What’s the rush?

Oh yes, that's the second Spaceballs reference in a week.

Oh yes, that's the second Spaceballs reference in a week. But seriously, this is what it feels like at any meeting with enough donors, unless it involves actually doing something.

Despite the reality that development is a gradual, plodding process, a lot of us seem to be in a huge hurry to get things done now. This can be rather irritating, as we tend to push concepts and projects out the door before they’ve been properly thought out or tested, or we let money flow before the mechanisms are in place to properly account for it.

There are plenty of factors behind this urgency. Aid agencies have very powerful personal and organisational incentives to spend all of their money in a given year, or before the competition of a project. I am likely not the only one to have gone on a donor-sponsored workshop that only existed to act as an excuse for exhausting a budget.

The rush is often driven by self-imposed deadlines. We set a goal in stone (often without careful thought), and refuse to budge from that goal until we’ve accomplished it. This would account for the enormous sense of urgency being driven by the Millennium Development Goals. One could argue that this urgency is entirely manufactured: there’s nothing particularly significant about meeting our targets by 2015, other than that’s what we agreed to do. Bill Easterly recently wrote about the problems with over-committal, so I won’t cover them again here.

Perhaps the largest factor in the “environment of urgency” that has sprung up is the global cost of poverty. Every day X children die because they are poor. X number of people have HIV/AIDS. X number of people die of easily preventable diseases. This is the most reasonable rationale for urgency, although often it is not entirely level-headed. The goals driven by this sense of urgency (such as the MDGs) value the reduction of poverty and suffering a great deal, so long as the reduction happens now, or soon (before 2015), but inherently have little opinion on long-term progress. It is highly likely that the types of policies we should implement when thinking about poverty for the next 100 years differ significantly from those we would use when thinking about poverty for the next 20, or 5 years. This is the biggest danger: that we eschew long term gains wins to score quick wins.

These thoughts came to me when I recently read about the debate over what to do with the first hunk of foreign aid handed over to Zimbabwe’s coalition government. From the BBC:

Two key figures in Zimbabwe’s shaky power-sharing government are divided over how to spend some $800m (£500m) in recently approved donor funding.Central Bank governor Gideon Gono – an ally of President Robert Mugabe – has said Finance Minister Tendai Biti is being slow to spend the money.

Yes folks, that’s the Gideon Gono, recent recipient of an Ig Nobel price in Mathematics for his astonishingly bad monetary policy, who apparently had little sense of irony when he went on to say:

“I called the minister of agriculture… and told him that if he is not careful, he will lead this country to hunger.”

If there’s any country in the world that needs to think carefully about how to spend its aid, it’s Zimbabwe.

5 thoughts on “What’s the rush?

  1. Brendan

    October 6, 2009 at 3:12pm

    I’d say there should be urgency for meeting targets we’ve set. I don’ think those targets should be taken lightly.
    B

  2. Kartik Akileswaran

    October 7, 2009 at 5:52am

    You seem to downplay “quick wins”, but shouldn’t we be potentially excited about policies/programs that can accomplish a given goal in a shorter period of time? Perhaps I’m not exactly clear on what you mean…

    Also, longer-term policies and quick wins are not mutually exclusive, and in fact may at times be complementary.

  3. Justin Kraus

    October 7, 2009 at 6:15am

    “One could argue that this urgency is entirely manufactured: there’s nothing particularly significant about meeting our targets by 2015,”

    Really? So we can just take our time ending starvation, stopping irreversible environmental degradation, putting an end to evil and corrupt governments and wars, etc. ? Thats a relief. I think I’ll just go have another beer then.

    Seriously, I don’t think our sense of urgency is the issue. The problems we are dealing with are unquestionably urgent.
    Rather the issue seems to be that aid agencies can’t think of (or perhaps aren’t allowed?) to do anything better with their left over money than dump it into unnecessary workshops or new shiny white land rovers.

    Its the system that is screwed up, not our sense of urgency about the problems.

  4. Ranil Dissanayake

    October 7, 2009 at 6:35am

    Brendan – targets should be taken seriously, but Matt’s points are that in the *panic* they seem to induce, we are spending money in ineffectual ways and also ignoring potential trade-offs between immediate impact and longer-term sustainability and structural change.

    Matt, as an aside, did I ever mention that when working for a particular Government department, I had a meeting with officials from Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Finance. It was pretty depressing; they asked at one point ‘what can we do to get more aid in Zimbabwe, we lack resources to do anything’. It took all I had to stop from embarrassing my colleagues by saying ‘you mean, apart from the obvious?’…

  5. Matt

    October 7, 2009 at 10:33am

    Wow, comments for a change, and good ones!

    Kartik: I misused “quick win” – I meant in general short-term solutions vs long-term solution. When there are quick wins we should take them, but we should also make sure that A. those quick-wins are sustainable and B. that they aggregate up into long-term solutions.” We tend to associate “quick-wins” with proven, effective interventions, like de-worming. The issue is often with how we implement quick-wins: we should be improving government capacity to carry them out, when often what we do is immediately jump in and start doing them ourselves.

    You’re absolutely right, often the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Education and general health are both linked to long-term development, but a sense of urgency (I perhaps should have said over-urgency, instead of urgency) often changes how we approach these problems. Most developing countries need functioning, effective education and health systems. These systems require long-term investment and *gulp* capacity building, but this often clashes with our slapdash methods of addressing problems. There’s evidence that the surge of money flowing into HIV/AIDS research, an urgent area, has weakened health provision in other areas. The urgent move to endorse universal primary education has led to, in many countries, a collapse in the quality of that provision. When we rush into things we’re more likely to get it wrong, and the more we express how urgent things are, the more likely we’re going to rush into them.

    “Urgency” is also often used as an excuse to crowd out other opinions on interventions. Resistance to the methods suggested by Jeffrey Sachs, for example, are often met with the assertion that “we don’t have time for discussion, people are dying now!”

    Justin –
    No, I don’t think we should take our time addressing these issues, but we should embrace long-term, carefully thought-out methods of tackling them. Take starvation – the most “urgent” response often takes precedent – the WPF has grown in size relative to the FAO tremendously, but food relief does very little to address the long-term, structural problems with protecting large populations of people from hunger.

    I do believe all these things are “urgent” relative to the other problems of the world – if I didn’t I would have picked another line of work. In the end, when I say “be less urgent”, what I really mean is “stop discounting the future so much.” I would rather we have had put a permanent dent in poverty by 2050 than constantly putting small, temporary dents in it with short-term targets and goals.

    And yes, you’re very right – a lot of failed aid has to do with our own aid institutions being pretty awful from the start

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