Some thoughts for the year

I am prepared to abandon these beliefs at the first sign of trouble.

In light of a recent shift into my late twenties and the arrival of the new year, I felt it would be reasonable to write down some of the relevant things that I have to come to think I believe. These beliefs are not necessarily backed by hard, empirical evidence and I may be prepared to abandon many of them in the future. Still, it might be useful to clarify some of these thoughts, as many will seem quite obvious to frequent readers, while others will appear counter-intuitive.
1. There are two, largely divergent views on the ultimate purpose of aid which are more difficult to reconcile than most people realise.

One of these is `aid as a safety net’ or `aid as an immediate welfare-improver’ – this is aid intended to make life a little better for poor people in poor countries, with little scope for improving their lot outside the immediate effects of the aid itself. The other view is that aid has a potential for being a `structural transformer’ or a `growth-enhancer’, kicking trapped countries into a virtuous development cycle. Owen Barder has done a good job of delineating them on his blog here and here.

The more immediate, short-term welfarist view accommodates aid that is focused on project-based, small-scale interventions and the careful measurement of impacts. The transformational view lends itself towards the development of systems, institutions and possibly the more diffuse, diagnostic-based approach to policy. These drastically different goals are often conflated, usually due to assumptions that fail to bridge the micro-macro paradox (i.e., bednets have been proven to improve health at an individual level, so bednets will obviously lead to more development).

It is possible that the goals do not only contrast, but inherently undermine each other. Even so, there needs to be more dialogue about how they might be reconciled in future
2. Even after years and years of debate, many proponents and practitioners do not have a clear idea of what metrics of successful development/aid matter, nor the trade-offs between them.

The discussion over what matters rages on: do we measure income or capabilities? Happiness or educational attainment? These basic arguments seem to have gone on without too much concern for the intellectual bases of the metrics in question. A popular policy paper might, for example, lead to a craze of using `happiness’ as a new way of measuring welfare outcomes, without reasonable discussion about what this metric really measures. Understanding these foundations is important, because it allows us to be more precise about what we want, how we measure it, and how different policies might affect it.

Furthermore, we should frequently question why we care about our chosen metrics and be wary of focusing too much on proxies for our indicator of choice. Proponents of specific causes have difficulty seeing beyond the frontier of their personal set of metrics. Studies have shown that deworming is an extremely cost-effective way of getting children to attend school, leading to a big push for scaling up such projects. Yet we have little knowledge about the eventually effectiveness on income, happiness, or other measures of welfare that we might actually care more about than attendance.

A lack of precision and certainty about metrics suggests a lack of precision and certainty about goals – at which point the discussion gets even more murky than it already is.
3. The concepts of country ownership, autonomy and responsibility have never been popular with donors and continue to suffer, despite the resolve fo the Paris Declaration.

On my most cynical days, I feel that most donors and NGOs would be much, much happier if recipient governments vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving them free to administer to the poor as they see fit. Even when my skepticism is diminished, it is still apparent that the givers and proponents of aid believe that donors are, by default, more aligned to the needs of the poor than their own governments.

This behaviour is visible out in every facet of the West’s approach to aid: global goals like the MDGs, which do not directly stem from the desires and aspirations of recipient citizens, inherently stifle the natural process of planning and goal-setting in recipient countries. Top-down programmes, like those popular in global health, create vertical funds which make it more difficult for local decision-makers to make appropriate trade-offs in policy and resources.

It is true that not many governments in developing countries are good, efficient, capable, or benevolent – and it is likekly that too many resources have been wasted on grand-scale government aid. Yet if we never start treating recipient governments like `adults’, able to manage their own resources, to make their own plans and the same trade-offs that our own institutions make every day, they will see little incentive to act the part.
4. Despite rhetoric about enhancing civil society’s role, many donors still see themselves as the key players in holding developing governments to account.

There is a fuzzy, muddled contract between citizens and functioning governments – a feedback mechanism which, at the very least, can keep the state concerned about some minimum level of development. The elements of this contract comprise some basic elements: taxation, some method of selecting out awful governments and some degree of outcome transparency. This contract isn’t always completely democratic – in which case the feedback may not be entirely equitable (lobbying, for instance, in the US), but it still pretty essential in keeping governments from being entirely incompetent or malevolent.

Resources drive this relationship – the government depends on its citizens for survival. This is why large deposits of natural resources are often seen as a curse, as they allow governments to exist without a reasonable mandate. Aid also has the potential to act as a `resource curse’ , an outcome discussed in detail in a paper by Todd Moss and Arvind Subramanian a few years ago.

I believe most donors recognise this problem, but rather than thinking of innovative ways to strengthen the natural chain of accountability between citizen and state, they are more concerned with micromanaging recipient government policy and behaviour. Rather than being compelled to make improvements in education because they want to appease a testy electorate, recipient governments are compelled to make improvements because Donor X wants them to. The outcomes may be similar in the short term, but in the long term recipient governments are learning to follow the wrong carrot and be hit by the wrong stick.
5. The aid/development blogging community is becoming less apt at meaningful debate than it is at self-congratulatory criticism of outsiders.

While social media developments like Twitter have brought us closer as a community, such proximity has done little to foster new and interesting ideas. With some exceptions, 2010 was a rehash of old ideas, with much blogging (including this blog) dedicated harping on those who lacked appreciation of ideas we found sacred. We spent very little time testing those ideas and bouncing them off of each other, instead joining each other in various wars on outside laymen. While I wouldn’t expect to see the same cutthroat back-and-forth visible in strictly academic circles, I do believe you can find more heat on the Star Wars message boards than you can in the average development blogging debate.

We should aspire to be islands of critical thought which more likely to spar with each other than slap each other on the back. Part of the joy of blogging is sharing new, interesting ideas, then viciously tearing them apart.
6. Randomised control trials are one of the most important tools we have in developing coherent, effective policy, yet we must be careful to treat their conclusions with the same careful, critical eye all research deserves.

I work on an RCT – I believe in them as a gold standard for identifying treatment effects, but I am wary of those who believe that a couple of successful, short-term RCTs constitute enough externally-valid evidence to feed into general policy prescriptions. This is no different to how I feel about evidence using less robust identification strategies.

Part of the answer?  Replicate, scale up, replicate, scale up, all while continuing to assess impacts. Institutions like the IPA are dedicated to this necessary approach.

We also need to recognise that there are going to be some questions that are more difficult or impossible to answer with RCTs (we are probably not going to be able to assess the effectiveness of cash-on-delivery aid with RCTs, for example). Yet, being out of the reach of the gold standard does not mean that these questions should be ignored. The compelling evidence that rigorous impact evaluations reveal should become another tool in the policy-maker’s toolbelt, but should not be regarded as the ultimate tool.

11 thoughts on “Some thoughts for the year

  1. Linda

    January 4, 2011 at 11:27pm

    Thanks so much for this. It’s like you pulled together the debates and things that confuse me and make me question what I believe and what I know, and make me hesitate to have an opinion, and you put them all together in one solid post!

  2. Tom

    January 5, 2011 at 12:28am


    Thanks for writing this, especially number 5. How do you think that we can keep each other from slipping into the comfort of crowd pleasing?

  3. Saundra

    January 5, 2011 at 2:11am

    I don’t know how to keep from slipping into number 5, but I do agree that we need to worry about it. Probably also get snark under control because I think they feed on each other. I’ve been guilty of both and sometimes I wonder if we’re responding to unconscious peer pressure…

  4. Anon for this

    January 5, 2011 at 4:58am

    I work for a donor funded project. If I float too many interesting new ideas on my blog, especially ones that get shot down, I get branded as wacky and I don’t get my next job. It’s hard to reconcile passionate public debate with the need to stay employed.

  5. Anon for this

    January 5, 2011 at 5:00am

    To add a little to my last comment – I am not trying to imply my life is all about the money. But I have a family to support and I also believe my day job makes a difference to the world, probably more than my blogging does.

  6. Ranil Dissanayake

    January 5, 2011 at 6:11am

    Matt – Yes to point 5! I’ve found myself reducing the number of blogs I read simply because so many of them rehash the same old stuff. Part of the problem is the twitter/hits thing – We get tweeted *way* more when we do snark and piss-taking, and we get a lot more hits for posts that touch on stuff that everyone in the blogging community is likely to agree with. I think most of the blogs are better when they pick a topic and try and do some serious thinking on it, disagreeing with each other in the process.

    So for example, the 1 Million T Shirts thing made me laugh (your post on it in particular) but the standard of debate was much lower than it was for the fungibility issue after that Lancet publication, mainly because the 1 Million shirts was just shooting fish in a barrel, and it was difficult to come up with many interesting ways of saying ‘dude, that’s thick’.

    Anon – I also work for a donorSo far I’ve written posts arguing against received wisdom about corruption and smallholder agriculture, railing against misunderstandings of what Capitalism is, and why people should still read Marx to understand that, not to mention a few epic rants here and there at crap statistics or statements.

    Luckily, I think the kind of people who do the hiring in most of the organisations I’d like to work for would appreciate a forthright and inquiring mind over a yes-man. but then, I could be wrong, and about to find out about it the hard way!

  7. MJ

    January 5, 2011 at 9:20am

    The cheeky git in me would like to fulfil point 5 by taking issue with point … yep … number 5. But actually, there may also be a serious counterpoint to make there. Whilst I fully agree with you and Ranil that shooting the 1 million fish in t-shirts only really made for amusing posts as opposed any particularly useful debate, I would suggest the following: if the Aid/Development world (yes I know two very different things which get crammed together) were ruled by Aid/Development bloggers as opposed to donor deadwood the world would probably be a better place. And it may be that the outside world is only just waking up to the existence of the Aid/Development blog community through portals such as the Guardian Development Network. Thus in fact now might be the time for us all to shout as loud as possible about all those big issues on which we all agree but no-one has ever attempted to change? Just a thought any how.

    As for “On my most cynical days, I feel that most donors and NGOs would be much, much happier if recipient governments vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving them free to administer to the poor as they see fit.” that’s just the sentence I really wish I’d written, and which compels me into the kind of back-slapping inanity you apparently don’t wish to receive any more.

  8. Roxanne

    January 5, 2011 at 11:12am

    Thank you for this – it is giving me a lot to think about this morning. I share the frustration with how negative, critical and snarky the “aid worker community” can be and will try to frame my own development thoughts and conversations positively in the new year.

  9. Ian

    January 5, 2011 at 11:53am

    Matt – great post. A really good summary of some of the big issues out there right now.

    In your point 1. I think you’ve captured nicely what I was trying to get at in my recent blog post on definitions

    I see a lot of misunderstandings around this which lead to people talking to each other about very different types of aid without realizing it. In practice though I think there is a continuum between the two goals and these need to be balanced according to both the circumstance of the country, and also the capacities of the organization you work for.

    I also think your points 3 and 4 are key reasons as to why we are not getting further along the “long-term development” axis of this continuum. As other commenters here have said on their own blogs “it’s not about us”, or at least it shouldn’t be – but if we invest so much of ourselves into the aid business it can be hard to let go.

  10. Sam Gardner

    January 5, 2011 at 5:51pm

    Dear Matt,

    Like the other commenters, I would like to congratulate you with this very good post, especially in line with point 5.

    I would tend NOT to agree with your first point. The line is too simplistically drawn. It is true that most people are not aware the two views on development are so important, and this causes problems. It is also true that those views, if applied without consideration for the reality in the field can be contradictory. But it is also true that they are two sides of the same coin.

    If the goal of development is a better life for the people living now in poverty, both in the long and the short-term, the development worker will need to address both aspects (not sacrificing the current generation for the future one). If the charity worker does not take into account the need for structural change, development degrades to “sustainable poverty”. If structural transformation gets de-linked from the ultimate goal, of making life better for the poor, the costs can be staggering for those who should benefit.

    Who do you really work for? The poor? The future middle class? or the Powers that be? Somebody who works for institutional strengthening might work in the long-term interests of the poor. He might also be preparing the fourth (fifth?) term of the president (e.g. most beneficiaries of budget aid). Don’t forget that development in the West happened through the weakening of the government by increasing accountability, not by strengthening it.

    International agendas, like Paris, create a formula for success based on recommendations of some (perhaps doubtful) research. Development actors start applying the formula instead of working for development. This formulaic application of solutions does not amount to structural change for development. More important than the administrative institutions are the social institutions that carry them.
    The power relationships.
    Aid is never neutral in the local power struggles (thanks, Duncan), and way too often it is a-priori strengthening the powers that be, even against accountability. To what degree is local, membership based civil society still a partner in development? They are sidelined and replaced by professional local NGOs who comply better with the requirements for … accountability.

    Strengthening existing power relations, or changing them, is not something a foreigner should do lightly. The “first do no harm” principle should apply. In this context making today the life a little better for the poor is a decent objective, if no other options are open.

    Years ago, when there were still Marxists, the dialogue about power relations and empowerment of the organisation of the people was normal in development discussions. Nowadays the voice of the poor is just a technical issue to be solved in order to get better accountability for our top-down approach (check). I remember working in South Africa where the main force in the fight against HIV/AIDS was the Union, Cosatu. A donor told me they did not work with them anymore, as it would have been perceived badly by the government of the day. Instead all kind of Community Based Organisations were supported in an incredibly scattering approach.

    Like Humanitarian assistance, with its limited mandate, is generally accepted as necessary, both approaches have their place in a balanced approach to the local reality. You don’t let the poor rot in a failed state where it is impossible to do meaningful transformation. But you should be ready to catch opportunities for long-term development. And let them slip when coming to nought.

  11. Derrill Watson

    January 5, 2011 at 7:10pm

    “Part of the joy of blogging is sharing new, interesting ideas, then viciously tearing them apart.”

    This would have made a great tag for the picture also. *picturing Easterly as a killer bunny….* 🙂

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