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.