A root problem is a liberal snobbishness toward faith-based organizations. Those doing the sneering typically give away far less money than evangelicals. Theyâ€™re also less likely to spend vacations volunteering at, say, a school or a clinic in Rwanda.
What is Nick Kristof’s most popular word? Hint: it isn’t “kittens” or “happiness”
Iâ€™ve learned some new words.
One is â€śautocannibalism,â€ť coined in French but equally appropriate in English. It describes what happens when a militia here in eastern Congoâ€™s endless war cuts flesh from living victims and forces them to eat it.
Another is â€śre-rape.â€ť The need for that term arose because doctors were seeing women and girls raped, re-raped and re-raped again, here in the world capital of murder, rape, mutilation.
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:
Itâ€™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.
In Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in the NYTimes last week he considered factors that may have contributed to lack of international action on humanitarian issues. He uses Peter Singer’s drowning child argument to set up this contradiction: surely members of the G8 would be willing to jump into a pond to save the child – why aren’t they willing to save those larger, more distant groups of people? Krisfof gives some examples from (what I guess must be) the psych literature:
A number of studies have found that we are much more willing to donate to one needy person than to several. In one experiment, researchers solicited donations for a $300,000 fund that in one version would save the life of one child, and in another the lives of eight children. People contributed more when the fund would save only one life. For example, in one study, people donate generously to Rokia, a 7-year-old malnourished African girl. But when Rokiaâ€™s plight was explained as part of a larger context of hunger in Africa, people were much less willing to help.
Professor Singer notes that in one experiment, students filled out a market research study while a young woman went behind a curtain and then appeared to climb on a chair to get something â€” and fell down. She then moaned and cried out that her ankle was injured. When the person filling out the form was alone, he or she helped 70 percent of the time.
But when another person was in the room, also filling out the survey and not responding, then only 7 percent tried to help. In the case of fighting poverty, there are billions of other bystanders to erode a personal sense of responsibility. Moreover, humanitarian appeals emphasize the scale of the challenges â€” 25,000 children will die today! â€” in ways that are as likely to numb us as to galvanize us.
Kristof doesn’t exactly recommend a full solution – but I find his train of thought a little troubling. Explaining the context of hunger makes people less likely to donate? Even if these experimental results aggregate up – is this a wise trade-off? Surely dumbing down the debate to better capture the public’s attention (and purse strings) carries with it the opportunity cost of poorly-targeted advocacy – recall as Mia Farrow’s short-lived hunger strike, during which she urged world leaders to support both the indictment of al-Bashir and the return of aid workers (two outcomes that weren’t exactly complementary). The headless heart reigns when we don’t give people a complete information set – even if that means we make a few people yawn.
I’ve always admired Kristof’s dedication to humanitarian issues, if not always with his conclusions. What would be the ideal advocacy in his opinion, given the above constraints? Michael Bear at the Humanitarian Relief blog has a solution: the return of Sally Struthers