The leader bias – for example, this blog

One of our many cognitive biases is to give too much credit for a group undertaking to the leader (or most visible member) of the group. I could illustrate that with how country leaders get too much credit for development success, how firm CEOs get too much credit, how soloists and conductors get too much credit relative to the orchestra … but I want to use the example of ME getting too much credit … for this blog. This is of course assuming that you like this blog (if you don’t, then I DO deserve all the blame).

What I really want to do here is to give well-deserved and long overdue credit to my fellow blogger, Development Research Institute Associate Director Laura Freschi. She has sole-authored many of the biggest hits here on the blog, including pieces on Do Millennium Villages Work? and History Matters.  The piece on Haiti Earthquake Relief was our 3rd most popular ever, and it was done while I was on vacation. She has co-authored many pieces with me in which she more than carried her share of the load. Behind the scenes, she manages the blog, ran the Best and Worst contest, does a lot of research, finds great guest contributors, and exerts her street smarts and good judgment to restrain Yours Truly from some ill-considered posts.

Yet despite all this, I have often gotten comments (usually favorable) on her posts that are attributed to ME as if I had written them. During the big critical discussion on the Aid Watch blog that we had last week, all the praise and blame was aimed at me alone (again the attribution of blame was correct, but not the praise). Admittedly, this discussion was partly about my personal tone, but Laura’s important role in the Aid Watch blog overall was overlooked. (And even on my personal tone, I would have been in even more trouble with some of you critics if she had not been a restraining and balancing influence).

Maybe I have been acting in some way that hogs all the attention, but if so, I want to correct that now. Please get over the leader bias on this blog, this blog too is a small spontaneous order in which everyone is contributing – and so here I say, thank you, Laura.

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Am I useless? A critic needs to listen to critics

The whole idea of searching is that you never quite know if you are getting it right. You need constant feedback from the intended targets of your efforts, to keep adjusting and re-adjusting. This is my motivation for criticizing aid, to try to induce it to change in response to criticism on things that are clearly wrong. And this is why I myself need to listen to my own critics. The blogosphere has recently been a bit hot about my approach in this blog. Commentators on a previous critique strongly endorsed the critique of Aid Watch or strongly opposed it and supported Aid Watch. Another critique from a blog by Siena Antsis:

Perhaps Aid Watch was meant as an outlet for shallow satire among the occasional interesting link and comment. ...Whatever the reason, I personally (along with others and others) find this approach to critiquing the aid industry (which sometimes seems lazy) not terribly helpful and rather discouraging.

Alanna Sheikh offers her very welcome and judicious thoughts in a post "Is Bill Easterly useless?",

I see both sides. I think that Prof. Easterly is too quick to blame aid agencies and NGOs for problems that are systemic. He blames individual actors for doing things that are incentivized by the development industry. I would like him to write and think more about fixing the system than attacking the individual organizations. And I agree that his tone can be snarky to a degree that stops being funny and makes you tune the post out.

On the other hand, the system needs someone who will speak truth to power (or, in this case, development money.) And I know from my own experience that the blunter and snarkier you are when writing about development, the more people listen.

I'm listening.  First, while I believe a critic should use a variety of tools in a critique -- reason, logic, evidence, Economics 101, anger, humor, satire, snark, compassion, evaluation of individual projects and organizations, and systemic analysis -- it's also important to get the mix right. The feedback I hear is that I have recently gone too far in the satire/snark dimension and am not using enough the other dimensions, and I need to adjust.

Second, I need to make much more clear that I have enormous respect for aid workers in the field who do very hard work in very hard places. I agree with Alanna that dysfunctional aid is mainly the result of bureacracies with bad political incentives, and not the personal failings of individuals. Although I don't have rigorous evidence for this, years of casual observation suggest that field workers are more likely themselves to be Searchers, while it's the HQ executives who play politics and become ineffective Planners.

Keep the feedback coming, the search will continue...

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In defense of being mean-spirited: response to a critic

People on Twitter yesterday and today called attention to this thought-provoking critique of yours truly (from Chris Conrad at his blog The Big-Push: Development and Aid Effectiveness)

I did want to take issue with one of Easterly's tweets from yesterday, in which he sardonically impugns USAID's efforts in Afghanistan, suggesting that the most benefit Afghanis have realized from USAID's years of war-time effort is the use of USAID-labeled vegetable oil cans to set up live WIFI nodes in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

...This is a very unproductive and mean-spirited use of anybody's time.  I honestly have no idea what Easterly expects the response to such a post to be -- this adds nothing to the debate, and perversely co-opts what is otherwise very positive news into an outlet for his nihilistic worldview.

To be intellectually consistent, I have to praise criticism of myself as much as I advocate criticism of aid agencies. So thank you, Chris, for taking the time to give me thoughtful feedback. I read something like this and I re-examine if I am going too far in ridiculing unproductive aid organizations. I will consider whether to dial it down.

At the same time, I still believe in vigorous criticism of aid when it deserves it. In other fields, we recognize a constructive role of even very harsh criticism. Alec Baldwin joked at the Oscars last night that James Cameon had sent his rival director and ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow a good-luck present of "a Toyota." This is a mean-spirited joke at the expense of a corporation that has years of quality service to consumers except for one recent accelerator pedal malfunction. And Toyota deserves every bit of it.

"Aid effectiveness" is a sleep-inducing word that has resulted in endless rounds of summits and declarations ("Accra Agenda for Aid Effectiveness, etc.) and little action. USAID is a politically entrenched bureaucracy that has gotten away with scandalous waste of billions of aid in Afghanistan. A mean-spirited joke at their expense is among the least of the consequences they should suffer.

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Live Tweeting from Our "Best and Worst of Aid" Conference

  1. indabamf Excitedly listening to opening session, Development Research Institute, NYU: Aid & Development Today
  2. indabamf @bill_easterly notes that lack of transparency & specialization are 2 factors that have made AID less effective than it could be
  3. indabamf There has been a upward trend to providing AID to corrupt countries
  4. altmandaniel @bill_easterly gives award for Worst of Aid to Defense/Diplomacy/Development approach of US, UK, Canada
  5. indabamf Worst of AID Oscar goes to the 3Ds approach in development: integrating development w defense and diplomacy.
  6. indabamf "Rather than face the trade-offs, deny they exist, & so disguise that developmnt is being traded off 4 defense & diplomacy" -
  7. indabamf @bill_easterly gives kudos to mobile-based tech: M-PESA @Ushahidi @FrontlineSMS in his presentation
  8. indabamf The AID Oscar for Best of AID: the Giving Well movement
  9. hotdamnation - Development conference w @bill_easterly ... No one wants your old shoes!
  10. kristentitus Best of Aid Award goes to... the new movement to give well rather than to just give.
  11. indabamf Thanks @bill_easterly & Development Research Inst, NYU for a great conference 2day. Varied perspectives. Brain sufficiently overstimulated!

Live T only from opening session, except for last. Conference (see agenda here)  finished at 2pm. Further news coming on this blog from material presented at conference by speakers Yaw Nyarko, Bill Easterly, Clare Lockhart, Isabel Guerrero, Andrew Mwenda, and Lant Pritchett.

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This Friday: “Best and Worst of Aid” Conference

For aid watchers in New York, this post is a reminder of Development Research Institute’s upcoming conference this Friday, from 9 am to 2 pm, in NYU’s Kimmel Center. Called “The Best and Worst of Aid: Incentives, Accountability and Effectiveness,” speakers and participants will present new findings and discuss and debate the best and worst of what happened in aid this year.

(According to some rumors, the irrepressible light-hearted side of DRI will give Oscar-style Best of Aid Awards – and of course, Worst of Aid Awards – in several important categories).

9:00 am: Welcome and Introduction Yaw Nyarko, Professor of Economics and Co-Director of DRI

9:10 am: Aid and Development Today: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times William Easterly, Professor of Economics and Co-Director of DRI

10:00 am: The Best and the Worst of International Effort on Failed States Clare Lockhart, CEO, Institute for State Effectiveness

10:50 am: Coffee Break

11:05 am: Keynote: What Works and What Does Not Work in Aid and the Transformative Challenges Ahead Isabel Guerrero, Vice President, South Asia Region, World Bank

11:50 am: Thoughts on Aid from a Ugandan Perspective Andrew Mwenda, Founder & Owner, The Independent, Uganda

12:30 pm: Lunch Served

12:45 pm: Lunch Keynote: Historical Lessons: What Did Development Aid Do Best? What Did It Do Worst? Lant Pritchett, Harvard Kennedy School

The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. (More details here. Register here.)

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Apparently not a big fan...

Easterly’s pointless echo chamber

Maybe I’m being too harsh on professor Easterly. Wait, no I’m not. He becomes petulant when anyone from a fellow blogger to a large multilateral organization doesn’t immediately respond to his criticisms, yet he often ignores the most knowledgeable and thoughtful of his own critics....

Posted in Aid, Bloggers, Blogging, Development, Stupidity

February 21, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Written by transitionland

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We'd like to thank the Academy...

Bill Easterly and Yaw Nyarko have their Sally Field Oscar moment (You like us! You really like us!) At least 5 of you! as they are interviewed by BBVA on the occasion of DRI winning the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge in Development Cooperation Award.  They talk about the simple focus of DRI, their motivations for working on aid, and what the award means to them. Additional footage demonstrates that Easterly and Nyarko are not only serious aid critics, they can also play ones on TV.

DRI faculty and staff remain so taken by surprise that we got this award that we have reverted to our most atavistic instincts of relentless self-promotion...

More seriously, could this be one tiny sign that the tide is turning against mindless advocacy of more aid money, and towards advocacy for true accountability?

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NYU’s Development Research Institute (including Aid Watch) receives 2009 BBVA Development Cooperation Award

Excerpts from the BBVA Foundation press release issued today: January 29, 2010 - The awardof €400,000 goes to the Development Research Institute (DRI) for “its contribution to the analysis of foreign aid provision, and its challenge to the conventional wisdom in development assistance,” in the words of the jury’s citation.

The DRI has brought a fresh approach to aid and development research, helping ensure that the economic aid rich countries provide to the developing world is better utilized. Its results question certain mainstream assumptions in development cooperation, like the idea that more generosity on the part of rich donor countries will have an automatic pay-off in poor country development.

“At a time when richer countries are being called on to increase aid expenditure, DRI has made it its mission to ensure that these resources are not wasted and that policy advice is effective,” concluded the jury in its resolution, which also singled out DRI’s determination to hold development assistance organizations and national aid agencies accountable to scientific scrutiny.

The DRI is co-led by two economics professors at New York University, William Easterly  and Yaw Nyarko. Easterly holds a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is an expert in the political economy of development and the study of the effectiveness of foreign aid. Yaw Nyarko, one of the most highly ranked African academic economists in the world, is Associate Editor of the Journal of Economic Theory and has acted as a consultant to organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations.

Regarding the real effectiveness of humanitarian relief, the DRI has repeatedly criticized the lack of information and feedback between donors and beneficiaries. This is part of the thinking behind its Aid Watch initiative, a digital platform where researchers, policy-makers, commentators and aid practitioners can debate developments and exchange experiences.

Their research emphasizes that decisions about the allocation of relief funds cannot be left to foreign governments or multilateral organizations. Instead, they need to take close account of the social, cultural and economic peculiarities of the receiving communities in determining how and where the monies can best be spent.

The Development Cooperation award went last year in the inaugural 2008 edition to the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for applying scientific methods to assess the on-the-ground effectiveness of development assistance funding.

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The best and worst in aid from the past year is…what our readers say it is

Dear Aid Watchers, A year ago this month we launched this blog as one small contribution to the effort to make aid more accountable. Our ambition: to add to the growing chorus of voices demanding that our development assistance money be spent according to what we know about best practices in aid so that it might actually reach the poor. And to provide a forum for aid professionals, academics, students, and citizens to talk openly and frankly about what is working and what isn’t.

With our first birthday around the corner, now is a good time to declare from our lofty academic perch what was the best and worst in aid over the past year. And we proclaim that it was…well, we’re waiting to hear that from you. With this post, we declare our totally unscientific, user-driven, open-ended, end-of-year competition for the best and worst in aid open to your submissions.

You tell us: what was the best thing to happen to aid in the last year? Was it an idea that will someday revolutionize how medicines are delivered? A randomized trial that finally allowed us to generalize to what works?  A brilliant article, or a piece of legislation, or a new technology? A change in practitioner behavior? Share with us your account of an aid success story. Of course, being Aid Watch, we also want to hear the worst: in any of the above categories, or others you can dream up, we want to hear about the horror stories, the delays, the waste, the opportunities squandered, the outright theft, and the pointless failures.

Lest this contest be seen as a veiled opportunity for more snark, or to promote or refute certain narrow positions, we plan to take as seriously as possible the “Best of” part of the competition. For those of you who think Aid Watch can be too dismissive of aid’s real accomplishments, here’s your chance to convince us how much good work was achieved in aid this year. Go ahead and make the case for your favorite NGO, a great project, an overlooked innovation—we’re ready to be persuaded.

A few more points to guide your submissions:

1) Even if you want to remain anonymous on the blog, you still have to reveal yourselves to us. We will protect your anonymity to the public (or to your boss) but we need to know who you are so that we can, to the degree possible, independently verify your submission. Note also that anonymity is fine as long as it doesn’t make your submission so generic that it loses all interest (“In an aid agency we can’t name, working in a country we can’t mention, on a project that we’ll call….” Snooze.)

2) No submitting Aid Watch. We’re disqualifying ourselves from the running to make it clear that we’re not asking anyone to nominate us for the best thing to happen to aid last year (or then again is it to ensure you don’t say we’re the worst….?)

3) We will of course need you to provide evidence to back up your nomination, in whatever form you believe will be most convincing, be it an RCT, a case study, or a well-documented anecdote. In this initial submission, though, it’s okay to send in a short description and simply identify what evidence you have at your disposal. You may be contacted and asked for more details later.

4) Email your submissions to The submissions will be reviewed, corroborating evidence requested, and the results announced at our annual conference (more details on that to come). Criteria for selection will include general interest to the aid community, and the strength of evidence and documentation provided.

5) A final note: we mean this to be a serious contest but we would not be true to ourselves if we did not allow some entertainment value to creep in…

May the best (and worst) win!

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Decade Ender Edition: We interrupt this blog for a brief self-promotional announcement

People from Ohio are not supposed to trumpet their own achievements. Ohioans have this belief that if you do the Unforgivable Sin of Self-Praise, a tornado will immediately strike and wipe out you and your entire family. "Pride goeth before a fall" is the state motto. Still, when you are labeled an "aid skeptic" and make enemies everywhere, if you don't praise yourself, who's going to? On top of that, I will appeal to a technicality of quoting others praising me, is that alright Ohio? If not, at least tornadoes are uncommon in downtown Manhattan in the middle of winter. So just to note that the World Bank included my book on the PSD blog's Top Ten Books of the Decade. No, not the White Man's Burden, but my lesser known earlier 2001 book (paperback 2002), The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. Some insiders, not necessarily including the author, actually like the first book better than the second. And there's nice poetic justice here, since the 2001 version of the World Bank forced me onto the exit ramp out of the Bank because of that 2001 book.

Then BOTH my books made the Top Ten Pro-Liberty Books of the Decade. Thank you liberty lovers, I love Liberty for All also, and thanks for giving me 20 percent of the whole decade liberty franchise. Good thing I didn't waste time on a 3rd pro-liberty book.

So for those who procrastinated on Christmas gifts, or maybe celebrate Orthodox Christmas instead, it's not too late to click on the above links and raise my Amazon rankings!

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We count our holiday blessings in development

This post is NOT a satire. Aid Watch has a previously-unsuspected sentimental streak and wants to embrace the holiday tradition of counting your blessings. Our best holiday wishes: (1)   To our readers and commentators, the smartest, most field-smart, sexiest group in the blogosphere

(2)   for ALL the people who work so hard around the world under difficult conditions (which includes getting grief from aid critics) trying to reduce poverty, disease, and illiteracy

(3)   For the growing number of African intellectuals and activists standing up to the aid agencies and campaigning for democracy and self-determination for Africans

(4)   For “the poor” themselves, who ignore labels such as “the poor,” and in this generation, have already achieved the greatest escape from poverty in human history

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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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Bill Goes to Africa

Hello, aid watchers. I am Africa-bound and will go off the Internet for the next 2 weeks (out of choice, not technological constraints). Laura will be running the blog in my absence. When I come back I will tell you about any experiences of interest.

Maybe when I come back I will also wearily comment on the latest aid-and-growth regression paper, the 1 millionth attempt to resolve the relationship in a cross-country growth regression literature that is now largely discredited in academia.

All the best, Bill

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