I’m reading The Blue Sweater (thanks for the recommendation, Liz!) by Jacqueline Novogratz right now and am slightly stymied by the force of her ambition as a young person, and the UVA-at-its-best-and-worst rhetoric with which she talks about it (“I wanted to be a bridge, an instrument of peace wrapped in a love of financial statements, of telling stories through numbers, of trying to build companies through strategic financing and management support”). But it’s very compelling (although a little overwhelming for someone trying to write a book about aid!) and much in line with the message of William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden, subtitled Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.
The dour yet wonderful message itself runs opposite of the End of Poverty view, that doubling the amount of aid under a strict plan of distribution will put an end to global poverty. Easterly’s book states the only solution to the “tragedy in which the West spent 2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of malaria deaths” is to infuse aid with more accountability, smaller ambitions and micro-scale plans, and communication with the actual poor people they are trying to help. The long book is full of extremely disheartening charts and studies stating things like “They found aid’s effect on democracy to be worse than the effect of oil on democracy” and showing exactly how highly IMF intervention is correlated with government failure.
In Kyrgyzstan, in my very limited personal experience with aid distribution, things were a huge shitshow. After the revolution, hundreds of millions of dollars of aid poured in. Relative to other developing countries, there were not too many agencies active in this little country, population Houston (5 million), and the agency outposts were small. It is not too hard to keep track of where your stuff is in Kyrgyzstan, unless it gets stolen unexpectedly, which is what happened: all the USAID money disappeared. They poured absurdly large amounts of money into schools near the military base, bought a few generators, and then the other $135 million, the prospect of which had brought an absurd amount of elation to communities with grant-writing PCVs, just kind of went away.
Like many returned Peace Corps volunteers, I emerged from the experience with a frustrating, engaged cynicism. While I hated the way people in Kyrgyzstan couldn’t write up a budget or plan, the way they spend their year’s income on one wedding and then can’t feed their kids well–I understood that all of that was due to the accident that I was born in the rich, educated West and they were not–and who am I, an American, to talk about either reasonable wedding spending or sensible childhood nutrition?
I obviously have no idea what the answer is, but my personal bottom line is this: aid still matters. The Divine Hand that gave us Michele Bachmann could have easily made us all worm-ridden Cambodians rather than blog-reading members of the bourgeoisie. There are tons of poor people in the developing world who are willing to work frontier American-style to get their families out of poverty, and although a criminal amount of aid has been wasted in a failed attempt to reach them, there is definitely a solution. This solution probably involves aid agencies getting their heads out of their asses and giving poor people the real, small opportunities they need without the weird, donor-centered rules that create serious problems for people who grew up in fields and not classrooms. As Easterly says, you can’t go five miles on a road in Tanzania, but you can book a nonstop flight from New York to LA in about five minutes without having to create a strategy, an action plan, and have a bureaucrat “assess your needs for air travel over the next year.” And as Novogratz says in The Blue Sweater, “philanthropy can appeal to people who want to be loved more than they want to make a difference.”
And, which I find even more disheartening, these are the people who’ve already made the significant jump to understanding that one should do more than dress up for a few charity dinners and clock an evening at a homeless shelter. Inefficient aid bureaucrats, despite their failings, are light-years past the upper-class high school senior I talked to yesterday that said that “white people face more obstacles and discrimination in today’s world than any other group“–an opinion that is not at all uncommon, among complete idiots.
Anyway. Here are the 5 most killer points from The White Man’s Burden.
1. Too big of goals equals no results. “If the aid business were not so beguiled by utopian visions, it could address a more realistic set of problems for which it had evidence of a workable solution.”
2. We are idiots to think input equals output: “the pathology that, in aid, the rich people who pay for the tickets are not the ones who see the movie.” As in, agencies advertise how much money they are putting into a project, but not anything about what comes out of it.
3. Donors should stop insisting on anything except for results: “The political incentives to do token amounts of everything are too strong.”
4. A nice alternate tactic is remarkably easy to conceive: “Just respond to each local situation according to what people in that situation need and want.”
5. The larger the intervention, the more danger it poses: “Artificially straight borders [those drawn by colonial bureaucrats] were statistically associated with less democracy, higher infant mortality, more illiteracy, less childhood immunization, less access to clean water…”
I will forget the fact that my school’s director once conducted a needs assessment of my village and decided that our greatest need was a “relaxation club” or “disco.” Aid, done correctly, still works.