Aid Watch blog ends; New work on development begins

Today, after two years and four months, we end the experiment that was the Aid Watch blog. We think the experiment was a success. We’ve had a great time blogging here. Thank you all for reading and writing back, and to our wonderful guest bloggers, for helping to make Aid Watch a source for way-outside-the-Beltway commentary on aid. Your response continues to exceed our expectations.

Some of you may be surprised. This was not a sudden decision; we have been talking it over with a few others for some time now.

The simple reason for ending the blog is that we want to free up our own time for writing longer and more substantive pieces, both academic and non-academic, on development.

The blog is a hungry mouth that always wants to be fed, and the longer projects we’d like to take on don’t fit in with those constraints.

Economists are professionally trained to be wary of diminishing returns to any one activity, and to be entrepreneurial about starting new activities. Although we’ll still write about aid, we plan to move away from aid criticism as our main focus, and put more emphasis on the high-stakes development debates going on now. We still believe that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid, but, as we’ve always known, there’s a lot more to development than aid.

Fortunately for us all, there are many other good blogs on aid and development that have sprung up since we started Aid Watch, from smart establishment blogs like Development Impact at the World Bank, to lonely aid workers blogging from Malawi (check the sidebar for our recommendations).

The blog will stay at its current web address, and all the archives will remain available and searchable. Check for updates on our work at the DRI web site.

Signing off for now,

Bill and Laura


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World Bank to Bloggers: Drop Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why we'll always have benevolent autocrats

Last Friday, Bill gave a talk at the School for International and Public Affairs at Columbia.  NYU-Wagner student Christopher Faris summarized the speech over on the Wagner blog, and gives a great run-down of the audience reaction at Columbia:

...Easterly argued that the theory of growth-boosting 'benevolent autocrats' (think China's economic boom) is, at best, not proven and at worst a compelling but flawed idea to which development practitioners hopefully cling - to everyone's detriment.

But the benevolent dictator is a powerful and compelling idea, dating back at least as far as Plato's Republic. Despite the carefully constructed argument and engaging delivery, the audience of ambitious internationalistas seemed unconvinced, if the questions were anything to go by.

Most questioners (professors and students) wanted to believe in the abiding power and potential for a benevolent technocrat to guide countries through transition; to protect the nation's economic well-being from the foibles of the electoral process; or in the cultural appropriateness of more autocratic leadership in some countries at certain points in their history.

All of which got me to thinking (with apologies to Carrie Bradshaw):

  • Maybe international development students are committed to the idea that, through our education, ideas and energy, individuals can advocate for good policies and make the world a better place;
  • Perhaps we want to believe in the power of strong, technocratic leaders, benevolently steering developing nations through the rapids of the global economy and pro-poor reform;
  • Maybe, just maybe, we are all benevolent autocrat wannabes?

[Easterly's discussion of cognitive biases] added up to a pretty compelling argument against benevolent autocrat theory - or at least a strong case for us to be wary of buying it too easily...

But then came the questions. Once the SIPA professors finished, almost all were from international students (with a Latin and East Asian trend), and almost all betrayed an unshaken faith in benevolent autocrat theory.

So if Professor Easterly failed to convince, why? A few suggestions: because the biases he enumerated are indeed powerful shapers of thinking; because his audience was committed to the possibility of making a difference through their actions; because a more laissez-faire approach to international development is a tough sell to idealistic students.

But further: Easterly described what developing economies should aim for (to transition to innovation-rich modern economies, harnessing local knowledge, and with democratic political systems containing checks and balances against autocratic tendencies) but was light on details of how to do it. He offered a compass bearing but no map. Perhaps we, students and practitioners of development, want maps - especially at this thrilling time of autocrat-toppling. And we want to be able to help. We have a strong pro-action bias.

Mr. Faris generously skipped the possibility that the argument was just WRONG, but he has good insights into the resistance to the argument even if it's correct.

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Save the date for New Directions in Development

If you're planning to be in New York City on Friday March 4th, why not drop by our annual conference?

Please join us for our all-day 2011 Annual Conference


Friday, March 4th NYU Campus

Information Technology and Development Yaw Nyarko, NYU Department of Economics

From Skepticism to Development William Easterly, NYU Department of Economics

Does Poverty Lead to Violence? Chris Blattman, Yale Department of Political Science/ Visiting Scholar at NYU Wagner

Culture Matters Raquel Fernández, NYU Department of Economics

Law and Development Kevin Davis, NYU School of Law

This event is free and open to the public Detailed agenda and location to follow

RSVP here

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No coups please, Professor Collier

UPDATE 10:30AM 1/15: Chris Blattman has a thoughtful response to my blog. The Complexity tribe is still upset that I didn't do their sacred idea of Complexity justice. On the Guardian Global Development blog, I tell Paul Collier that he's crazy to recommend a coup in Cote d'Ivoire. But the use of complexity theory allows me to be very nice about it.

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Aid Blogger Awards

Thanks to View from the Cave for running an award contest for Aid Blogs. The coveted Blogger of the Year award went to Chris Blattman. Aid Watch is defying the international community and declaring the vote fraudulent wishes to congratulate The Blattman for well deserved recognition.

Aid Watch did of course win the Best Snarky Award.

Twitterer of the year: @Owenbarder

Best series of the year: How Social Scientists Think by Texas in Africa

Best post of the year: What can development learn from evolution by Owen Barder

Best news article of the year: Foreign Aid For Scoundrels by yours truly in New York Review of Books

For other great awards and links go to the link above for View From the Cave. (I would do more of this if I was not in the middle of last minute Xmas shopping.)

It is good to see the aid blogs coming together like this. Congrats to all!

and lastly special recognition for the Gloom of the Unknown Blogger, who is writing great stuff but nobody has realized it yet.

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Are you the general to stage a coup at Aid Watch?

The organization behind Aid Watch, NYU’s Development Research Institute, is looking for a dynamic, visionary Executive Director to guide DRI into its next phase. Our ideal candidate will bring capable leadership, an understanding of international economic development issues, and strong fundraising skills based on a proven track record. (Hey, we do need to keep funding our pathetically small budget…)

Please consider this a unique opportunity to work with leading scholars in an organization committed to changing the way the world thinks about aid, economic growth, and development.

Apply yourself, or tell your friends!

Read the complete (more boring-sounding) details here.

If interested, please contact (include in the subject line “Executive Director Job”) and tell us a little about yourself.

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True Confessions: I'm still unable to conclude whether aid does more harm than good

Margaret Wente  in Toronto Globe and Mail perceives a growing backlash against humanitarian aid, that it may be doing more harm than good in Africa (she concentrates on seemingly everyone's (including ours) recent favorite example of Ethiopia). I'm quoted in the article accurately. Contrary to some perceptions (not in Wente's article) however, I have never made a general argument that aid does more harm than good, or called for aid to be abolished or even cut. I said aid "has done so much ill and so little good" in the subtitle to the White Man's Burden. The "ill" is well covered in Margaret Wente's column and is similar to the recent posts on this blog about aid financing autocrats and political repression, with similar examples in my book.  However, I have also given examples of aid successes, particularly in health (vaccinations!) It is very hard to conclude what the net effect of the ill and the good is, and I've never attempted to do so.

Instead I think the viable arguments are that (1) aid's record is sufficiently disappointing that it is unlikely to ever be the main driver of successful development, (2) if aid were more accountable it would do less ill and more good.

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Top economists on Twitter

Tim Harford gives his Top Ten economists on Twitter. The one most known to this readership is @dambisamoyo. Then Tim adds another category:

Honourable mentions – a subjective combination of econ tweeters who are popular, interesting or under-appreciated

I will overlook Tim's blatant self-promotion of including @TimHarford on this list, in return for blatantly noting that he also includes @bill_easterly.

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Yes, critics also appreciate a little sympathy every now and then

From Megan McArdle in a different debate:

The rest of her post puts me in mind of the phenomenon that William Easterly has described in development circles:  the recycling of ideas that have failed before, always unveiled with much fanfare, but no real explanation as to why this time is different.  Frankly, it makes me understand why Easterly sometimes gets a little testy.

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We interrupt this diatribe for a brief kindly announcement

There’s been a lot to get outraged about on Aid Watch this week. World Bank leader calls for democratizing research while censoring research. USAID and NGOs urge transparency while egregiously non-transparent. Critics criticize our criticism of FAO hunger numbers that turn out to be even worse than we first suggested. Our strongest supporters correctly point out that excessively bland and polite statements have little effect on the debate compared to outrage, and outrage is often justified.

At the same time, we try to hold ourselves to the same standards as those we criticize, and we acknowledge that our own critics sometimes have a point. We are doing our best in our little part of the debate to use outrage constructively, but we sometimes go too far and get it wrong too.

Most importantly, our outrage is directed at OUTCOMES not at PEOPLE. The staffers at USAID, NGOs, World Bank, or FAO are doing their best subject to severe political and donor pressures, and often sympathize with our criticisms (judging by public and non-public comments that we get).

Let’s fight together the political pressures and mistaken perceptions of donors that result in bad outcomes for the people that ALL of us in this debate care about: the world’s poor.

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Turning over Aid Watch management for a week

Dear Aid Watchers, Both Laura and I are away for a week starting today.

I am cutting off the Internet entirely for a week in a bid to regain my sanity, so anything addressed to me in any Net medium (email, Twitter, Facebook, blog comments) I will not see for a week.

In the absence of Laura and I, DRI post-doc Adam Martin has generously agreed to take over as Guest Editor for a week, beginning with this morning's post about what we can learn from city plans based on shapes of zoo animals.

See you after Labor Day! Bill

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Aid Watch addresses an unexpected embarrassing problem

We’ve noticed a strange phenomenon on Aid Watch: our April 10, 2010 post Famine Africa stereotype porn shows no letup has also shown the least letup of any of our posts, showing up with traffic day after day. It is now the fourth most popular post of all time on Aid Watch. I was rather slow to figure out what was going on, which just shows what being raised as a Methodist in squeaky-clean rural Ohio can do to you. The rest of you have already figured this out. “Africa porn” (and variations) is a very popular search term on Google, for reasons apparently not related to the finer points of dignity and empowerment of malnourished people. Those searching this term frequently get our post, as our crack research team verified (we were the fourth site listed on said search, sites 1 through 3 reportedly cannot be described in a family blog). Our stat team found 721 searches like this over the past month that wound up at our site.

I am really not sure what point to make based on all this. Choose any of the following:

  1. We have a big opportunity here to educate perverts about economic development.
  2. Africa has more potential than previously realized in the adult entertainment industry.
  3. Metaphor attempt: “just like entrepreneurs trying innovations, we never know whether or why a blog post is going to succeed.”
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Aid Watch comes clean on unethical product placement in our blogs

The New York Times called my attention today to ethical problems with blogs that do product placement, such as shilling for a certain brand of vodka without disclosing gifts from Absolut:

a blogger must be clear about any “material connections” with a sponsor, especially if these would not be expected by the reader.

My reaction was "wow, I had no idea we could make money that way!" Given the pathetic results of my fund-raising efforts so far on behalf of Aid Watch and the Development Research Institute, clearly it is time to "think outside the box." What product could Aid Watch strategically but unobtrusively mention in our blogs in return for generous support from the manufacturer?

After at least 5 seconds of undistracted brainstorming, I think I hit upon a product that has universal name recognition, not to mention utilization, among NGO workers: Birkenstocks!

I can testify that I myself can hardly write a column without the podiatric support of my own Birkenstocks, which have held up well in 9,772 days of consecutive daily wear in all weathers.  So Global Birkenstock Conglomerate Inc., I hope you are reading this, please send a check as soon as possible made out to "Development Research Institute."

I do have to confess one ethical lapse that already occurred. I walked over to my office yesterday in my comfortable Birkenstocks and picked up my mail, which contained a free gift of chocolate. It was delicious Madécasse chocolate from Madagascar, sent to me as a thank you for all the blogs Aid Watch did trying to save the jobs of Malagasy textile workers from US trade sanctions.

I do remember vividly a meeting with Laura in a cafe right next to our local Birkenstocks retailer, where we strategized for a long time about which blog posts would most likely result in free chocolate. Now that I have come clean, I do recommend this wonderful chocolate very highly .

Please keep this between us -- I have not yet shared any of this gift haul of 4 large chocolate bars with Laura. I'm concerned about her cholesterol , since she has yet to adopt the kind of footwear, such as Birkenstocks, that makes long, healthy walks in Manhattan possible.

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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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How the audience educates the lecturer: skepticism and freedom

On Wednesday night I gave a lecture at LSE called "We Don't Know How to Solve Global Poverty and That's a Good Thing." The abstract I wrote beforehand was:

This lecture argues that occasions when development economists were more certain about 'the solution to global poverty' have often led to harmful consequences for the world's poor in the long-run. Sceptical criticism is a creative force that redirects attention and effort away from centrally-directed expert solutions towards effective decentralised problem-solving.

Here are some responses: how economists don't understand the link between poverty and growth,  a criticism of my claims to ignorance, and a bit more sympathetic summary.

I feel kind of like I am on a long personal intellectual journey trying to figure out how to reconcile my compassion for the world's poor with my painfully honest realization that there is no reliable evidence on exactly what to do to end poverty. Each new public lecture is trying out a solution to the conundrum on a smart audience, and then they educate me some more to take the next step (which will be tried in the next lecture).

I am trying to convince people that rigorous skepticism is a creative force because most of the damage is done by overconfident people who thought they knew the answer when they didn't.  And such skepticism doesn't leave us empty-handed: it forces us back on what are our core values:  democracy, human rights, individual liberties, that we follow for moral rather than pragmatic reasons. Autocratic "pragmatic" claims to deliver development if you will just give up your rights don't survive skeptical scrutiny.

One thing I learned from the LSE lecture is not to even bother trying to make any "pragmatic" case for democracy, because that evidence is just as weak as everything else, and that we can only choose democracy based on our values (which is also how historically it was chosen; there are no cases of societies choosing democracy based on econometric results).

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Inequality does cause underdevelopment: insights from a new instrument

Consistent with the provocative hypothesis of Engerman and Sokoloff (1997, 2000), this paper confirms with cross-country data that agricultural endowments predict inequality and inequality predicts development. The use of agricultural endowments –specifically the abundance of land suitable for growing wheat relative to that suitable for growing sugarcane -- as an instrument for inequality is this paper’s approach to problems of measurement and endogeneity of inequality. The paper finds inequality also affects other development outcomes – institutions and schooling –which the literature has emphasized as mechanisms by which higher inequality lowers per capita income. It tests the inequality hypothesis for development, institutional quality and schooling against other recent hypotheses in the literature. While finding some evidence consistent with other development fundamentals, the paper finds high inequality to independently be a large and statistically significant barrier to prosperity, good quality institutions, and high schooling.

I got two useful suggestions yesterday. One is why not use the blog to promote my own research papers, some of which remain tragically under-read and under-cited. The second is why not balance my blog posts a bit more from my usual playfulness, irreverence, and satire with an occasional reminder that I actually do work as a serious academic for a living?

The title and abstract are from my article in the Journal of Development Economics, Vol. 84, Issue 2, November 2007, 755-776. For dataset click here.

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Aid agencies announce they will be accountable to independent evaluators; This blog to permanently close

IRINA News, April 1, 2010 Geneva, Switzerland—A coalition of aid agencies meeting in Geneva today announced a historic agreement to reform the international aid system. In signing the agreement, heads of aid agencies formally committed to accept the verdicts of independent evaluators of the programs and projects in their portfolios.

The new measures require the 39 multilateral and bilateral aid agencies to scale up only those programs with a proven track record of success. Programs shown by independent evaluation to have no impact—or a negative impact—on their intended beneficiaries will not be funded.

“An international agreement of this type is long past due,” said Mr. Poshtoff Van der Peet, the spokesperson for the coalition. “We believe this is a major step towards making sure our aid monies are spent in such a way that they actually reach the poor. Some of use may even have to go out of business, but this is a price well worth paying to make sure aid reaches the poor.”

We were very glad to see this story on the wires today. Because of this breakthrough, Aid Watch blog will discontinue operations itself effective immediately. Laura Freschi and William Easterly will shift to doing research on the fundamental determinants of long run prosperity, leaving the commentary on aid in the safe hands of independent evaluators.

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