I find, via William Easterly’s Aid Watch, a post by Chris Blattman that quotes another by Todd Johnson and that, me too, what the hell, I’m going to quote:
“Africans don’t see a reward system in place for being entrepreneurial. In fact, they view it as a matter of survival, not an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. Rather, what they learn at a very early age, is that in order to make good money, they should learn to speak English incredibly well and then maybe, just maybe, they can get a job driving for an NGO. In a few years, if they play their cards right, they might be able to land an NGO job as a project manager and even advance further.”
Sammy’s point was simply this. As a struggling businessman creating new start-ups, he could not compete with what NGO’s were paying for some of the best and brightest. And even worse, he said, “by the time the NGO’s are done with them, there isn’t an ounce of entrepreneur left.”
And then there is the Atlantic’s Megan McArdle’s reaction to this:
I don’t really know what to do with this. On the one hand, it’s terrible to think that aid is keeping economies from developing–and this isn’t the only such critique; there are also fears that aid acts like a “resource curse”, insulating political leaders from the need to win public support for their spending, and breeding corruption. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’m quite willing to walk up to a woman dying from malnutrition to tell her that I’m sorry, we’d like to help, only unfortunately it would distort the local economy and so I’m afraid you’ll need to lean into the strike zone and take one for the team.
On the third hand, I’m conscious that in this scenario, I am biased towards the seen harm, rather than the unseen–I’ll never identify the people who might have been pulled out of poverty if we hadn’t screwed up their economy, so my tendency is to discount them.
Aid is the most depressing topic in economics. I don’t know how William Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs stand it.
Apart from the whole intertextuality thing and me pretending to be cool by quoting all these famous people, this is an illuminating debate. And it is so thanks to its simplicity and how clearly it illustrates these two main viewpoints among people who look into the aid and development businesses.
The thing is, aid and development economics are awfully complicated. They many times have negative unintended consequences. The possitive unseen consequences remain, precisely, unseen. And it’s difficult to know if one is helping or is rather being part of the problem.
So one can say, with McArdle, Shit, this is so complicated that I don’t know what to do and actually I find it depressing. But then, and usually after saying that first thing, one can also say, Shit, this is so complicated that I find it fascinanting and am going to work hard on it to find out what actually works. That’s more or less what Blattman responds:
Aid is only depressing if you start off with the wrong expectations.
Aid is not a mythical goddess, walking through a barren field, greenery spouting in her wake. None of us, including McArdle, really believe such a thing, but we do approach charity as though rapid transformation is possible.
It’s uplifting (well… less depressing) to remember a few things.
1. This takes time (…)
2. Aid can only speed this diffusion or accumulation a little. Ultimately it’s up to the Africans or South Americans or Central Asians. If you’re not from there, the best you can do is help those willing (or unable) to help themselves.
3. When you throw gobs of money and people at an economy, there are going to be side effects. Some of them will be bad. Some will surprise you. The main difference between prescription drugs and aid is that, when we give countries aid, no one makes us give them a four minute speech telling them that aid may cause rashes, stomach pain, and erectile dysfunction.
4. Failure happens (…)
5. Most of the failures are small, while the victories are huge (…)
This, of course, brings up the next level of the debate: what the hell does actually work and how in earth to find out? Is it the big, really big, plan that will end poverty in 5 yeas time? Or is it more a bottom-up approach, the one able to change little things one at a time, the right one?
Me, I’ve gone from the silly idealism I held in London to the pragmatic and much more limited view I have now, after one year in Kenya. And I find Easterly’s scepticism and realism about this issue necessary:
However, their dialogue does remind me of The Big Question that I and many others get whenever we give lectures on economic development. Inevitably, after every single lecture I have ever given, the first question is … What Can I Do to End World Poverty?
How to respond? On one hand, I want to (and usually do) salute the questioner for their willingness to give of themselves for those less fortunate. I admire their idealism and commitment.
On the other hand, I find this question to be unproductive and frustrating. It sounds mean, but the honest response (which I have never given) is, “look, the biggest problem to solve in economic development today is NOT what you can personally do to end poverty.” Poor people do not perceive THEIR biggest problem to be that rich people are agonizing how to help them.
More constructively, I want to say: Don’t be in such a hurry. Learn a little bit more about a specific country or culture, a specific sector, the complexities of global poverty and long run economic development. At the very least, make sure you are sound on just plain economics before deciding how you personally can contribute. Be willing to accept that your role will be specialized and small relative to the scope of the problem. Aside from all this, you probably already know better what you can do than I do.
But I do salute you again, and I do believe when there are enough people like you, you will cumulatively make a difference.
I made bold those lines in Easterly’s text and these area a few points I will contribute to the debate from my very short experience in Kenya. Not that I’m going to say anything new or super intelligent (there would be almost no blogs if people only wrote posts to say new or super intelligent things), but anyway:
- Aid and development workers tend to be intelligent and dedicated individuals who know they won’t save the world by themselves.
- They usually complain about too much bureaucracy and too many bureaucrats.
- They usually say projects they helped to set up at a local level won’t survive a week after the project is done and the organisation they work for leaves it there.
- Many ‘poor’ people don’t see themselves as poor. And, if anything, they are the best suited to make improvements to their lives’ material conditions within their lifestyle.
- Lack of money or funding doesn’t seem the problem as much as corruption and bad governance for these States to be ineffective. I don’t think giving money directly to a government here will be of much help, unless they can be made accountable for every penny they’re given.
- A visit any day to Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi (yes, and maybe the biggest in Africa, as white people who’ve been there like to say), shows that the entrepreneurial spirit is well and alive as many small businesses compete to offer the most amazing goods and services.
- NGOs (and UN programmes and the such) may have the effect of discouraging entrepreneurism – or may not. Some programmes may leave behind expertise and equipment that can help local entrepreneurs. It depends on the case.
- Aid and development workers, journalists (like myself) and other expats in Kenya and other places tend to afford much higher living standards here than if we’d stayed home. Amazing houses and flats, maids, big cars, dinning out every evening at good places… Plus the excitement, coolness and ‘feel good’ of being doing these jobs.
- This doesn’t have to be counterproductive in itself, and may be one of the reasons why intelligent and dedicated individuals do come to ‘poor’ countries to try to help.
- But some workers may end up disconnected from the people and communities they are supposed to be aiding, as well as taking themselves too seriously and thinking they are more important than they really are.
- And finally, the red snapper and the tilapia at Osteria, an Italian restaurant in Hurlingham/Kileleshwa in Nairobi, are very good even if a bit pricey.
These are just some impressions I got after one year in Kenya and I am sure and hope you people can prove me wrong on some of them. Please do so in the comments.
Oh, yes, and here there are the two giraffes:
Aren't they cute?