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What if We Allocated Aid $ Based on How Much Damage Something Does, and Whether We Know How to Fix It?

Duncan Green's picture

I usually criticize development wonks who come up with yet another ‘if I ruled the world’ plan for reforming everything without thinking through the issues of politics, power and incentives that will determine which (if any) of their grand schemes gets adopted. But it’s been a hard week, and today I’m taking time out from the grind of political realism to rethink aid policy.

Call it a thought experiment. Suppose we started with a blank sheet of paper, and decided which issues to spend aid money on based on two criteria – a) how much death and destruction does a given issue cause in developing countries, and b) do the rich countries actually know how to reduce the damage? That second bit is important – remember Charles Kenny’s book ‘Getting Better‘, which argues powerfully that since we understand how to improve health and education much better than how to generate jobs and growth, aid should concentrate on the former.

Evidence and Results Wonkwar Final Salvo (for now): Eyben and Roche Respond to Whitty and Dercon + Your Chance to Vote

Duncan Green's picture

In this final post (Chris Whitty and Stefan Dercon have opted not to write a second installment), Rosalind Eyben and Chris Roche reply to their critics. And now is your chance to vote – but only if you’ve read all three posts, please.The comments on this have been brilliant, and I may well repost some next week, when I’ve had a chance to process.

Let’s start with what we seem to agree upon:

  • Unhappiness with ‘experts’ – or at least the kind that pat you patronizingly on the arm,
  • The importance of understanding context and politics,
  • Power and political institutions are generally biased against the poor,
  • We don’t know much about the ability of aid agencies to influence transformational change,
  • Mixed methods approaches to producing ‘evidence’ are important. And, importantly,
  • We are all often wrong!

We suggest the principal difference between us seems to concern our assumptions about: how different kinds of change happen; what we can know about change processes; if how and when evidence from one intervention can practically be taken and sensibly used in another; and how institutional and political contexts then determine how evidence is then used in practice. This set of assumptions has fundamental importance for international development practice.

Why Don’t People in Power Do the Right Thing - Supply, Demand or Collective Action Problem? And What Do We Do about It?

Duncan Green's picture

My last few days have been dominated by conversations around ‘convening and brokering’, including an exchange between assorted ODI wonks and a bunch of NGOs on the findings of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and a ‘webinar’ (ugh), with our Latin American staff on the nature of ‘leverage’ (a closely associated development fuzzword). Last week, I set out the best example of this approach that I’ve found to date, the Tajikistan water and sanitation network. Today it’s some overall conclusions from the various discussions.

David Booth from ODI described the question he is trying to answer as ‘why don’t people in power do the right thing?’ He thinks aid agencies (both official and NGOs) have moved from thinking that the answer is building capacity in government (supply side) to strengthening the voice of citizens to demand better services (demand side), but argues that both approaches are wrong.

The mistake, he argues is seeing power as a zero sum game, whereas often the barrier to progress is better seen as a collective action problem: ‘doing the right thing involves cooperating with others and people aren’t prepared to take risks and bear the costs of working with others, unless they believe that everyone else will do so too.’

That requires a different approach, getting everyone into a room to build trust and find joint solutions to a common problem.

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Center for Global Development
Development and the Death of Aaron Swartz

“Aaron Swartz, who died on January 11th, worked and fought for key freedoms of our time: the right to information, to share knowledge and ideas, and to speak freely.  He did not just campaign: he built  the RSS standard which enables blogs and websites to share information, the Web site framework web.py, the architecture for the Open Library, the link sharing platform Reddit, and he helped to design the Creative Commons licence. He co-founded the online group Demand Progress — known for its campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). He died, apparently by killing himself, aged just 26. Aaron Swartz faced 13 felony charges for having downloaded millions of academic journal articles from the online repository, JSTOR, allegedly with the intention of publishing them freely online.

The death of Aaron Swartz has made me think about how important it is for development that we continue to fight his fights, and continue to build what he began.” READ MORE

Civil Society, Public Action and Accountability in Africa

Duncan Green's picture

An important new paper from some big development names – Shanta Devarajan and Stuti Khemani from the World Bank, and Michael Walton (ex Bank, now at Harvard Kennedy School) – directs a slightly fierce (but welcome) political economy gaze at donor efforts to strengthen civil society (one of the more recent developmental fads). As with most such papers, after a monumental literature review, one of the striking conclusions is how little we really know, but it gropes gamely through the fog of ignorance and confusion and arrives at some interesting conclusions.

First, the authors find that something significant is going on among Africa’s citizens: “a large shift in Africa in organization among citizens. Village-level group formation in Africa increased dramatically over the 1990s when participatory approaches were emphasized in international development paradigms, promoted through aid, and adopted deliberately by country governments to deliver projects to communities.” Interestingly, that increased participation applies to both democratic and less democratic systems. The question is in what situations that upsurge in civil society has impact, and how (if at all) aid agencies can help.

The paper adds its support to the growing demand that aid interventions abandon futile searches for ‘best practice’ in favour of understanding what are the ‘best fits’ for any given context:

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

ICT Works
The Choice Between Facebook and Running Water Isn’t Obvious

"Over the past several years two seemingly independent ideas have been gaining traction:

  1. New technology allows developing nations to leapfrog over traditional growth patterns (M-PESA, long-range wi-fi).
  2. The increasing move towards “convenience models” may be pointing the US’ tech sector away from innovation (Peter Thiel’s “they promised us flying cars but instead we got 140 characters”).

In a recent working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, economist Robert J. Gordon writes that the US’ current wave of innovation is less of a step forward and more of a lateral move, merely finding novel ways to use innovations made 20 years ago, sitting him squarely alongside Thiel. To illustrate, Gordon asks the following hypothetical question between two options, A and B:

With option A you are allowed to keep 2002 electronic technology, including your Windows 98 laptop accessing Amazon, and you can keep running water and indoor toilets; but you can’t use anything invented since 2002. Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3am on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?" READ MORE

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

TechCrunch
Meet The $35 Tablet That Could Connect The World

“TechCrunch just got its hands on the new Aakash UbiSlate 7Ci, the super-cheap tablet that will attempt to connect every student in India to the Internet. Educators have long hoped that cheap computing devices could bridge the global information divide, but previous attempts have been dogged by disappointing performance, lack of Internet access, and financial barriers. The latest version of India’s $35 tablet comes equipped with WiFi and has an optional upgrade ($64) of a cellular Internet package of $2/month for 2 GB of data (roughly 25 emails, 25 websites, 2 minutes of streaming video, and 15 minutes of voice chat a day). More importantly, it is expected to launch this month in India with the government’s commitment to connect even the most remote areas to the Internet. The impact of a successful rollout is difficult to overestimate: rural schools that have been connected to the Internet show immediate and tremendous gains.”  READ MORE

Helping People, Improving Lives – The AusAID -World Bank Group Partnership

Ulrich Zachau's picture
More information on the World Bank-AusAID partnership in worldbank.org/unlockingpotentialreport

Making a difference for people, he

Media Coverage and Funding for Disasters

Maya Brahmam's picture

During the latest round of the global Development Data Challenge held in London at the end of August, various members of the open data community got together at the Guardian to explore the limits of recently released aid and government spending data. One of the challenges proposed was to explore whether media coverage influenced funding for disasters.

This is interesting, not only because a fair amount of research has been done on the topic, but also because popular wisdom supports the idea that media coverage spurs disaster funding – the so-called "CNN effect."

Provocations for Development: Superb New Collection of Robert Chambers’ Greatest Hits

Duncan Green's picture

This is not an impartial review – Robert Chambers is a hero of  mine, part development guru, part therapist to the aid community. His ideas and phrases litter the intellectual landscape. Or ought to: if you don’t recognize some of his major contributions to the development lexicon – ‘hand over the stick’, ‘uppers and lowers’, ‘whose reality counts?’, participatory research methods or seasonality, (there are dozens of others) you have seriously missed out, and Provocations for Development, a greatest hits collection of his speeches, writings, reflections and one pagers should definitely be on the top of your reading pile.

Chambers is also playful. ‘Fun is a human right’ he announces in the foreword, and the book duly starts with a beginner’s guide to bullshit bingo, that essential way to survive particularly mind-numbing meetings. He even provides handy photocopiable bingo tables for you.


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