Last week, Mark Thoma had a roundup (can’t link the specific post because his page won’t load…) over a three-way heavyweight battle in the aid world (I love applying sports lingo to academia, by the way). It appears to have started when Jeff Sachs had an article in HuffPo called “Aid Ironies,” in which he sort of launched ad homimem attacks on two of the biggest critics of African aid, Dambisa Moyo and Bill Easterly.
The big opponents of aid today are Dambisa Moyo, an African-born economist who reportedly received scholarships so that she could go to Harvard and Oxford but sees nothing wrong with denying $10 in aid to an African child for an anti-malaria bed net. Her colleague in opposing aid, Bill Easterly, received large-scale government support from the National Science Foundation for his own graduate training.
Sort of a straw man argument, in my opinion. Sachs goes further to say that Easterly and Moyo tend to lump all aid together, which dims the successes that have occurred.
Here are some of the most effective kinds of aid efforts: support for peasant farmers to help them grow more food, childhood vaccines, malaria control with bed nets and medicines, de-worming, mid-day school meals, training and salaries for community health workers, all-weather roads, electricity supplies, safe drinking water, treadle pumps for small-scale irrigation, directly observed therapy for tuberculosis, antiretroviral medicines for AIDS sufferers, clean low-cost cook stoves to prevent respiratory disease of young children.
Easterly was first to respond, also in HuffPo:
Allow me to defend myself (I’ll let the formidable Moyo handle herself). It’s not so much my pathetic need to correct slanders, as if anybody cared. Sachs’ desperation shows when he peddles what I will show he knew were falsehoods…
Sachs complained that “most Americans know little about the many crucially successful aid efforts, because Moyo, Easterly, and others lump all kinds of programs — the good and the bad — into one big undifferentiated mass.” Sachs again prefers another writer whom he quoted in Common Wealth: “Foreign aid likely contributed to some notable successes on a global scale, such as dramatic improvement in health and education indicators in poor countries.”
You guessed it — that was me again, illustrating how aid COULD work if only aid agencies were accountable for their actions…
As an alternative to the impunity of the establishment that Sachs defends, the emergence of a new wave of independent aid critics in Africa is most welcome. This new wave includes many more besides the remarkable Dambisa Moyo — such as the Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda and two extraordinary colleagues of mine at NYU: the Ghanaian economist Yaw Nyarko and the Beninese political scientist Leonard Wantchekon. Instead of Sachs’ attempt to shout down critics with slanders and falsehoods, let’s have a climate of open debate in which we learn from past mistakes, the guilty suffer, the good are rewarded, and we can hope that aid does start to reach the poor.
We also know that there is no country — anywhere in the world — that has meaningfully reduced poverty and spurred significant and sustainable levels of economic growth by relying on aid. If anything, history has shown us that by encouraging corruption, creating dependency, fueling inflation, creating debt burdens and disenfranchising Africans (to name a few), an aid-based strategy hurts more that it helps. […]
There is a more fundamental point — what kind of African society are we building when virtually all public goods — education, healthcare, infrastructure and even security — are paid for by Western taxpayers? Under the all encompassing aid system too many places in Africa continue to flounder under inept, corrupt and despotic regimes, who spend their time courting and catering to the demands of the army of aid organizations.
Like everywhere else, Africans have the political leadership that we have paid for. Thanks to aid, a distressing number of African leaders care little about what their citizens want or need — after all it’s the reverse of the Boston tea-party — no representation without taxation.
Then Sachs responded:
the majority of Africa’s population started out impoverished at the time of national independence in the 1960s and 1970s, and a majority remains impoverished till today.If we move beyond the GNP and income measures, the enormity of Africa’s long-term poverty challenges become even more apparent. As we have documented elsewhere, Africa’s literacy, agricultural productivity and urbanization rates were very low in 1970. Rural poverty was pervasive. Africa’s road coverage, electrification, rail network, and other infrastructure were sparse at best and typically non-existent in rural areas. Aid did not kill Africa.
Despite the persistence of poverty, many conditions in Africa have in fact improved in recent decades. […]
Africa’s differences with other regions lie not in aid, but in circumstances and history.
And then Sachs’ bombshell:
Moyo wants to cut aid off dramatically, even if that leaves millions to die. African leaders – like President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Dr. Awa Coll-Seck of Roll Back Malaria, and Ministers Charity Ngilu and Beth Mugo of Kenya – have fought for Africa’s poor and have used aid to save lives and help economies to prosper. These leaders disagree fundamentally and urgently with Moyo’s attacks. They recommend more aid, fully accountable and properly targeted, to meet urgent needs.
Next, Easterly jumps back into the fray, arguing that Sachs’ argument about geography and circumstance is flawed:
Sachs’ geographic theory of Africa’s poverty has gotten few takers among other economists, perhaps because it fails Occam’s Razor. Sachs starts off by saying that being in the tropics is bad for development (he gave a very terse summary here, I am drawing from his articles to articulate more fully his geographic story). Isn’t rapidly growing India also in the tropics? Yes, but they have snowmelt-fed irrigation instead of rain-fed agriculture. Isn’t rich Singapore also in the tropics? Yes, but they are coastal instead of landlocked. Don’t Latin America and Asia also have tropical diseases like malaria, just like Africa? Yes, but they have a better kind of mosquito. So a region will be poor if they are tropical, if rainfed, if landlocked, and if they have the wrong mosquitoes — which, yes, fits many African countries. […]
The consensus among most academic economists is that destructive governments rather than destructive geography explains the poverty of nations…
Of course, it is a lot easier to justify giving a lot of aid to African governments if they are helpless victims of geography rather than (mostly) just being — bad governments. Is this why Sachs offers a bizarre geographic theory of Africa’s poverty and is oblivious to the bad governments that many courageous African dissenters have fought at great sacrifice? I don’t have enough evidence to test any one theory of Sachs, but I know it makes for bad aid policy. Make sure that aid reaches poor people, which usually means it should not go to poor governments.
I’m sure there will be more to come from Sachs next week. The bleeding-heart liberal in me wants to believe Jeff Sachs, that aid can work. In fact, that bleeding-heart side of me (and of Jeff Sachs) is sort of what Douzinas’ argument about humanitarianism was hinting at. The idea that we, the wealthy West, can help them, the poor Other, is very appealing. That very reason is why every year, my now alma mater sends a busload of kids to Uganda (including myself).
Nevertheless, once we get there, the reality is more stark. We got to one of Sachs’ Millenium Development Villages, and have a hard time seeing how the UN can leave it a sustainable economic village, or what spillover effects there will be. We encounter the near-dictator status of Yoweri Museveni and are told by many that in 2011, if he is reelected, Uganda could be the next Kenya. The closer we get, the harder it is to see how aid can be effectively delivered.
And, as a side note, while I was over there, I decided to read Easterly’s White Man’s Burden and Sachs’ The End of Poverty. Again, Sachs’ book left me inspired and motivated, but intellectually, I agreed with Easterly. Sachs appeals to the side of us that says, “well, we must do something.” That’s the same attitude that took our military to Vietnam and to Afghanistan, and there is nothing noble about it. I think people like Sachs, Easterly, and Moyo need to take a hard look in the mirror, and read alternative views like Douzinas’ most recent article, because moral philosophy does matter for these arguments, and it might not give you the most obvious answer.