Has NGO advertising gone too far?

by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk. Over the last couple of years, we have seen a lot of criticism of how international NGOs advertise and fundraise. There’s a new term – “poverty porn” – and a new emphasis on thinking seriously about the true impact of advertising.

I’ve heard three main arguments against oversimplified NGO advertising...

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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.

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The US has put its boot on the scale

by Natasha Iskander, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, NYU. 10:42 pm Saturday February 5. Professor Iskander is Egyptian-American and works on development in the Middle East and North Africa. The millions of protestors have been clear: “The people want the fall of the regime! Mubarak leave!”  The responses of the US to unambiguous calls from the Egyptian people for the right to determine their own future have not only been deeply condescending, but also represent a dangerous collusion with the regime.

Omar Suleiman, spy-chief turned VP, has pledged to steward an “orderly transition,” but has refused to begin dismantling a political system that has for thirty years bolstered kleptocracy and oppression.  He has postponed meeting with a group of prominent intellectuals, businessmen, and analysts who have reached out to negotiate a transition.

Instead, he has told the protestors to go home; even more disdainfully, he has told the parents of protestors to tell their children to go home.  In other words, the massive protests that are a revolution unfolding should not be taken seriously; they are merely instances of adolescent acting-out.  Obama, perhaps unwittingly, has fed that spin: “To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices” he said on February 1.   We hear your voices, but we will not listen.  Instead, the US government will continue to back a dictatorship and the security apparatus that has made it possible. “Transition takes some time… There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare,” said Clinton today, presenting her recommendations as so eminently reasonable, so adult and measured in contrast to the protestors’ demands for Mubarak to resign immediately, now spun as rash and destabilizing.

Meanwhile, Suleiman refused today to repeal the Emergency Law that has been in force in Egypt since 1981 and which gives the authorities legal right to hold anyone without cause, to detain those arrested indefinitely, and to prevent public assembly (protests!).  “At a time like this?” responded Suleiman when Abdel-Nour, the secretary general of the meek opposition Wafd Party, suggested its repeal.  Yes, time is precisely what is at stake. There are seven months between now and the elections that Suleiman still maintains will be held in September, and that is plenty of time to detain, torture, and disappear anyone who has defended this revolution.  It is more than enough time to recast the millions who flooded the streets of all of Egypt’s major cities to demand an end to dictatorship and the right to elect their leaders as enemies of the people who need to be eliminated.

If the US continues to feign naivite and argue that transition is indeed happening, it will -- under the guise of adult reasonableness -- have gifted the regime with the time to brutalize citizens who have peacefully and respectfully voiced their demands to be treated as adults with the right to determine their own futures in a country that has consistently and strategically infantilized them.

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Will the first Charter City be in Honduras?

A reader pointed us to the news that the Honduras is deliberating whether to pass legislation this month that would pave the way for the first “Charter City” to be created on Honduran soil by 2012. The radical brainchild of Stanford economist Paul Romer, the Charter Cities concept is based on the idea that good rules make good societies. Accordingly, poor countries should be able to galvanize their own development by building foreign-financed and foreign-run cities governed by a new, better set of rules.  It has been lauded as a bold, innovative idea (so crazy it just might work) and criticized as historically inaccurate or representing a new strain of colonialism (just plain crazy).

That debate just got a lot less theoretical in Honduras, as President Porfirio Lobo announced that 1000 square kilometers* currently “doing nothing” could become a “Honduran Dream” if only Congress and the Honduran people would take a risk in the name of progress.

The substitution of the new “Honduran Dream” for the old American one represents Lobo’s solution to the immigration problem too. Hondurans in search of a better life could choose the new Charter City, where they would find jobs created by new export industries, with no crime, first-class education and health care, clear property rights, and a fair courts system, instead of the US “where they suffer all sorts of situations at odds with human dignity,” said the President.

Opponents say the plan will undermine Honduran sovereignty and destroy natural resources in uninhabited areas. One backwards-looking editorial, entitled Another enclave or another utopia, argues that large-scale foreign investments and interventions in Honduras have historically tended to turn out badly for Hondurans.

*UPDATE 12:15 pm: Professor Romer wrote to say that the Honduran press misunderstood President Lobos when they reported that the Charter City would be 33 square kilometers. The proposed territory would actually be 33 kilometers on each side, or 1000 square kilometers. The third paragraph was edited to reflect this.

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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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Sudan isn’t the only one: the Artificial States problem

In an article newly published in the Journal of the European Economic Association ( just in time for the South Sudan referendum!),  Alberto Alesina, Janina Matuszeski and I look at the general problem of "artificial states." (Ungated working paper here.) We have one conventional and one unconventional definition of artificial states, both of them continuous measures of "artificiality." The conventional one measures the frequency of ethnic groups split in two by a border (usually one that colonizers had mindlessly created).  The unconventional one measures the "squiggliness" of country borders, on the theory that colonizers drawing artificial borders were prone to drawing straight lines (see Sudan in picture), while" natural" states rarely had straight borders (see France).

We identified countries that were "most artificial" on both measures:

Chad, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guatemala, Jordan, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Pakistan,Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

We also described some illustrative country cases:

Pakistan wound up as a collection of Balochistan, NWFP, Sindh (all of whom entertained secession at various times), East Bengal (which successfully seceded in 1971 to become Bangladesh, although only after a genocidal repression by West Pakistani troops), Mohajir migrants from India (many of whom regretted the whole thing), and West Punjab (which had its own micro-secessionist movement by the Seraiki linguistic minority).

Both measures predict that more artificial states are prone to worse development outcomes than less artifical ones, although the conventional measure is much more statistically robust as a development determinant than the "squiggliness" measure.

We don't draw any policy conclusions in the paper, nor will I do so in this blog post... but you can if you want.

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Killing microfinance to say they saved the poor

Vivek Nemana is an NYU graduate student and a student worker at DRI. It’s official: Indian politicians have agreed to regulate the private microfinance sector…by choking it in a tangle of bureaucracy and corruption.

As everyone from David Roodman (on this blog) to the Cambridge randomistas (in the FT) has been saying, Indian microfinance needs reform, not a roundhouse kick to the face. But now the state of Andhra Pradesh has passed an overbearing law which makes it illegal for MFIs to lend to people with multiple loans (which is 70% of rural households), or to lend to members of Self Help Groups without permission. State regulators may also shut down MFIs at any time for vaguely defined “sufficient reasons,” and lenders can only collect payments at government centers – an open corridor for corruption.

The head of Microfinance Institutions Network said: "The bill will make it impossible for microlenders to operate in the state and effectively put us out of business there."

Private microlending in Andhra Pradesh was successful because there was excess demand for credit that government-backed programs and non-profits were not satisfying. But with the for-profits squeezed out, their six million clients will be forced to return to more informal lenders such as village loan sharks.

In 2009 a similar incident happened in Nicaragua with uncanny parallels to Andhra, right down to the multiple lending and political involvement. The “No Pago,” or No Payment, movement resulted in the judge-ordered liquidation of a top microlender and a dragged-out microcredit crisis.

India was like a Petri dish for microfinance experiments, which meant that initiatives like self-help groups, mobile banking, and MFIs played off each other’s shortfalls. Eventually, the competition between the agents – if mixed with a healthy dose of regulation – might’ve fostered better, more effective systems of microcredit.

But this legislation is a discouraging blow to would-be microfinance entrepreneurs, who’ve been basically told that at any time the government might decide to shut down their businesses – and their ideas.

Investors in for-profit ventures might also be frightened away by the idea of losing money when politicians decide to tighten their grip around microfinance’s throat. In a worst case scenario, the new law could legitimize similar actions by politicians in other countries who are pandering for votes or have their own personal beef with microfinance. Some countries, like Peru, already have stable, well-organized regulation in place, but they’re exceptions.

On the other hand, what happened in India could be a wake-up call, as Tim Ogden argues, about the unrealistic expectations that donors, supporters and governments maintain about microfinance. If that’s the case, then clear-headed thinking about its flaws and benefits could pave the way for better regulation, better financial literacy programs and more effective, more diverse microfinance products.

Next week, Indian politicians plan to ban all Bollywood movies for “sucking the blood from the poor” because they charge for movie tickets.


Photo credit: flickr

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Understanding India’s Microcredit Crisis

by David Roodman, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development As Vivek Nemana reported here, the Indian microcredit industry has pitched into what appears to be a replay of the American subprime debacle. I just spent a week in India, talking to nearly everyone. I learned there were so many complexities—history, politicsinstitutional rivalries— that to just view events through the foreign lens of the subprime crisis is…actually about right.

The microcredit industry indeed appears to have grown irresponsibly fast, partly out of pursuit of profit. But this is not a simple morality play. The state government’s response (an October 14 ordinance) is draconian, tantamount to banning mortgages after a mortgage crisis. Why such a crackdown? The rise of private microcredit threatened a big, World Bank–financed government program that provides credit and other services.

Until last month, India was home to the fastest microcredit expansion the word has seen. Between 2003 and 2009, the number of microloans shot from 1.0 million to 26.7 million. Unlike in Bangladesh, which India recently surpassed in number of microloans, investor-owned, for-profit companies do most of lending in India. SKS Microfinance went public in July, earning tens of millions of dollars for founder Vikram Akula, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, and others. This inevitably led many to blame the hypergrowth on pure greed. I don’t doubt that pursuit of profit played a big role, but Akula’s new book also persuades me that he concluded—along with most of the Indian microcredit industry—that reaching the poor required being profitable enough to attract serious venture capital.

Nipping at SKS’s heels were other microcreditors, also based in Hyderabad, which helped make Andhra Pradesh India’s microcredit hotbed. Villagers experienced the arrival of 2, 3, 4, even 8 or 10 microcreditors within the last few years, all eager to press loans into the hands of women. Loan officers learned that they could line up customers more quickly in villages where their competitors already operated, for there the women would have been educated in the mechanics of microcredit—and might want new loans to service old ones. So loans were heaped on top of loans.

Even Vijay Mahajan, the president of the microfinance industry association, has been bluntly critical:

In their quest to grow, they kept piling on more loans in the same geographies…That led to more indebtedness, and in some cases it led to suicides.

Unfortunately, while loan disbursement became irrationally exuberant, loan collection remained insistent. Microcredit is about mass-producing low-quality services in order to keep costs in line with the small amounts transacted. For the machine to run efficiently, clients must keep up on their payments. Microlenders also pounce on delinquency to prevent it from snowballing, so that women will not ask, “Why should I pay if she is not?” Loan officers now stand widely accused of harassing borrowers, yelling at them outside their homes, even threatening violence. The pressure has been blamed for at least 54 suicides. While the allegations are individually dubious, arising as they do in a politically charged, media-scrutinized environment, the link to suicide is plausible. Microcredit is the least flexible, least forgiving form of credit available to the poor of Andhra Pradesh, thus most likely to push them over the edge.

So the Andhra Pradesh government responded to a real problem. However, its response is also a real problem. As I explain on my blog, the October 14 law has frozen microcredit in across the state; it contains provisions that would be unconstitutional in many countries; and it could bankrupt several lenders. The law is defending a rival government program that provides credit and other services to millions of women in self-help groups. Because these groups are communal rather than corporate, they tend to be more lenient than microcreditors. When cornered, women with multiple loans default on self-help group loans first. Thus did the public and private programs collide.

These events should be cause for introspection at the World Bank, which has financed both sides, but especially the government’s self-help group support program (with $1 billion or so). The latter may well be doing much good. But World Bank money has also beefed up a political economy hostile to private sector solutions.

Perhaps the heedlessly expanding Indian microcredit industry deserved a smackdown. But what matters most is not what is fair to the microcreditors but what is best for the poor. The Indian government has built an impressive 50-year track record failing to meet the financial service needs of the poor. Under the right circumstances the private sector can help fill the gap. The goal should be to reform microfinance, not kill it.

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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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G20 summit's Seoul Development Consensus: please comment

UPDATE: OK I give up, I'll be the bad guy again (see end of post) I present selections of the text of the Seoul Development Consensus for Shared Growth without comment, inviting instead the readers to comment:

Be economic-growth oriented and consistent with the G20 Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth

Prioritize actions that tackle global or regional systemic issues

Differentiate, yet complement existing development efforts, avoiding duplication

Focus on feasible, practical and accountable measures to address clearly articulated problems

In close consultation with our developing country and LIC partners, as well as relevant international and regional organizations with development expertise, we have also identified nine areas, or “key pillars,” where we believe action and reform are most critical to ensure inclusive and sustainable economic growth and resilience in developing countries and LICs. These areas are: infrastructure, private investment and job creation, human resource development, trade, financial inclusion, growth with resilience, food security, domestic resource mobilization, and knowledge sharing. Creating optimal conditions for strong, sustainable and resilient economic growth in developing countries will require reform and transformation across each of these interlinked and mutually reinforcing key pillars.

UPDATE: OK I think I miscalculated, the Seoul Consensus is so completely free of substance that I couldn't get much comment (thanks to the valiant souls below who tried).

So it's my bitter lot in life to play the bad guy who says the obvious nasty things, like:

This summit set the lowest possible expectations on development, and then heroically failed to meet them.

Did it occur to any of the G20 sherpas that it would have been better to say, "we have nothing new on development" than to produce such vacuous babble then actually goes backward even from the dismally modest record of previous summits?

I guess the main puzzle is why the Koreans let themselves be insulted by having this Nothingness named after Seoul.

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Hey UN Peacekeepers--Congo, we need to talk

Vivek Nemana is a graduate student in economics at New York University and works for DRI.

Jeff Gettleman has an unnerving piece in the New York Times on the inability of UN peacekeeping forces to protect civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In one particularly gruesome consequence last July, rebels gang-raped 242 people (including a one month-old baby and a 110 year-old woman, according to the Guardian) in the village of Luvungi, just 11 miles from where dozens of peacekeepers were stationed. Gettleman writes:

Despite more than 10 years of experience and billions of dollars, the peacekeeping force still seems to be failing at its most elemental task: protecting civilians…many critics contend that nowhere else in the world has the United Nations invested so much and accomplished so little.

On the other hand, David Bosco at Foreign Policy chalks it up to problems of perception:

part of peacekeeping's image problem is that it's asked to handle some of the world's worst conflicts and then given very little credit for moving situations from awful to merely bad.

And Jason Stearns writes in the CS Monitor that while the peacekeeping force may have been negligent, the main problem is corruption within the Congolese army:

So long as ... impunity within the army reigns, these kinds of abuses will continue to happen. Just look at all of officers recommended for sanctions in UN Group of Experts reports and various human rights documents. Almost none have been arrested.

These explanations gloss over a simple necessity that MONUSCO, and many previous failed PKOs and aid efforts, fundamentally lacked: a reliable system of communication. Despite $1.35 billion a year and 18,000 peacekeepers, correspondence between Congolese civilians, peacekeeping troops, and UN officials remains deficient. As Shakespeare could have told the UN, failures in communication between the parts lead to easily-preventable blunders which lead to tragedy.

For instance, Gettleman reports that because “there is no cellphone service in the area or electricity, it is not always simple to know when there is an attack. The United Nations…is now trying to install solar-powered high-frequency radios in some villages.”

Could someone please explain why, if there was no cellphone service or electricity, and peacekeepers had been operating in remote areas like Luvungi for 10 years, these radios weren’t installed before the UN embarrassed itself a little earlier?

But that’s not all. Marcel Stoessel, Oxfam’s country director in DRC, told Voice of America that many of the peacekeepers do not speak French, and do not have interpreters. That means that villagers often can’t inform peacekeepers about major threats or problems.

The Guardian wrote that MONUSCO insists it didn’t know about the attacks for more than a week, adding, “Two UN officials in Kinshasa told the Associated Press they heard it from media reports, even though the UN’s small civil affairs office in Walikale is charged with protecting civilians.”

In fact villagers did warn the peacekeepers about a coming attack, but their entreaties were lost in translation – the interpreter-less peacekeepers dismissed it as a false alarm.

While many things can complicate a peace-keeping operation, we shouldn’t excuse the UN for failing on something as simple as installing radios or hiring interpreters.

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Can we get the World Bank to say the D- word?

UPDATE 10/12 1PM: we have a winner! (see end of post) UPDATE: No winnners yet, see end of post.

Following last Friday's post on the New Yorker profile of Justin Lin, I had this email exchange with the World Bank media officer David Theis, who kindly responded promptly to my inquiries.

Original Inquiry Fri, Oct 8, 2010 at 11:30 AM:

David Theis Media Chief, World Bank

Dear Mr. Theis, As I am sure you are aware, the current New Yorker has a profile of {World Bank Chief Economist} Justin Lin, especially his advocacy of an authoritarian development model. Does this reflect World Bank policy? In other words, is it official World Bank policy to endorse the authoritarian approach to development? If not, does the World Bank endorse instead a democratic approach to development? or does it simply take no position? Many thanks, Bill Easterly

Reply Fri, Oct 8, 2010 at 12:29 PM:

Bill, No, we are not advocating an authoritarian development model. In fact, Bob Zoellick's recent speech at Georgetown University (http://go.worldbank.org/5VEUBEBHY0) is entitled "Democratizing Development Economics." Many thanks. David

My follow-up question Fri, Oct 8, 2010 at 1:15 PM:

David, thanks so much for being so responsive. If you don't mind, a follow-up question. Mr. Zoellick's speech you mention is using "democratizing" in a different context. He does not bring up the issue of democratic vs. authoritarian regimes in developing countries. So when you say that you are "not advocating an authoritarian development model," I am unclear whether you are saying you are against this model, or whether you are neutral. Could you please clarify? Many thanks, Bill

His reply Sat, Oct 9, 2010 at 9:55 AM:

Bill, I believe "we are not advocating an authoritarian development model" is quite clear. Thanks. David

Bonus Reader exercise: find the word Democracy on any official World Bank website, or in any speech by Mr. Zoellick, or in any other official report authored by the World Bank.  The winner will receive two free tickets to the launch of the World Bank's new Policy Research Report: "D#m#cr#cy: Not Advocating Its Savage Repression."

Footnote: I also corresponded with David Theis on another question in the same series of letters that remains a bit unclear , and will be featured in a future post.

UPDATE: 3:30 pm no convincing winners yet as far as the World Bank offering an official embrace of Democratic Values, as opposed to isolated reports by individual authors and a few stray Zoellick remarks. You have got to do better, guys!! Or is it impossible?

UPDATE 10/12 1PM: We have a winner...

...except in reverse. Since nobody was able to provide a compelling example of the World Bank affirming democratic values, Aid Watch decided to give the prize to David Ellerman for his piquant comment that he was once forced to substitute the word "participation" for "democracy" in a major World Bank speech. This allows Aid Watch to selflessly quote its own previous posts deriding participation as a meaningless buzzword , which goes all the way back to colonial times and was therefore not seen as inconsistent with even Imperial Autocracy.

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Why the US “whole of government” approach to development is a black hole

UPDATE by Bill: unconscious experiment on Twitter of sexiness vs wonkiness, see end of post. Aid Watch has frequently panned the administration’s declared strategy of “elevating development” to be “on par” with diplomacy and defense. For one, this rhetoric obscures the actual—and continuing--disparity in magnitude, power and influence between the so-called “3Ds.” For another, it implies that the objectives of each “D” tend to be aligned.

Todd Moss, at the Center for Global Development, writes that the administration’s speechifying on this subject is increasingly “ringing embarrassingly hollow,” as USAID doesn’t control its own budget, and the State Department is effectively running both US aid efforts in Haiti and the president’s new food security initiative.

But rather than attributing USAID’s weakness to the usual turf wars and inter-agency power grabs, Moss suggests another explanation:

What if the real problem is that the much-vaunted “whole-of-government” approach is fundamentally unworkable in the United States?

The idea behind whole-of-government seems sensible enough: lots of federal agencies have skills and resources and experience that can be brought to bear on complex problems. If we can get everyone in the same room and all in the same boat, then the USG effort can be greater than just lots of agencies all running around doing their own thing, right? This seems especially attractive in development policy, where the United States may be involved in helping foreign countries improve health, education, agriculture, transportation, democracy, security, financial regulation, and loads more. If we want to help entrepreneurs in Liberia, why not bring in USAID, the Treasury, the Commerce Department, the US Trade Representative, and the Small Business Administration? If we’re fighting HIV/AIDS in Uganda, let’s use the expertise of HHS, CDC, NIH, and the FDA, right? We’ve now got at least 26 agencies involved in foreign aid of one kind or another. But the room is starting to look a bit crowded now....

But in the United States—with its sprawling federal structure and huge agency staffs and budget—just getting everyone around one table is perhaps too much to ask. The interagency process in any country is a strain…[T]he process can become convoluted and bogged down when the scale is out of whack. Simply put: when you have too many people at the table, nothing gets done.

Read the whole post here.

UPDATE: 11:30 am Bill unconsciously ran an experiment on Twitter: (1) he posted a link to this blog on Twitter, and (2) he asked Twitter what was happening on Facebook such that he started receiving a bunch of messages from uncl*d l*dies saying "Hello :)" At this point the responses to (2) are outnumbering those to (1) by a 3:1 ratio. Please comment.

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David Rieff takes on Hillary’s “new approach” to global health

In a blog post for The New Republic, author David Rieff calls Hillary Clinton’s approach to development naïve, contradictory, and muddled. His post is a response to Clinton’s speech, delivered last week at SAIS, about the administration’s six-year, $63 billion Global Health Initiative. Rieff’s critique rests on three main arguments, all of which will be familiar to Aid Watch readers.

1) Insisting that development is going to be “elevated” to the level of diplomacy and defense won’t make it so. Better to follow the money and see where the real priorities lie:

The secretary was already on record as claiming that the initiative would be a “crucial component of American foreign policy and a signature element of smart power.” On its face, this seems highly unlikely. Anyone doubting this should ponder the fact that one military program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—a weapons platform that no one claims is needed for the counter-insurgency operations that are currently at the core of the U.S. military’s requirements—is on course to cost $325 billion, and may well go higher....In other words, Washington is going to spend on a ‘signature element’ of its smart power less than one-fifth of what it is already committed to spending on something that even the Pentagon does not claim is a signature element of our hard power. No, money may not be everything, but 'follow the money' remains the best advice for understanding what the priorities of the American government really are, as she has claimed before.

2) The bureaucratic structure of the initiative verges on the absurd, fails to make any one agency responsible for success or accountable for failure, and seems almost designed for a meltdown:

[I]n either designing or at least signing off on a program which grants authority for day to day running of the program to three separate agencies (USAID, the Centers for Disease Control, and PEPFAR, the Bush-era President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief), each with their own institutional interests, while calling on the resources and expertise of the National Institutes of Health, the Peace Corps, not to mention the departments of Defense and of Health and Human Services (“among others,” as Secretary Clinton said, without irony, in her speech), all reporting to Deputy Secretary Lew, the administration has laid the groundwork for a bureaucratic calamity.

[We would add to this only that Jack Lew, the designated leader of this crew, is leaving his post, no word yet on his replacement, which could take months.]

3) Politicians who assert, as Clinton does here, that health aid can be used as a public diplomacy tool to win the hearts and minds of America’s reluctant allies are basing this view on too little evidence and simplistic assumptions about how aid recipients come to their perceptions of the US:

A far graver mystification is Secretary Clinton’s claim that investments in global health are an important tool of public diplomacy....

…[I]f the secretary really is suggesting that that recipients of foreign aid in very poor countries are so childlike that they view these contributions as dispositive about the nature of America’s values and intentions, then however unintentionally, she is speaking of these adults as if they were children.

But perhaps this hyper-conceited, hyper-complacent conviction of America’s good intention is so internalized in U.S. policymakers—even in one as intelligent as Secretary Clinton—that they are incapable of thinking clearly about how U.S. foreign aid, whether for emergency relief, health, or long-term development, is received by its beneficiaries.

Rieff’s whole, incendiary piece is worth reading in full.

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Is Impact Measurement a Dead End?

This post was written by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk. We’ve spent the last few years watching the best donors and NGOs get more and more committed to the idea of measurable impacts. At first, the trend seemed unimpeachable. International donors have spent far too much money with far too few results. Focusing more on impact seemed like the way out of that trap.

But is it? The last couple of weeks have seen a spate of arguments from development thinkers rethinking this premise.

Steve Lawry at the Hauser Center, argues two main points against excessive focus on impact evaluation. The first is that it stifles innovation by keeping NGOs from trying risky new things. But I think that the problem is an institutional culture that doesn’t allow for failure. By allowing NGOs to fail and learn from failure, innovation is encouraged.

His second point is more interesting: “Many real-world problems are not easily described with the kind of precision that professional mathematicians insist upon. This is due to the limitations of data, the costs of collecting and analyzing data, and the inherent difficulties of giving mathematical expression to the complexity of human behavior.” This strikes me as very true. At what point are we expecting too much from our impact assessments?

In the same vein, the fascinating Wanderlust blog just ran a post about Cynefin. Cynefin is a framework for understanding systems. It categorizes systems into four subsets: Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic. Chaotic systems, the author argues, can’t be evaluated for impact using standard measures. He states that “In a Chaotic paradigm, there is relatively little difference likely to occur in quality between a response that is based on three weeks’ worth of detailed analysis and one that is based on the gut reaction of a team leader…”

The Center for Global Development just published a paper by former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios. Natsios points out that USAID has begun to favor health programs over democracy strengthening or governance programs because health programs can be more easily measured for impact. Rule of law efforts, on the other hand, are vital to development but hard to measure and therefore get less funding.

Now we come to the hard questions:

If we limit all of our development projects to those that have easy metrics for success, we lose a lot of programs, many of which support important things like rule of law. Of course, if they don't have useful metrics, how do we know those programs are supporting the important goals?

And how meaningful is impact evaluation anyway when you consider the short time frames we’re working with? Most development programs take ten years or more to show real impact. How are we supposed to bring that in line with government funding cycles?

On the other hand, we don't have a lot of alternatives to impact evaluation. Impact is not unimportant just because it’s hard to quantify at times. We can’t wish that away. Plenty of beautifully designed and carefully implemented projects turned out not to have any effect at all. For example, consider what we’ve learned from microfinance impact evaluations. Microloans have a positive effect but not the one we expected.

It’s a standard trope of this blog to point out that there’s no panacea in global development. That’s true of impact evaluation, too. It’s a tool for identifying worthwhile development efforts, but it is not the only tool.  We can’t go back to assuming that good intentions lead to good results, but there must be room for judgment and experience in with the quantifiable data.


UPDATE: This post was edited to correct an attribution error in the third paragraph - Eds.

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The Wellington Dilemma

…[I] request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both: 1.) To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or, perchance…

2.) To see to it the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,


—Attributed to the Duke of Wellington, during the Peninsular Campaign, in a message to the British Foreign Office in London, 11 August 1812

This quote is pilfered from a new Center for Global Development essay by Andrew Natsios, former USAID Administrator and current Georgetown Prof. In the full (though possibly apocryphal) letter, the Duke complains that the demands of regulation, bureaucracy and compliance (“the accountants and copy-boys in London”) threaten to compromise the achievement of his country’s true goal (driving Napoleon out of Spain).

Natsios makes a similar argument about US aid programs, which he says are suffering from a disfiguring imbalance. The compliance side of aid, which he calls the “counter-bureaucracy,” has grown grotesquely out of proportion to the programmatic, technical side, and threatens to undermine aid’s goals.

As on Wellington’s plains of Spain, the goals of the US counter-bureaucracy are not necessarily compatible with or even complementary to the goals of the organization as a whole. That is, the counter-bureaucracy exists to make sure that US aid programs are managed according to voluminous, archaic, and sometimes internally-contradictory US laws, regulations, and management systems, while aid programs exist to encourage development abroad by building developing-country partnerships and strengthening institutions. US aid has become paralyzed by endless reporting requirements.

Natsios writes:

…[T]he question is whether the counter-bureaucracy has become counter-developmental.

Of course, we would all be a lot more sympathetic to the counter-bureaucracy if it performed functions like preventing waste and corruption, or if it performed independent evaluations of whether aid actually brought benefits to the intended beneficiaries. Unfortunately, a string of recent scandals (made possible of course by reports from the counter-bureaucracy) showed millions of USAID dollars going astray in Afghanistan and Iraq, with little assurance in USAID’s reaction so far that the same will not happen again in the future. So exactly what IS accomplished by those costly reporting requirements?

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Holy Bureaucratic Gibberish, Batman!

This post is by Adam Martin, a post-doctoral fellow at DRI. On July 1 the Department of Defense rolled out two notable new projects that will undoubtedly inaugurate a new era of peace and safety for the streets of Gotham international community. Even the world’s greatest detective could not have seen this coming.

Like their caped crusader namesakes, the DoD versions of BaTMAN and RoBIN are shrouded in mystery, their real identities cleverly disguised. BaTMAN is:

Biochronicity and Temporal Mechanisms Arising in Nature (BaTMAN) could develop an understanding of the relationship between biological systems and the spatial-temporal universe through the application of advanced principles from the physical sciences... Topic areas that may be of interest include, but are not limited to: quantum biology and molecular clocks; resetting and synchronization of biological clocks and rhythms; microscale recapitulation in macroscale; evolutionary pressure and time; physiological signal processing and clocks; timing and cognition; and robustness of clocks in development.

His faithful sidekick RoBIN:

Robustness of Biologically-Inspired Networks (RoBIN), seeks to apply the critical control features of biological networks to build unique models for adaptable networks, and create a dynamic biologically-inspired network of scientists and other experts for crisis response and complex decision support.

What does any of this have to do with foreign aid? Most prominently, it serves of a reminder of just how bad an idea it is to ask the military to be more involved in aid. Despite the distilled frenzy of a few prominent voices in the air, the defense establishment is more likely to lead us into a funhouse maze than solve the riddle of development.

But it’s not just military involvement itself that should resisted. The BaTMAN and RoBIN projects are perfect examples of the obfuscating language and flagrant non-accountability that accompanies bloated bureaucracies. These megalomaniacal ideas work great at keeping the funding flowing but achieve little else. The dynamic duo of massive government budgets and weak feedback mechanisms are a source of mischief in military and non-military organizations alike.


Editor’s note: BaTMAN and RoBIN sound almost too outlandish to be real. We did call Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to confirm that we were not being had, and the conversation went like this:

Me: Hi, I work at New York University and write for a blog called Aid Watch.


Me: I am wondering if you could confirm that Biochronicity and Temporal Mechanisms Arising in Nature and Robustness of Biologically-Inspired Networks are in fact DARPA programs.

DARPA: Uhmmm...you want to try that in English? (laughs)

Me: Your language, not mine! The acronyms are BaTMAN and RoBIN...

DARPA: (Looks up the programs on his screen…) Well, what we issued was a Request for Information so they are not technically programs per se....They are potential new DARPA programs.

Me: So you can confirm that they are real potential DARPA programs.


There you have it, BaTMAN and RoBIN are not a spoof.

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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.

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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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