This ‘n’ that

Amazing conversation/fight between Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs going on right now over at Huffington Post – the “Cliffs Notes” of it are available here. I’m pretty amused by all of this – it seems so very modern for two of the world’s most renowned development economists to duke it out via their blogs and columns. And Easterly just joined Twitter: 

penelopeinparis@bill_easterly vs. J. Sachs: – although I wonder if this is sorta lowering the standards of educated debate.
bill_easterly@penelopeinparis @saundras_s u mean that educated debate that includes Bono&Angelina?
penelopeinparis@bill_easterly – touche. Still, 2 bad muck raking takes over the constructive discussion,& thats what ppl will focus on,instd of real issues

I’m so very entertained by modern media and information exchange. 

In other news, I just finished reading Tears of the Desert, the memoirs of Dr. Halima Bashir, a woman doctor in Darfur. In spite of the fact that I spent most of the second half of the book swallowing my tears, I really enjoyed her story. The horror… Goodness. We have all seen, read or heard accounts of rape as a weapon of war (in Liberia, in the DRC, in Sudan….), but the personal nature of her account made it even harder to bear. It almost makes me in favor of celebrity advocacy – how could you not want to be outspoken if you knew you could draw media (and potentially, political) attention? 

Dead Aid Bandwagon

If you are a development nerd, you have probably read ad nauseam about Dambisa Moyo’s new book, Dead Aid. In the last few months, there has been an interesting debate happening between different schools of thought. Essentially, Moyo argues that foreign aid to African countries is one of the preeminent root causes of Africa’s underdevelopment (for lack of a better word), and that instead of throwing billions of (wasted) dollars into the hands of dicators, African governments should instead be given access to more private finance. 

Having worked at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs, Moyo – who hails from Zambia – offers a refreshing perspective on the aid debate (which is typically dominated by white males… no surprises there, right?)

Her book unleashed an outpouring of commentary – some condemning her views, others wholeheartedly agreeing, and everything in between. I have been tempted to throw in my two cents, but the more I read about it, the more convinced I am that a) everything that could be said, has been said and, b) the debate over whether aid should be stopped or not is such a macro discussion that, ultimately, we’re getting stuck at the “50,000 foot” view – and that doesn’t really help move the debate forward constructively. Because, as we all know, foreign aid will NOT end – even if you were able to show by a+b=c that aid caused most of Africa’s problems, Official Development Aid (ODA) is still a critical foreign policy tool, and to call for its halt is unrealistic.


Most recently, Francis Fukuyama voiced his opinion on the matter in Slate. He compares Moyo’s argument with another prominent African scholar’s views, Wangari Maatai. His piece, I thought, actually touches on a couple of really key issues, which most commentary on “Dead Aid” have failed to focus on. Excerpt:

Both women see sub-Saharan Africa’s fundamental problem not as one of resources, human or natural, or as a matter of geography, but, rather, as one of bad government. Far too many regimes in Africa have become patronage machines in which political power is sought by “big men” for the sole purpose of acquiring resources—resources that are funneled either back to the networks of supporters who helped a particular leader come to power or else into the proverbial Swiss bank account. There is no concept of public good; politics has devolved instead into a zero-sum struggle to appropriate the state and whatever assets it can control.

This view actually echoes what one of the most prominent French African scholars, Jean Francois Bayart, writes in his book “L’Etat en Afrique: La politique du ventre“. In this book, he writes that the “politics of the belly” – which is to say the political culture that is prevalent in Africa whereby rulers seek to accumulate power and possessions –  is not only the fundamental issue that has been plaguing the continent, but also a product of its very particular social, political and economic history. In his book (which I unfortunately don’t think has been translated into English), he describes how complex social and political networks arose in the context of colonial and post colonial sub-Saharan Africa, and how the polity that emerged is defined by an intricate interplay between foreign dependency, reliance on local (and often socially constructed) tribal or ethnic identities and leaders’ destructive desire to selfishly accumulate resources. 

Of course, given that we’re talking about a whole continent, generalizations are very hard to make – so while one can certainly find counter points to Bayart and Fukuyama’s argument, there is an element of truth to it, which to me captures the most powerful criticism of Moyo’s book: it’s not aid per se that’s the problem – it’s what’s being done with it, and how it’s being managed. And of course, Moyo knows this. But, as Owen Barder notes:

It seems to me that Dambisa Moyo has set up a false dichotomy between aid and entrepreneurship. Many of the things Moyo would like to see – better access to financial services, a better business environment, lower tariffs – can be (and are) supported by aid. 

It’s been frustrating to read Bono’s response to Moyo, as well as the reactions from a lot of people “shocked” that Moyo would call for an end to foreign aid. But, if (like me…) you subscribe to the Easterly school of thought that holds that most ODA ends up being horribly wasted and that an entirely new ODA regime needs to come about, then her argument, while virulent and, frankly, aggressive, makes sense. 

Just recently, from (of all places) USA Today:

Two United Nations agencies spent millions in U.S. money on substandard Afghanistan construction projects, including a central bank without electricity and a bridge at risk of “life threatening” collapse. 

In the current context, I think it’s great to debate the virtues (or lack thereof) of ODA – however, focusing on that macro question shouldn’t be a reason to turn our focus away from the real issue: today, there are millions of aid dollars at work – how do we actually make them work, with a view to incrementally decrease countries’ dependence on foreign assistance? 

Oh, aid effectiveness… You are hella elusive. 

Not buyin’ it

From the Freakonomics blog:

According to this Reuters article, charitable contributions are down in the U.S. only “modestly” so far this year. But charitable giving, unlike the stock market, is a lagging indicator.

“That’s funny”, I thought. Because, from my perspective, charitable contributions have seriously decreased since September. If you actually read the Reuters article mentioned above, it becomes clear that the bulk of charitable funds available for non-profits is for programs in the US only. Which is fine, and it makes sense: hard times call for more solidarity with your compadres.

Not surprisingly, though, organizations doing work in the developing world are taking a hit – funds pledged are drawn out over longer periods of time, or have been retracted. In other cases, donors simply choose to divert their support towards domestic causes, or give a smaller proportion of their charitable contributions for foreign based programs. And, since I work for organizations doing work outside the US, I’m witnessing first hand the effects of this drop in funding: programs being cut, postponed, canceled.

It’s too bad, as a lot of work being done in poverty alleviation outside the US was reaping results – and, as these tough economic times are also affecting developing countries, support for vulnerable people and poverty reduction initiatives (broadly speaking) are ever more necessary.

(I’m curious to see statistics about charitable giving a year from now – the real plunge in funding began around September, and, as the article notes, there is a lag.)

On an unrelated note, this really struck a chord with me: we have a “macromyopia” problem.

Good Reads

– A call for true coordination on African policy in the West

This woman is amazing – her honest, intelligent take on life in Liberia and her broader observations are always thought-provoking. Check out her professional site too – I’m a fan.

Easterly on untying official development assistance. Fave quote:

As recently as 2003 a document on the USAID website shamelessly stated: “The principal beneficiary of America’s foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80 percent of USAID’s contracts and grants go directly to American firms” (source).

– A great article from the Growth Commission regarding the impact of the financial crisis on the developing world. Excerpt:

One of the major threats to the international system which must be carefully managed would be the increased competition for scarce resources at both the international and national levels. This has already manifested itself in the case of oil and food and is becoming increasingly evident in the competition for water resources. There is also a clash of objectives with respect to environmental issues. The traditional polluters having achieved developed status, are locked in a major controversy with newly emerging countries with respect to the ravages to the environment given their mode of development.

The trade-offs here are very difficult in terms of meaningful compromise as countries like India and China, with huge populations and millions of poor people who are migrating into the cities with prospects of moving into the middle class, will not be denied the trappings of that class such as the ubiquitous motor car. The solution may lie not only in efforts of moral suasion to change consumption patterns in all countries, but also massive efforts in science and technology which are international in scope and based on the open system principle. In short, some of the same principles which fanned the revolution in information technology must be applied to the revolution in environmental science […]

The basis for sustained economic growth and development lies not only in investment, but in the political, administrative and technical capabilities of the nation state and it is leaders in the public and private sectors. The creation and support of institutions and organisations which not only set the framework and agenda for political, social and economic intercourse, but also access, sift and distribute information and knowledge, are essential

– And, to finish off, a couple of links on population movement:

  • The financial crisis’ impact on economic migrants
  • Interesting, timely take on Mexico-US immigration: “The number of people caught trying to sneak into the U.S. along the border with Mexico is at its lowest level since the mid-1970s. While some of the drop-off is the result of stricter border enforcement, the weaker U.S. economy is likely the main deterrent.”
  • Smugglers throw migrants over board in the Gulf of Aden.

I heart CGD and apologies

First, the apology: I should have been blogging a lot more last week from the Clinton Global Initiative, but it turned out to be pretty much impossible in light of many work related obligations. I will say, though, that I was really glad to be involved only from afar with the logistics of this event (unlike my NY based Clinton Foundation colleagues) – so much work goes into the organization of a high-level conference such as this one, I was tired just looking at the small army of Clintonites running around for 3 solid days.

It was a really great experience – even though I sometimes felt a little out of place, a little bit like a “fly on the wall”, as the majority of those present are incredibly accomplished individuals from all sectors – NGOs, governments (although not enough Western reps in my sense), private sector, international institutions. They all gather for 3 days around Bill Clinton (seriously – they gather around him), and make promises to change the world. It’s pretty incredible. This year, members made 250 commitments, valued at $8 billion, to impact 158 million lives.

Those are some serious numbers.

One of the most positive aspects of this conference is that it allows attendees to mingle during pretty fascinating working sessions (the one on poverty alleviation chaired by Madeleine Albright was great for instance). It allows for views and perspectives to be confronted in interesting ways. Then, the fact that throughout the 3 days, commitments are made by the prestigious attendees, really enhances the quality of the gathering. If anything, this conference encourages meaningful cooperation between sectors, and the search for common solutions to common problems prevails over particular interests (at least in the short run – I am not that idealistic…)

While not my field of predilection, I highly recommend to reading/watching/listening to some of the sessions on climate change, particularly this one, which features John McCain and Barack Obama, among others – and, because he was such a great speaker, Al Gore’s comments in the opening plenary.
Or just watch the whole thing here.

In related news, Nancy Birdsall, the president of CGD, delivered some sharp remarks at the UN, highlighting the painful truth of highly inefficient and non-transparent official development aid:

“How ironic that the United Nations carefully assesses and reports on the progress of developing countries against the MDGs, but has no measures or indicators and no periodic official reports on the progress of the rich countries against their commitments to those goals!

“At the moment the only concrete measure of rich country commitment is the proportion of GDP dedicated to aid. Yet the quality of aid is on average so poor—because it is tied, fragmented, uncoordinated and unaligned with developing country programs and budgets, and almost entirely input-based instead of outcome-oriented—that the quantity from any one donor is a poor measure of even that donor’s own real contribution. And of course aid itself is only one measure of a rich country’s overall commitment to development and the war on poverty.”

It makes me wonder whether a case could be made that international development (not humanitarian efforts, which are different), should be undertaken by non-governmental actors (in

the broad sense of the expression). I’m not the biggest free market advocate out there, but something should be said about how much more efficient private sector efforts are in bringing about positive systemic change in the developing world.

Some photos of CGI:

Mayor Bloomberg, Lance Armstrong, WJC

The Queen of Jordan, Ellennnnnnn!!!, the chairman of Coca-Cola, Bono and Al Gore.

H.W. Bush and WJC

A pretty crappy shot of Gordon Brown

Here is Bono, spreading the good word – apparently, he’s been doing it elsewhere too.