If you’re not with us, you’re against us

"Only a Sachs deals in absolutes"

This post could also be titled “Taking credit, part deux.” Writing in the Guardian, Jeffrey Sachs considers the impressive reduction in child mortality rates across sub-Saharan Africa.

The critics of foreign aid are wrong. A growing flood of data shows that death rates in many poor countries are falling sharply, and that aid-supported programmes for healthcare delivery have played a key role. Aid works; it saves lives.

For the rest of us who are still burdened with the ability to question, this narrative seems a little too convenient. While the last decade was characterized by a massive increase in health aid to African countries, many of these countries also experienced significant economic growth and improvements in governance and safety. As Charles Kenny pointed out in his book many of these gains in survival may be technological, a result of to interventions which were made readily available. Of course, some of this was due to aid – but the resulting relationship is much more complex than “aid goes up, infant mortality goes down.”

All of this is not to suggest that health aid did not play a role – it almost certainly did – but waving one’s hand and giving all the credit to aid is a dangerous simplification. It also ignores a significant amount of heterogeneity – some countries did better than others, so we really need to start asking ourselves “why?” before we start patting ourselves on the back.

Yet, it isn’t the simplistic narrative that bothers me, it is what comes after: a declaration that aid skeptics are not only completely wrong, but that they could be responsible for the death of children:

Unfortunately, at every step during the past decade – and still today – a chorus of aid sceptics has argued against the needed help. They have repeatedly claimed that aid does not work; that the funds will simply be wasted; that anti-malaria bed nets cannot be given to the poor, since the poor won’t use them; that the poor will not take anti-Aids medicines properly; and so on and so forth. Their attacks have been relentless (I’ve faced my share).

The opponents of aid are not merely wrong. Their vocal antagonism still threatens the funding that is needed to get the job done, to cut child and maternal deaths by enough to meet the MDGs by 2015 in the poorest countries, and to continue after that to ensure that all people everywhere finally have access to basic health services.

Emphasis is mine. While Sachs is probably referring to pundits on the other extreme of the distribution, his rhetoric leaves no room for shades of grey; writing what I just wrote doesn’t make me a cautious optimist, it makes me an aid sceptic.

Then he tries to quietly paint aid sceptics as responsible for the deaths of children. Astonishingly, if you read the sentence in bold carefully sentence carefully, it’s clear that Sachs is putting much more weight on reductions in child and maternal death before 2015 than after. Does Mr. Sachs not care about children of the future? That interpretation might seem a bit unfair to you. What a shame.

Taking credit

When you have a moment, I'd really like to see your source for that

While the Millennium Village Project’s shaky claim of reducing child mortality resulted in an impressive backlash, these sorts of assertions are not uncommon. Very frequently, donors, NGOs and philanthropists make unsubstantiated claims to impact which go unchallenged, either because they go unnoticed by those who know better or because we’re all just too busy to raise the alarm every time someone makes a bogus claim (or, perhaps, we’re being funded by said entity).

For example, take this tweet by Oxfam international:

That’s quite a claim. What does Oxfam have to back up this claim? The tweet links to an article in the Ghana Business News:

Speaking at a ceremony in Bolgatanga to introduce phase II of the project and to present the donation g, Mrs Rosemary Anderson Akolaa,, Health Advocacy Manager of Oxfam lauded the effort of the TBAs, the Community Health Committees and other stakeholders for their effort at bringing reducing mortality rate in the Region by seven per cent in 2010.

So, one of Oxfam’s managers in Ghana made the claim – what is it based on? To make this claim, Oxfam needs to:

  1. Describe the data it is using to estimate the 7% drop in maternal mortality.
  2. Convincingly show us that this drop is due to Oxfam’s (and partner’s) intervention. For example, did maternal mortality in the Upper East region fall faster than in other regions which did not receive the intervention?
As far as I can tell, Oxfam has done neither of these. Can we stop making claims we haven’t yet made an effort to back up?