The dangers of hot issues

How would we at aidthoughts link HIV/AIDS and climate change in six degrees or less? HIV/AIDS is a major health crisis in Malawi. Ranil and Matt used to work in Malawi. Ranil and Matt both share a love for awful b-movies. Kevin bacon once starred in a film called Temors, about worm-like monsters called graboids which attack people from underground. Tremors is, of course, an allegory for climate change.

How would we more plausibly link HIV/AIDS and climate change in six degrees or less? HIV/AIDS is a major health crisis in Malawi. Ranil and Matt used to work in Malawi. Ranil and Matt both share a love for awful b-movies. Kevin Bacon once starred in the awful b-movie "Temors", about worm-like monsters called graboids which attack people from underground. Tremors is of course a rather deep allegory for climate change.

In an unabashed attempt to cash in on two advocacy areas at the same time, UNFPA has just released a report linking climate change to HIV/AIDS. Whenever the global development agenda is dominated by “hot” issues, agencies and think-tanks have a direct incentive to play six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon and tie their work in directly with one of those issues. Why? It provides justification for the work, and hopefully diverts resources to their given cause. What was the hot issue of the past eight years? HIV/AIDS. What’s the new hot issue? Climate change!

This isn’t the only reason why advocacy centred around hot topics is a bad idea: when single-button issues dominate the discourse, we’re much more likely to misallocate resources. When we should be talking about improving health and education systems, we end up parceling up these complex problems into impressive soundbites – HIV/AIDS, malaria, and universal primary education.

The problem is that money tends to collect around these simple soundbites instead of rather complex problems. This sets up an optimisation problem across the wrong parameters. Ideally, we should worry about optimally distributing funding across different systems in different countries (or, even better, just across governments), where those systems in turn have to optimise their allocations across problems within their sector.

Instead, as funding gravitates towards hot issues we find ourselves faced with an entirely different optimisation problem, one in which funding is allocated across countries within that sector. For example, the HIV/AIDs industry allocates more money to Malawi than Ethiopia, as Malawi’s HIV burden is higher. This would be a reasonable way of allocating resources only if the global funding for each issue was optimally allocated. But it’s not – it’s decided through desperate PR trench warfare between issues which leaves less popular ones out of the game.  Owen Barder accurately describes the situation in his fantastic new post about the dangers of global advocacy:

The development industry seems to be riddled with people whose main job is to divert money  to their good cause.   The advocates are united by a strong belief in the priority that should be given to their sector (education, water, AIDS etc). They convince themselves that they are speaking for real interests of the poor, which they consider to be unaccountably neglected by everyone else. Within many aid agencies there is a permanent state of low intensity bureaucratic warfare for resources, sucking up the time and attention of staff as they fight to defend and expand funding for the causes they work on.  They deliberately stoke up pressure in private alliances with civil society organisations – many of whom they fund – to raise the political stakes through conferences, international declarations, and publications with the aim of committing funders to spend a larger share of aid resources on their issue.  Territory is captured and held by way of international commitments in summit communiques.  But for the aid budget as a whole these are zero sum games, and everyone would be better off – and many lives would be saved – if it stopped.

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