Hillary opts for lame "transition" jargon on Egypt

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

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

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

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US Government asks all governments to respect World Press & Internet Freedom except for US Government

From wonkette (HT David Zetland), the State Department has announced with impeccable timing (what is that Wikileaks thing?) and deafness to irony:

The theme for next year’s commemoration {of World Press Freedom Day} will be 21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers. The United States places technology and innovation at the forefront of its diplomatic and development efforts. New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information. We mark events such as World Press Freedom Day in the context of our enduring commitment to support and expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age.

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Development is Uneven, Get Over It

UPDATE: out of 188 recorded songs on all Beatles albums, how many are now hits on iTunes? See end of post. This a 20 minute extemporaneous talk at UNICEF headquarters in New York on the topic of "Inclusive Growth". After the talk, there is a question, comment, and response session with the audience.  The full video is an hour, if you are really a masochist. (Try this link if the video player above doesn't work.)

To summarize the talk: success is intrinsically uneven, so development and growth is intrinsically uneven, not "inclusive". (See the earlier post about the fractal stubborness of uneven geographic wealth.) In this talk, I also mention how remarkably uneven success shows up in just about every field of endeavor. One way this shows up is in a "power law": there is such a strong negative relationship between the frequency of success and the scale of success that we have to use a logarithmic scale (i.e. a scale where every unit increase means multiplying by 10)  for both to be able to fit the extremes onto the graph, like the one below:

There is no evidence that large-scale redistribution programs can succeed without killing off growth, but targeting things like health and education to the poor has worked and could work even more. Lastly, the best thing of all you can do for "inclusive growth" is asserting the individual human rights of all, including women, gays, and religious, racial, and ethnic minorities. For more detail to fill out these ideas, please watch the video.

UPDATE: Answer to how many Beatles  hits out of 188 recorded songs on their 14 albums are hits today: 15. Even the most successful band in rock history could only produce a lasting hit about 8% of the time (please draw your own profound insights into the intrinsic unevenness of success and non-inclusive growth).

(Sorry about my really excessive Beatle-mania, it's a Baby Boomer thing, you wouldn't understand.)

PS highly imperfect methodology for measuring hits today: the popularity metre on iTunes gets maxed out for hits, all others (most showing zero popularity) are non-hits.

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Fighting for Freedom of the Press in Ethiopia and AidBlogWorld

Had a fascinating lunch today with Dawit Kebede, the courageous editor of the only remaining independent newspaper in Addis Ababa.  He is getting a  2010 International Press Freedom Award tonight in New York from the Committee to Protect Journalists. I hope he gets lots more recognition for what he's doing to preserve a neutral, independent voice. Thank goodness we have press freedom here at home...oops, Dennis Whittle points out we don't. At least not for many aid bloggers, who have to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs.

Could the CPJ consider an award for those aid bloggers? Alas, it would still have to be anonymous, unlike Ethiopia.

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Is aid sometimes for ruling party members only?

From our newly-published blog post for the New York Review of Books:

Foreign aid observers have often worried that Western aid to Africa is propping up autocratic regimes. Yet seldom has such a direct link from aid to political repression been demonstrated as in “Development without Freedom,” an extensively documented new report on Ethiopia by Human Rights Watch. Based on interviews with 200 people in 53 villages and cities throughout the country, the report concludes that the Ethiopian government, headed by prime minister Meles Zenawi, uses aid as a political weapon to discriminate against non-party members and punish dissenters, sending the population the draconian message that “survival depends on political loyalty to the state and the ruling party.”

The aid agencies say their own investigations fail to find widespread evidence of the misdeeds that the report documents—withholding government-provided seeds, fertilizer and microloans from non-party members, barring suspected critics of the regime from food for work programs, and denying emergency food aid to women, children and the elderly for refusal to join the ruling party. However, some aid officials admitted to Human Rights Watch (HRW) knowing about them:

As one western donor official said, “Every tool at [the government’s] disposal—fertilizer, loans, safety net—is being used to crush the opposition. We know this.”

Our post concludes by suggesting ways that the aid community might help Ethiopians rather than their rulers.

We of course welcome alternative views, including criticisms of the HRW report and HRW's operations in Ethiopia.

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Donors seem to think Democracy is Only for Rich, Not for Poor

The international aid system has a dirty secret. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, the nations and organizations that donate and distribute aid do not care much about democracy and they still actively support dictators. The conventional narrative is that donors supported dictators only during the cold war and ever since have promoted democracy. This is wrong.

Mo Ibrahim said:

All Africans have a right to live in freedom and prosperity and to select their leaders through fair and democratic elections, and the time has come when Africans are no longer willing to accept lower standards of governance than those in the rest of the world.

He knows that recognition of democratic values eventually leads to their realization; lack of recognition continues the subjugation of the poor.

See my whole article at the New York Review of Books

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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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Our China who art in heaven, hallowed be thy growth rate

UPDATE 4: thanks to all the critics on this post, too bad I couldnt get Chinese censoring technology to work:) UPDATE 3: 9:30am Sat 10/9: links to Nobel Peace Prize and Charter '08

UPDATE 2: 1:30pm. New Yorker writer Evan Osnos generously replies to my criticisms (see end of post)

SCOREBOAD UPDATE 10 AM 10/8: understanding key to China's future development: Nobel Committee 1, New Yorker 0; Liu Xiaobo 1, Justin Lin, 0.

A writer in the New Yorker has an article fawning all over China’s rulers and Chinese economist Justin Lin (currently the Chief Economist of the World Bank).

I’m saddened to see my favorite magazine publish an article seemingly in search of every possible fallacy about growth, the main one being that if you have a high growth rate, then the current autocrats and their economist advisors must be Gods.

(Sorry to be so harsh.  Can you tell that this time I am really annoyed to see so much gushing over a Party that kills, beats, and imprisons any Chinese citizens who are not quite as enthusiastic about their own government as a New Yorker writer? And recommends this approach to other countries?)

Let’s review the logic and evidence.

  1. See previous post on the myth of the benevolent autocrat. (To be fair to the New Yorker writer,  he mentions briefly at the very end of the article Dani Rodrik’s similar argument. But it comes as across as a CYA after the long hagiography.)
  2. Rapid growth episodes never last indefinitely, so forget all the nonsense about projecting today’s growth rate forward till China overtakes Japan, the US, God, etc.
  3. Especially considering (2), Growth is not a reliable indicator of performance, income levels are what matters:
    1. China’s per capita income is currently 13 percent of the US level.
    2. Remember growth is the CHANGE in income. A change is made up of two elements:
      1. The extent to which things are good now.
      2. The extent to which things were totally f’d up before.
        1. China performs really well on this second part of the CHANGE equation. Not even mentioning previous authoritarian emperors and political chaos, it had from 1949 to 1976 a totalitarian psycho in power responsible for the deaths of millions, the Great Leap Famine Forward, the Cultural Revolution.
    3. So compared to the official “complete wacko destructive” standard set by Mao, today’s citizens are free-er, but still not very free.
    4. Did I mention that I am really annoyed?

So another way of stating China’s rapid growth recipe would be something like the following:

Have a succession of crazy autocrats, political chaos, and war savagely repress one of history’s most inventive peoples, along with not allowing one of the most successful trading diasporas in history to operate in China proper.  Then have things calm down a bit and have somewhat less crazy rulers allow more of the people’s energy and creativity to burst out. Presto, the change from EXTREME NEGATIVE to LESS NEGATIVE is called a “growth rate,” and it will be high. Now accept worship from around the world.

UPDATE 1:30PM New Yorker writer Evan Osnos has a generous response to this critique:

Dear Bill, Thanks for the twitter headsup to your post. I agree with your "logic/evidence" on China's growth model. I also agree with you on the myth/fallacy that it's a guaranteed (or democratic) path. I think we'll have to disagree on whether this piece about Lin and his ideas is an endorsement of him - - or an effort to explain the background of an unfamiliar name in an influential job and why he got there. The story also relies on the critiques from Yang Xiaokai, Yawei Liu, Yao Yang, Wu Jinglian, and Dani Rodrik, but only one of those five was referenced in your post. Fair enough: I suspect you found the overall mix to be unpersuasive. As I said, I agree with much of your take on the overall approach to growth. Best, Evan

UPDATE 3: New York Times on Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiabo.

The English translation of Charter '08 that Liu Xiabo signed along with 300 other Chinese intellectuals.

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Solving the mystery of the benevolent autocrat

UPDATE 4PM: RESPONSE TO COMMENTS (SEE END OF POST) Step 1: You're right, almost all of the biggest growth success stories are autocracies! Step 2: Wait a second, all of the worst growth failures are also autocracies! Step 3: Solving mystery: autocracies have much higher variance of growth rates, so they have both best and worst growth rates

Wonky Moral of the story: focusing on success only in Step 1 created a selection bias that led to the erroneous conclusion that autocracy was good for growth.

Plain English Moral of the Story: autocracy is extremely risky: it could result in high growth, but it could just as well result in a growth collapse -- for every Lee Kuan Yew, there is a Jean-Bédel Bokassa.

Extra credit question: why would arguing that the autocrats under Step 1 are benevolent while Step 2 autocrats are malevolent be logically fallacious?

RESPONSE TO COMMENTS 4PM To answer some questions, the growth rate is the geometric average 1960-2008 of per capita growth per annum. The source is WDI.

The source for the democracy data is Polity IV, which has some problems, but is enough for the kind of illustration here.

The point about causality is well taken, I am just making a point about how what for these data is actually a POSITIVE and SIGNIFICANT correlation between democracy and growth is turned into an apparent NEGATIVE association in Step 1, which is where the "benevolent autocrat" discussion usually stops.

(FOR WONKS ONLY) When I write this up more fully in an eventual paper, I will explain also some exploration of different functional forms for transforming the original POLITY index from -10 to 10, which is an arbitrary scale (autocracy being the negative direction). To illustrate the strongest possible POSITIVE correlation, I chose from 3 alternatives the one with the strongest statistical significance , which was the following function: POLITY/(11-POLITY). I would normally NOT like this kind of "data mining" among several different functions, but again the point of the exercise is to show the fallacy by which a STRONG POSITIVE association appears to be a STRONG NEGATIVE ASSOCIATION.

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Lessons after the Meles speech at Columbia: Let Ethiopians debate Ethiopia

It's sure was nice to see mainly Ethiopians vigorously participating in a debate about Ethiopia, in contrast to the usual Old White Men debating Africa. The Meles visit to Columbia had the unintentional effect of promoting this debate.  We were very happy at Aid Watch to have had the privilege of turning over our  little corner of the web to host some of this debate, and then just get out of the way. Here's more in the aftermath of the Meles speech:

Africa Didn't Ask You (honestly):

New School Thoughts on Africa:

(both of the above are students in the class of New School Prof Sean Jacobs, who founded the group blog Africa is a Country)

There are two blog posts on HuffPo from Professor Alemayehu Mariam: Veni, Vidi, Orator, Fugio! Mr. Zenawi Goes to College!

Committee to Protect Journalists blog: As Zenawi speaks, editors are grilled in Ethiopia

Columbia Spectator: World Leaders site raises eyebrows Columbia’s invitation to Zenawi sparks outrage

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Cry the Beloved Country: Ethiopians criticize Columbia for hosting Meles

UPDATE Sept 19, 8:30am (see end of post) I have been getting a lot of email from Ethiopian-Americans who are very upset that Columbia University has invited Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to speak this coming Wednesday, like this one:

Most of the professors who come across him, in most cases are neutralized or transformed as his advocates. So far, you are the only one standing clear, so the Ethiopian people need one intellectual friend like you to make their case. Please don't be afraid and help our people and speak up.

I am both moved and extremely uncomfortable.  The Ethiopian diaspora critics of Meles are upset about the support for Meles coming from Professors Sachs and Stiglitz at Columbia (note: I hear from critics in the diaspora, because its nearly impossible to be a critic from inside Ethiopia). I have criticized the Meles regime here and here (2nd one joint with Laura). But it should not be up to the faranji to conduct the debate.  None of us know enough or have enough at stake to get it right.

But I am happy to give the opposition a platform in this blog, without necessarily endorsing any one viewpoint, individual, or movement. Nor do I imply that any one I quote is necessarily representing a majority of Ethiopians. I have previously given space on the blog to a supporter of Meles.

So what are the issues? The Columbia student newspaper noted how Columbia's original speech announcement had a laudatory bio of Meles (since removed), further outraging the Ethiopian opposition.

Under the seasoned governmental leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi ... Ethiopia has made and continues to make progresses in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy.

Obang Metho, the director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia,  wrote me with an alternative bio:

Electoral manipulations, harassment, intimidation,beatings, political imprisonments and the withholding of humanitarian aid for any who do not support Meles ‘ethnic-based EPRDF party, have effectively closed all political space to any opposing groups. The criminalization of dissent, advanced through new repressive laws regarding civil society and vague antiterrorism laws that could make nearly anyone guilty, have further silenced the people and the media.

Columbia University has the right to invite whomever they choose, but yet, such an invitation will only be misused to further elevate a dictator who is oppressing the people of Ethiopia.

Political science professor Alemayehu Mariam wrote an open letter to Columbia president Lee Bollinger on the Huffington Post:

There is widespread belief among Ethiopian Americans that Mr. Zenawi's invitation to speak ...necessarily implies the University's endorsement and support of Mr. Zenawi's views, policies and actions in Ethiopia. I am writing to request your office to issue an official statement clarifying your position concerning Mr. Zenawi as you so eloquently did when Mahmood Ahmadinejad of Iran spoke on your campus on September 24, 2007.

Professor Mariam cites some of the credentials of Meles Zenawi to get the Ahmadinejad treatment:

In 2005, security forces under the personal command and control of Mr. Zenawi massacred 193 unarmed protesters and inflicted severe gunshot wounds on 763 others...

In December 2008, Mr. Zenawi arrested and reinstated a life sentence on Birtukan Midekssa, the only woman political party leader in Ethiopian history. He kept her under extreme conditions in prison.

He quotes the Committee to Protect Journalists:

The government enacted harsh legislation that criminalized coverage of vaguely defined "terrorist" activities, and used administrative restrictions, criminal prosecutions, and imprisonments to induce self-censorship... The government has had a longstanding practice of bringing trumped-up criminal cases against critical journalists, leaving the charges unresolved for years as a means of intimidating the defendants... Ethiopia as the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with 'consistent' and 'substantial' filtering of web sites...

Even it's not up to the faranji to debate Ethiopia's politics, we can all certainly comment on what support is given to each side by our governments, our aid agencies, and our universities.

What do you think of Columbia's invitation to Meles? Should President Bollinger issue the "Ahmadinejad" disclaimer requested by the critics?

UPDATE (Sunday 9/19 8:30am): The same pro-Meles Ethiopian Ph.D. student cited in an earlier Aid Watch post wrote me again this morning ("you are back at it again!"):

The note you posted regarding HE PM Meles Zenawi is highly charged with hatred and grudge. It does not look one produced by a man who claims to be a scholar and neutral. Once again, you clearly demonstrated your malicious intent to harm the flourishing name of our prime minister... your witnesses are disgruntled and die hard extremists

I am very happy to feature both sides to the debate, just as I want to also provide an alternative viewpoint to the support of Meles by Professors Stiglitz and Sachs at Columbia. Unfortunately, this debate cannot happen within Ethiopia because Meles suppresses dissent, and even this very blog post is almost certainly blocked from anyone trying to access it from within Ethiopia.

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How to respond to a bad government in someone else's country?

The question in the title is one of the hardest in our field. I just wrote a Wall Street Journal book review critical of the Meles' government in Ethiopia. I got some supportive letters from Ethiopians, but a Political Science Ph.D. student named Hamere wrote me as follows:

Hello William, It is a pity that you produced such a hate and politics charged article against my country, Ethiopia and its leadership... What we have is simply visionary, caring, developmental and strong leadership.

I criticize others for intrusively intervening in poor countries, or advocating intervention, especially with outside military force. So what am I doing meddling in Ethiopian politics?

It's important to distinguish between talk and action. It's consistent with free values to criticize tyranny everywhere. It doesn't follow that one or more outside powers should overthrow any one tyrant, or indeed tyrants everywhere. The following box suggests the range of alternatives.

Aid agencies don't even criticize specific tyrannical acts, although they might advocate "good goverance,"  and they wind up supporting bad governments with aid funds. This is ironically the same box that the Cold War support for allied dicators used to be in, and still includes support of bad governments who are "War on Terror" allies (including Ethiopia).

Neo-cons (and their liberal twins, the humanitarian military interveners) want to both speak and act against bad government.

Isolationists want to just ignore tyranny elsewhere.

I'm drawn to the "talk, not act" box, which I've labeled "libertarian". Advocate passionately for free values, human rights, the freedom of political prisoners, but don't presume to socially re-engineer someone else's society in the name of those values.

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Why can't leading conservative magazine understand freedom?

Found this  mysterious transmission on a robot named R2D2 Twitter from  joshuafoust: "National Review Online endorses authoritarian capitalism. Help us, Obi Wan @bill_easterly, you're our only hope!" I won't let you down, Leia&Luke AKA @joshuafoust...  The bizarre article in question is titled China Teaches the U.S. Lessons about Economic Freedom. The argument seems roughly to be that China's rapid growth is explained by its positive change in economic freedom after 1978. Throw in a few qualifiers, and I would agree. Then things get bizarre: the article notes that after 2003, there was negative change in Chinese economic freedom, but says it had no effect on China's growth. Next it argues there was a negative change in freedom under Obama, which WILL have a devastating effect on the US growth rate, which for unexplained reasons responds differently than China's. The punchline:

Where economic freedom expands, growth follows. Where economic freedom is stifled, economies stagnate. Sadly, China’s former leaders understood this better than do its current leaders, or America’s.

--or better than the author, one might add. And should we maybe give 1 or 2 Brownie points to America's leaders for not shooting and imprisoning peaceful dissidents? And maybe America's leaders understand better than the leading conservative magazine the indispensable link between political and economic freedom understood by Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek (perhaps this is why the latter wrote an essay "why I am not a conservative?").

Sorry, leading conservative magazine, as long as you are dishonest or incoherent about the f-word, you're not making any converts in these parts.

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Things that are now officially bad: Slum tourism; donors dissing democracy; bad workplaces

UPDATE Aug 11, 12:45pm : some comments defending slum tourism; I give a new perspective on one of the most heated debates that has kept recurring on Aid Watch (see below). The following bad things are now officially bad because:

(1) NYT oped page gives space to eloquent former slum resident to tell us that slum tourists are indeed really, really offensive (will they get it this time?)

(2) FT Africa editor realizes aid donors not as enthusiastic about democracy as they said they were, really.

(3) somebody finally showed what to do when your workplace is really, really bad: just grab 2 beers, curse at everyone in sight, and slide down the emergency chute. Aid workers: imitate?

UPDATE Aug 11, 12:45pm :

Some commentators defend slum tourism. This same debate keeps recurring on Aid Watch and has been one of our most heated issues ever. If you feel like it, check out the links below for previous rounds of debate. I am going to uncharacteristically step back and try to understand both sides.

Critics of poverty tourism are very sensitive to the dignity of the poor, feel that the rich would NOT be treated in the same way, and don't feel the modest material payoffs  justify a violation of dignity. Supporters stress the economic benefits and believe the poor should not or do not perceive a significant loss of dignity.

I think what the debate has advanced is an agreement that the dignity of the poor is a very important and legitimate consideration in aid.  After that, there is just an almost empirical disagreement about how, when, what or why this dignity is or is not compromised by any given tourism project.  But I'm glad that individual dignity has gotten a much higher profile as a major ideal, principle, and objective.

Should starving people be tourist attractions? Response from tourism operator to “Should starving people be tourist attractions” Response to MV tourism operator on “Should starving people be tourist attractions?”

And Now For Something Completely Different: Davos Features “Refugee Run”

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Separating the wax from the gold: social accountability in Ethiopia

This post was written by Helen Epstein, author of The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS. I was heartened to see that Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa, blogged about my article Cruel Ethiopia in the New York Review of Books.

The article—and Dr. Devarajan’s blog—deal with the extremely delicate and complex relationship between economic and social development and human rights. He and I agree that there is no simple formula to explain this relationship. However, in order to help the poorest people realize their basic right to development, and to ensure our aid dollars are spent as effectively as possible, we need to try to understand it. That’s why I was troubled by this section of Dr. Devarajan’s blog.

Ethiopia has done well in reducing poverty and child mortality, and increasing primary completion rates because their system of delivering basic services has various elements of this accountability built in.  Local districts receive resources based on clear, data-driven formulae that can be independently verified (by third-party civil society groups). The allocation of these resources within the district is decided in community meetings, with the final budget posted on a central bulletin board for the community to see.

If only this were true.

Dr. Devarajan is describing the “social accountability” component of a World Bank-Ethiopia program to support health, education and other social services. In general, social accountability programs train community groups or NGOs to carry out surveys of local government budgets, monitor the quality of services such as clinics and schools, and publicize problems such as corruption or absenteeism among teachers and health workers. In an ideal world, these groups then work constructively and openly with local government officials to find feasible solutions to these problems.

Social accountability programs can be an extremely powerful mechanism for holding local authorities to account, building local democratic mechanisms, improving education and access to safe water, and even saving lives. A World Bank-sponsored evaluation of two such programs in Uganda found that one increased the amount of public education funding that actually reached schools nearly four-fold, and another increased the survival of children under five by one third, with no additional direct funding for health services.

When I first visited Ethiopia in late 2008, I was eager to see how the social accountability program that Dr. Devarajan refers to was working. But during the four visits I made to the country over the next 12 months, World Bank and other officials repeatedly told me the program had been only a small scale pilot program, that it had ended in 2008, and that an expanded program was planned, but would not start until after the elections in May 2010. So I am not sure what program Dr. Devarajan visited. Even in the pilot projects, the monitoring was not, by and large, done by “third party civil society” groups. Nearly all the NGOs were ruling party affiliates.

There is no automatic relationship between development and human rights. But it’s worth asking whether development can ever occur in a society where a government is deaf to its people. It seems to me that development takes root in societies that listen, either because the people truly have power, as in a democracy, or because the government is afraid of what would happen if they demanded it.

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Do only democracies have anti-immigrant movements?

This great picture on changing share of foreign-born residents in the NYT today (showing countries with largest increase): You can see why anti-immigration sentiment is a big deal in the European countries shown and in the US. (This is a descriptive statement, I myself hate xenophobia.)

But what about the countries at the top of the graph? Let's exclude the special and controversial case of Israel from all the following statements.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I have not heard of prominent anti-immigration movements  in any of these countries.

Is that because these are non-democracies in which immigrants can be treated as second-class citizens with little or no rights?

Again, this is just descriptive speculation -- I would certainly NOT recommend that approach to the democracies.  But it does show the complicated political economy you get when you mix xenophobia, democracy, equality before the law, and immigration.

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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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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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