund like “building institutions” to suggest that you and the autocrat of Ethiopia are benevolently working together on that “innate tendency.” The Gerund  Defense implies that any horrible tyrant can be supported under the assumption that this tyrant is merely a temporary stage in a country “in transition to democracy,” part of an “innate tendency” towards “building institutions.”

The alternative to the disingenuous Gerund Defense is to take a look at the current regime’s political, economic and human rights track record. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s party and its allies swept the elections, winning over 99 percent of parliamentary seats. Election observers from the EU found that the electoral process "fell short of certain international commitments, notably regarding the transparency of the process and the lack of a level playing field for all contesting parties."

A report from Human Rights Watch criticized the ruling party’s “total control of local and district administration” which they have used to “monitor and intimidate individuals at a household level, punish and undermine the livelihoods of citizens who do not abide by the ruling party, and create a climate of fear that suppresses freedom of expression and opinion.”

The government’s centralized control of land ownership, banks, the internet and even the mobile telecom industry has stymied enterprise and depressed economic growth, while the regime is accused of using the food aid upon which 1/6th of the population depend as a political tool to reward supporters and punish those who dare to join opposition parties.

The US State Department went even further, citing reports of “unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity,” in their Human Rights report published last year.

At least you are being consistent. After Meles and his security forces perpetrated election fraud, jailed opposition leaders, and killed over 200 student demonstrators in 2005, the World Bank continued to provide aid.  We have it from a reliable source that your predecessor as Ethiopia Country Director won an award for keeping the lending going despite all the hardship Bank staff inconveniently had to endure.

Sorry, Ken, it’s hard to drown out these realities even with your clever use of the classic Gerund Defense.

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When you might want a skeptic...

UPDATE 3:41pm June 7: see end of post.

I am a passenger in a car with my friend Owen driving...we're chatting.

Me: did you see that sign? I think we better turn around.

Owen: why are you always so negative!?

Me: but the sign said...

Owen: if people listen to you skeptics, there'll be no more funding for roads.

Me: I just think this time that...

Owen: why are you so negative when us drivers work so hard and have such good intentions?

Me: I really think we should turn around

Owen: instead of always being so critical of my direction, why don't you start your own Proper Driving Direction Promotion (PDDP) project?

Me: there's a truck coming toward us!!!!

Owen: you know, you're never going to be taken seriously if you can't have a more positive message

(sounds of screams and glass breaking)

Owen in the ambulance just before he loses consciousness:   next time I'll let the f&@$ing skeptic drive

Note: See Owen Barder's 'Open Letter to Aid Skeptics' on page 21 of the recent Africa issue of the International Affairs Forum - download the pdf file here.

UPDATE 3:41pm June 7: I said on Twitter that the above was "kind of a response" to Owen. If you are wondering why I didn't have a more direct response, it's because I thought his open letter reflected much more a generalized fear of aid skeptics than anything about my specific views. For example, I have never said we should eliminate aid or even cut aid, I argue we should shift the focus away from obsessive focus on aid spending to getting feedback on aid spent and holding aid agencies accountable for that feedback. This kind of argument has not had any negative effect on aid budgets, contrary to Owen's fears. On Cash on Delivery, I actually wrote a blurb promoting the original Cash on Delivery book:

The authors deserve a serious hearing for their very creative Cash on Delivery proposal. It would change aid in two welcome directions: emphasizing outcomes rather than inputs and giving recipient governments freedom to choose how to reach their goals.

Since Owen so badly misunderstood or misremembered my previous arguments, it was clear to me that he was reacting to the idea of aid skepticism in general and not to any particular argument of mine.  He seems to want to stamp out skepticism in general by some kind of foolproof test, which also seemed to me far from foolproof for either optimists or skeptics.

(By the way, despite our sometimes spirited arguments in print, I know Owen personally and like him a lot, so I was expecting him to take the above as  affectionate teasing and not in any way malicious.)

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Wax and Gold: Meles Zenawi’s Double Dealings with Aid Donors

Helen Epstein, author of The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing The Fight Against AIDS in Africa, has a stunning piece on aid to Ethiopia published in this month’s New York Review of Books. Epstein argues that the main cause of fertile southern Ethiopia’s chronic food shortages—the so-called “green famine” —is Ethiopia’s toxic and repressive political system, presided over since 1991 by Meles Zenawi. While Meles placates donors and Western governments with speeches about fighting poverty and terrorism, he has committed gross human rights violations at home, rigged elections, killed political opponents, and imprisoned journalists and human rights activists. Epstein on Meles' doublespeak:

There is a type of Ethiopian poetry known as “Wax and Gold” because it has two meanings: a superficial “wax” meaning, and a hidden “golden” one. During the 1960s, the anthropologist Donald Levine described how the popularity of “Wax and Gold” poetry provided insights into some of the northern Ethiopian societies from which Prime Minister Meles would later emerge…. “Wax and Gold”–style communication might give Ethiopians like Meles an advantage in dealing with Westerners, especially when the Westerners were aid officials offering vast sums of money to follow a course of development based on liberal democracy and human rights, with which they disagree.

Several Western donors responded to Meles’ more blatant repression by channeling aid directly to local authorities, cutting out the central government. We have argued before that this strategy doesn't work when there is evidence—which Epstein provides more of—that local government officials are instrumental in election-fixing and using aid to award political supporters and punish dissidents. Now, donors can no longer even support Ethiopian civil society to oppose these human rights violations, since Meles' government recently passed a law that makes it illegal for civil society organizations to accept foreign funds.

Epstein concludes powerfully:

In 2007, Meles called for an “Ethiopian renaissance” to bring the country out of medieval poverty, but the Renaissance he’s thinking of seems very different from ours. The Western Renaissance was partly fostered by the openness to new ideas created by improved transport and trade networks, mail services, printing technology, and communications—precisely those things Meles is attempting to restrict and control.

The Western Renaissance helped to democratize “the word” so that all of us could speak of our own individual struggles, and this added new meaning and urgency to the alleviation of the suffering of others. The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness. It is this rigid focus on the “backward masses,” rather than the unique human person, that typically justifies appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.

Read the article in full here.

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Why are we not allowed to talk about individual rights in development?

Individual rights for rich countries Individual rights in development discourse
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” “Implementing the strengthened approach to governance … will require … …careful development of a … detailed results framework, consideration of budget and staffing implications … and further consultations with stakeholders…The specific initiatives needed to fully operationalize this strategy will be outlined in an Implementation Plan…”
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Miracles of spontaneous order: where to get a cab around NYU

The New York Times has this wonderful interactive feature today, where you can see where most cab pickups and dropoffs happen at any time of day on any day. It confirms a puzzling feature that I had already observed: getting a cab is hopeless at one corner, but if you move just one block over you are sure to get one. The map shows the number of cab pickups around NYU at 5pm on a Friday, the legendary time when it is most difficult to get a cab. Most of the immediate NYU area (around Elmer Holmes Bobst Library)  is a taxi desert, so you have to walk either west to Sixth Avenue (a well known hot spot along most of its length downtown), or east to Lafayette (for example, Astor Place).  One thing that has always puzzled me is that it's always very hard to get a cab on Broadway, running parallel to Lafayette  just one block west.

Here's one amateur theory: the less obvious hot spots (excluding train stations etc.) can emerge out of nothing.  Over time taxi customers expect to get a cab on one street corner. Then taxis are more likely to cruise that street corner because that's where the customers are.  Both customers and taxis keep going to that street corner more and more as both sides come to expect the other to behave that way. And bang, you have now gotten the 1,425,674th example of spontaneous order.

This is a good metaphor for development because....

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Lincoln’s Birthday Valentine’s Day Declaration: I ♥ Democracy

Democracy doesn’t attract as much love as it deserves in aid and development circles. Many wonder if benevolent autocrats might be better for development than messy elections, even though there is no evidence to support benevolent autocracy. There is a strong positive association between democracy and LEVEL of per capita income, which at least some authors argue is causal. (It’s true there is no robust association between democracy and GROWTH of income, but then there is no robust association between GROWTH and ANYTHING.) But even if there had been SOME material payoff to autocracy, why don’t we care more about democracy as a good thing in itself?

Many just can’t get that excited about majority voting. But the MECHANICS of democracy (majority voting among many others) are not the essence of democracy, which is about VALUES. The latter we care a lot more about than the former. The donors who try to promote democracy are unfortunately obsessive about the mechanics and silent on the values.

Lincoln’s Birthday was February 12, so this is a good excuse to use the Emancipator to clear things up:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

The brilliance of this definition is how it also includes equality. No group is so second-class that we can deprive them of their rights without opening the door to deprivation of our own rights. Slavery is an extreme that can be generalized to all forms of oppression by arbitrary self-appointed authorities, which then leads to guaranteeing all individual rights.

I think I care about slavery -- and my risk of being enslaved -- a lot more than I care about whether elections are winner-take-all or proportional representation.

These soaring ideals had very practical consequences. The brilliant work of economic historian Joel Mokyr links the Industrial Revolution to changes in ideas and ideologies. Putting my own spin on Mokyr, the idea of individual freedom from arbitrary authority transformed many fields besides politics, opening them up to many more independent participants:

Scientific democracy: ANYONE, no matter how junior, can overturn wisdom of anyone, no matter how senior, using scientific method.

Technological democracy: ANYONE, any junior innovator, can overturn incumbent elites with something new that just “works.”

Social democracy: ANYONE can be a social reformer, as long as they persuade their fellow ANYONES of a social evil.

So the freedom of the individual as a VALUE was far more consequential than any specific MECHANICS on how this idea was implemented -- like the endless obsession with electoral rules.

Drawing on Aid Watch’s endless and increasingly farfetched supply of metaphors, here’s another timely example of mechanics vs. values:


The hypothalamus transmits chemicals to the pituitary gland, which releases hormones into the bloodstream, creating a rapid heartbeat and lightness in the head.

value that corresponds to these mechanics:


Perhaps some Valentine’s Day Development Bureaucracy worked on the mechanics, say a Hypothalamus Transmission Stimulation Program, featuring “results indicators” like heartbeat speed. But I think most Valentine’s Day celebrations stressed the value rather than the mechanics.

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What we talk about when we talk about aid: A plea for accuracy

The following post is by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk. One thing that seems to get lost in debates over aid is the idea that “aid” is not a monolith. People talking about aid may mean church-to-church shipments of used clothes, World Bank loans to build dams, money transfers from donor governments, or expatriate-run projects that aim to provide services or improve the ability of the host government to govern. This is sloppy, careless language. It gets in the way of actually talking about aid.

We’re never going to have a useful conversation about aid effectiveness if we’re not even talking about the same things. When you ask if aid “works” – are you asking if financial transfers from donor governments to poorer governments actually reduce poverty? Are you asking if specific international development projects can achieve defined goals like reducing child mortality? Are you asking if aid gets used for its intended purpose instead of being diverted into graft?

If we’re going to talk about work as important – and expensive – as international aid, the least we can do is use accurate language. So, here’s my suggestion. Let’s stop using the word “aid”. Just drop it from our vocabularies because it is making our discourse worse. If you’re talking about development projects, then say so. Use those exact words: international development project. If you’re talking about budget support to poor governments, say so. Church gifts? That would be charity.

Sure, it sounds crazy. But it sure wouldn’t make things worse, and it might make our discussions a little clearer. We have plenty of ways to talk about this that don't require a vague and unhelpful collective noun. Let’s use them.

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Levi's sees the light on human rights for Native Americans

A previous post suggested that American liberty was still a work in progress. One illustration was a Levi's ad that celebrates the seizing of Native American land for ourselves. To Levi's credit, they responded to an email invitation to respond to our blog.

Now that we have pointed out that the language in their ad seems to, well -- how should I put this diplomatically -- kind of lend support to nearly wiping out the Indians, they responded:

Thanks for checking in with us.

The Levi's(®) "Go Forth" campaign is intended to refresh and reinvent the idea of America's raw pioneering spirit, youthful optimism, and hard work to build a better tomorrow.  We apologize if our efforts did not resonate with you.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  We'll definitely pass them along to our Marketing colleagues who pay close attention to consumer feedback.

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Previous post criticized Malthusian economics, but reading comprehension also may be a problem…

After our guest blogger and DRI post-doctoral fellow Adam Martin spoke out today against Malthusian population scares that lack economic credibility, he got the following invitation (abbreviated version):

Dear Adam

I am contacting you today to request your participation in the Population Institute’s Global Population Speak Out, February 2010.

I read your very thoughtful blog post.

And, I believe you are an important voice.

So, if you’re interested in supporting long term global sustainability, please click here:



The Global Population Speak Out Endorsers & Population Institute

Global Population Speak Out” calls on “scientists and scholars” to call attention to “the size and growth of the human population {that} are fundamental drivers of the ecological crisis we face…If we hope to avert worldwide catastrophe, {we must} “conduct a massive shift of attention and resources toward humane, progressive measures designed to stabilize and ultimately reduce world population to a sustainable level.”

There is preliminary evidence that the letter writer may have missed the part of Adam's post, namely all of it, where Adam was arguing against the claims made by the  “Global Population Speak Out.”

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We want your feedback, as long as you speak English

Community groups in Yemen wrote to the local World Bank office asking if they could get an Arabic translation of the conditions the World Bank imposed on the Yemeni government for a $51 million loan. Sorry, the Bank rep told them, English is “the official language to be used in all the transactions and contracts between the Government of the Republic of Yemen and the World Bank.” As Rebecca Harris of the independent Bank Information Center first told the story in an oped on the FP website, the understandably dissatisfied Yemeni activists have now taken their case to the Inspection Panel, the Bank’s dispute mechanism. Lack of interest in translation at the Bank is a symptom of a deeper problem. As our Aid Watch conference in February 2009 discussed, the most direct way to know whether aid is reaching the poor is to find out in some way: what do the poor themselves say about aid? This is going to be a lot more difficult if the poor have to speak in English!

The World Bank has made a lot of noise about consulting with “civil society.” The Bank brags on its web site: "The World Bank has learned...that the participation of [civil society] can enhance their operational performance..."

Further they claim that the Bank's engagement with civil society ("the Bank dialogues and consults with CSOs on issues, policies and programs, by listening to their perspectives and inviting suggestions") allows the Bank to:

Give voice to stakeholders – particularly poor and marginalized populations – and help ensure that their views are factored into policy and program decisions; Promote public sector transparency and accountability...; Promote public consensus and local ownership for reforms...; Bring innovative ideas and solutions, as well as participatory approaches to solve local problems; Strengthen and leverage development programs by providing local knowledge, targeting assistance, and generating social capital at the community level.

Although the Yemeni community groups could not get critical Bank documents in Arabic, they would presumably be glad to know that the above statements about how the Bank will consult them ARE available in Arabic.

This suggests a new objective test of how serious the Bank really is about consulting local populations. How many critical Bank documents are available in the local language? How many “locally owned” Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers are actually prepared in the local language? How many translators does the Bank employ in the field so they can listen to local people? Or best of all but probably a hopeless cause, how many Bank staff working on a project themselves speak the local language? (We may cut them a little slack if the local language is Ucayali-Yurúa Ashéninka, spoken by only seven thousand Peruvians.) Let’s call it “the Rebecca Harris language test” in honor of her raising the issue.

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The vortex of vacuousness

A tragic law of global poverty is that the efforts of many well-meaning and accomplished people somehow get sucked down into meaningless activities and empty rhetoric. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried an oped by uber-heavyweights Madeline Albright and Colin Powell about how we should not forget about the world’s poor during the crisis. Their solution – another summit! Addressing the previously unappreciated shortage of summits by the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the G-7, the G-20, U2, and Bob Geldof, there is a two day summit starting today of something called the Initiative for Global Development (IGD) National Summit 2009 in Washington DC.

The closest thing to novelty about this summit is that the IGD includes (and was started by) leading business executives, some of whom apparently want to learn from diplomats and aid bureaucrats how to make compassionate statements about global poverty with no content. So Carly Fiorina on the IGD website proclaims “Reducing global poverty is in our nation’s best interest, and a sustained collaboration between the private sector and the government is needed in this regard.” (Presumably she had to be a tad more specific to get things done at HP.)

The IGD has been around since 2003, and includes a lineup of really big names from the worlds of business, government, and aid. Chairpersons Albright and Powell were able to distill all of this experience and talent in their signature Journal oped yesterday into new ideas like “we have to focus our efforts where they can have maximum impact, and draw on the strengths of the public and private sectors alike.”

(Maybe we should subject this statement to the NOT test for meaningful content we discussed in a previous blog post: Briefly consider whether there is anyone arguing “we need to focus our efforts where they can have MINIMUM impact, and draw on the WEAKNESSES of the public and private sectors alike.”)

The IGD helpfully provided Aid Watch some background materials on the 2009 Summit, which has the subtitle “Business leaders advance a bold strategy to reduce global poverty.” They acknowledge the critical need for foreign aid reform, so “Congress and the administration should work together to define a coherent strategy for U.S. foreign assistance and streamline its implementation.” (Reader exercise: apply the NOT test to this statement.) They only get a bit more specific when they endorse the ritual call for a doubling of foreign aid.

Something that sounds slightly more promising is that the IGD summit invited some 20 African CEOs of private businesses. Let’s hope they can get the things that real businessmen want, new deals and investments, in return for being subjected to two days of summiteering. Maybe a few CEOs at IGD are starting to get a glimmer of insight – business leaders should not imitate aid bureaucrats, it should be the other way around.

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The G-20 this weekend: A model international summit

The FT gave this straight-faced summary of the G-20 Meeting: "Although the meeting ended without specific new commitments and no country or central bank would be forced to change any existing policy in light of the communiqué, the participants ...said they were pleased by the spirit of cooperation among the Group of 20 leading and emerging economies."

This is why politicians love summits -- they get credit for doing something while they are in fact doing nothing.

We in development aid perfected this art of summiteering before anyone else. We get the record for getting everyone to agree to the loftiest goals while nobody in fact has to make any "specific new commitments" or "change any existing policy". We call them Millennium Development Goals.

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