The missing middle

In the NYtimes, Nicholas Kristof writes a (surprisingly) thoughtful piece on the emerging middle ground in the aid debate. It can be pretty much summed up in one sentence:

It’s also clear that doing good is harder than it looks.

How should we move forward? Kristof sees the more pragmatic approach of research groups like JPAL getting us part of the way there. He also suggests that maybe aid isn’t always the answer, resulting in my second favourite quote:

Americans are horrified by sweatshops, but nothing would help Liberia more than if China moved some of its sweatshops there, so that Liberians could make sandals and T-shirts.

The new “synthesis”, as Kristof calls it, should use evidence-based interventions as much as possible. Of course, there are some issues with this: currently, evidence-based researched is biased towards the easy questions, not necessarily the most important.

Still, it’s wonderful to see someone so involved with advocacy suggesting a cautious, pragmatic approach, instead of whinging on about how aid skeptics are causing more people to die every minute by asking unreasonable questions like “will this really work?”.

Although, despite his call for a little more skepticism, Kristof still gives aid a lot of credit.

For example, the number of children dying each year before the age of 5 has dropped by three million worldwide since 1990, largely because of foreign aid.

Really? I’d like to see the research behind this claim. While foreign aid has helped in more immediate progress on limiting child deaths, I don’t think the evidence is there to attribute global declines from 1990 to foreign intervention. A very large hunk of the children who die before they reach the age of five do so in India and China, two countries who have both made significant progress on tackling under-5 mortality, with little help from donors.

The aid industry tends to be very selective when counting its successes and failures. When welfare goes up, we like to take the credit. When things go wrong, we’re more likely to attribute it to external factors.

One lesson to take away from Kristof’s message: we need to work more on overcoming our own natural bias that aid inherently does or doesn’t work, and start asking how (or even if) we can make it work.

One thought on “The missing middle

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    November 25, 2009 at 5:01am

    I think this is the basic conclusion of Riddell’s new book, too. We should focus less on the black and white of whether aid ‘works’ or ‘fails’, but how do we move it to achieve more than it does. Riddell sounds more thoughtful, though, in that he acknowledges that the evidence or answers will be easiest to find where they’re probably least needed (as far as countries go).

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