musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Worldwide Companion 5k - Cambridge Style

I'm a sucker for 'global' events. I'm also in decent running shape after dodging dogs and cows for the last couple of months. Put it all together and what do you get?

Worldwide Companion 5k 2k12!

Envisioned by a Kiwi friend, WC5k2k12 (say that 5 times fast) brought together people from all over the world to run. Wherever you are. Stop what you're doing. And run. Together. It is no coincidence that this particular friend took Lauren and me on a night trail run (read: hills) as one of our first activities in Wellington back in July (i.e. southern hemisphere winter)...

From the Facebook page:

Choose a scenic local 5k route, grab some friends or do it alone, and run 5k at exactly 4pm Greenwich Mean Time on the 27th of November 2012. Take video and still pictures while running...

Challenge accepted!

So this morning, in the spirit of global unity and despite a 35°F / 2°C forecast which included snow, off we went...

Can't wait for next year!

Friday, November 9, 2012

House of Lords Defines Aid Dependency

After months of traveling, job searching and excuse giving, I'm finally getting caught up on my Google reader. Among the most prolific bloggers, the "I have a theory and by golly I'm sticking to it" team of writers from the Why Nations Fail blog discussed something yesterday about the UK's House of Lords that is, like their book, detailed and littered with examples.

Tucked in nicely towards the beginning of the post was a mention of a report commissioned by our favorite unelected-yet-still-very-powerful legislative body entitled "The Economic Impact and Effectiveness of Development Aid". (Full report available here.)

Now I'm intrigued. And now I don't feel so bad about not reading the full post. I'm even more excited when I flip to page 25 to a section on "Graduation from aid dependency". If you read my last post you know that this is something that interests me deeply.

The report measures dependency as "aid as a share of GDP" and gives several examples of countries that have substantially reduced their 'dependency on aid', sometimes (as is the case with Ghana going from 16.3% in 2004 to 4.1% in 2008) in a very short period.

Unfortunately, unlike my rant about dependency, the word 'sexy' does not make an appearance. More importantly, defining aid simply as a percentage of GDP over-simplifies the issue in a way that is quantifiable but may not be all that useful.

Let's take Bangladesh as an example.

Touting Bangladesh as a success (aid was 8.2% of GDP in 1977 and 1.3% in 2009) may be a bit misleading. Doing so does not take into account annual population growth of 1.78% since 1999 or annual GDP growth consistently over 5% during the same period. Put another way, UK development aid to Bangladesh could have stayed the same (or even increased) in terms of money provided, but since population and GDP grew at a faster rate, they are apparently 'less dependent' on foreign aid. I haven't had the pleasure of visiting Bangladesh yet, but others who have might say that this would come as news to lots of Bangladeshis still very much reliant on development aid. Additionally, Bangladesh still receives £171 per year (page 39 of the report), the third largest recipient of of UK aid, scheduled to drop to 4th on the list by 2015. So much for freedom from dependency.

To be fair, the report is talking only about UK assistance and DFID puts much of its funding towards direct government to government, bi-lateral support. Because of this, they're mainly looking at how much less of a percentage of the recipient government's budget they have to support. Yet they've still chosen GDP (an indicator of overall economic growth) as their denominator. In the grand scheme of things this is a very narrow, and perhaps not altogether accurate, interpretation.

One takeaway from the report is that over-simplifying the definition of (or narrowly defining) 'aid dependency' opens up a rather large can of worms and more questions than any of us have time to answer. It's a complicated subject, one that needs much more research and more than a simple formula to truly understand. It deals with more than propping up developing country budgets. It has to do with people and businesses and their ability to be independent from handouts. 

A bigger (and more positive) takeaway is that the report valiantly places growth at the top of the agenda, saying that they "believe that poverty reduction through economic growth should remain the aim of aid policy" (page 34). I applaud this belief and encourage the US purse-string-pullers and all other donors (including you, Mr. Insomniac flipping through late night commercials of malnourished African babies) to follow suit.

In the meantime, the search for a better definition of aid dependency continues.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Irony of Aid Dependency

By continually addressing symptoms of poverty we have allowed entire nations to become dependent on the generosity of others, thus ironically disincentivizing private sector growth and self-sufficiency that is arguably a long-term key to poverty alleviation. Despite the cost to our beloved heart strings, the global development community needs to start addressing root causes of poverty in a significant way, even if it comes at the expense of more traditional humanitarian aid.

A recent op-ed by UK PM David Cameron has sparked quite the kerfuffle in the blogosphere (the 'mainstream' media is too focused on trying to figure out whether blogger Nate Silver's models have an inherent liberal bias). Among others, Justin Sandefur and Todd Moss weighed in from the CGD while Chris Blattman chimed in with the type of constructive criticism that we've come to expect from him. I guess now it's my turn.

Cameron promotes his ‘golden thread’ idea whereby multiple strands (rule of law, lack of corruption, property rights protection, etc.) must come together to create the hallowed development ‘thread’. Blattman responds by pointing out (among other things) that ‘industry’ is not even mentioned. “Why is industry so unfashionable among aid elites? I honestly don’t know,” he laments.

I suspect, as he goes on to offer some possible scenarios (environmentalism, heart strings, etc.), that Blattman is aware that ‘sexiness’ (not the Victoria’s Secret or David Beckham type) matters to the world of development as much as it matters in the battle between the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S III. The aid community – and the governments, politicians, foundations and individuals that fund it – rely on stories of life-saving food supplies delivered to Mogadishu under a hail of gunfire and of small-holder Indonesian farmers getting up-to-date crop prices via text message. Admit it, the image of a malnourished child with flies on her face causes you to reach for your wallet a lot quicker than someone telling you to donate your hard-earned money to a 'private-sector growth' or 'government capacity building' program.

However, as sexy as they may be to taxpayers, many of these genuinely well-meaning initiatives (several of which I’ve worked on myself) attack poverty in a reactive way; they treat the symptom rather than the cause. And in the long-term, they very well may be doing more harm than good. (PhD topic anyone?)

In my temporary home in rural South Sudan, NGOs have long run health care facilities, flying in medicine and supplies from places where, unlike here, asphalt is not an unthinkable luxury. Yet private clinics still exist, operating mainly at times when logistical problems or weather limit the availability of NGO-provided free medicine. In other words, people find a way to pay for treatment when it’s not free. No villager in his or her right mind would admit to this to the NGO of course; why pay for something when someone else will provide it for free? To be fair, it’s likely that quality of care and medicine is higher at the clinic supervised by trained clinicians employed by NGOs. But, by undermining the growth of the private clinic industry with our free goods, we may never know whether the market would eventually correct this lack of quality were it to be demanded (and paid for) by consumers.

Only one small example of many I've noted, it is nonetheless another reason why I feel that, if we are to achieve development in the long-run, sustainable economic growth must be a focus at the policy level. Our policy makers need to start ideologically phasing out such handouts, shifting focus to the promotion of private sector growth and the environment needed to support it (like property rights, government accountability, etc.).

Should humanitarian aid and handouts stop altogether, immediately? Absolutely not. Doing so would be disastrous to countless lives fully dependent on the generosity of others, not to mention wholly counterproductive from a less emotional perspective. It’s hard to build on something that doesn't exist at all.

Instead, this must start with a gradual shift in mentality. One that must start from David Cameron and his peers at the highest levels of government in the 'developed' and 'developing' world. One that involves a tough transition from reactive humanitarian aid to economic growth and stability-encouraging initiatives. One that may take a generation (or more) to fully realize. One that will be unpopular with inherently protectionist constituents justifiably worried about their own domestic economies and jobs. One that nonetheless just might allow us to eventually shift from ‘helping developing countries’ to ‘dealing with trading partners’.

After decades of international assistance and countless billions spent trying to alleviate severe poverty that still exists in shocking numbers, it is a shift in mentality that is long overdue.

I don’t pretend that such a refocus on ‘industrialization’ or ‘private sector growth’ is the panacea. In Blattman’s dissection of Cameron’s op-ed, he identifies several other valid ‘blind spots’ in the strategy that should all be 'strands' if there is to be a magical ‘golden thread’. Nor do I fool myself into thinking this will be easy. Defeating poverty is a massive industry in itself (visit South Sudan if you don't believe me), with many people smarter than I constantly coming up with ideas, solutions, and RCTs. However, based largely on my own experiences in the field, I do believe that facilitating private sector growth should be at the heart of combating aid dependency and, to a subsequent and larger degree, global poverty. To grossly over-simplify this concept is to say that 1. markets adjust to demand and 2. people will buy what they need to survive if they have money.

Mr. Cameron does an admirable job of presenting several relevant, inter-dependent themes for development in a way that I've yet to see American politicians do. But I've found few who openly discuss the political will and policies necessary to (ideologically and tangibly) move huge swaths of the developing world away from their dependency on others. In fact, ‘dependency’ rarely comes up in policy discussions, usually hidden within broader, more nebulous discussions of ‘sustainability’. No one wants to think of his or her generosity as having negative repercussions.

It’s time to call it what it is folks. More importantly, it’s time to do something about it.

I’m looking right at you, Mr. Cameron.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Rain and the Under-Appreciation of Asphalt

Where I grew up we had seasons. Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring.

In many parts of equatorial Africa (especially South Sudan), there are but two seasons. Hot and dry. Hot and rainy. The names of the seasons we know and love mean nothing here; just another reason for locals to look at you and chuckle.

Don't get me wrong, the rain here is not constant (as one would expect it to be in India during the monsoons for example). In fact, more days than not are hot and sunny. Add humid to that equation and that's a pretty common day in South Sudan this time of year.

Currently Pagak is at the end of its rainy season, yet the power of mother nature is still in full force. As I write this in our 'Mess Tukul', rain descends as if it was already time for Open Championship golfing to commence. It won't last all day but its effects will last long after the sun comes out again.

I never truly appreciated the luxury that is asphalt. Back home it rains (or hurricanes) and, for the most part, life goes on. Most New Yorkers and those who regularly enjoyed the fruits of a Boardwalk stroll (among others) will be recovering for a while after Sandy and my heart truly goes out to them. But in Cambridge (my fair city), rain and wind only meant that people streamed Netflix and drank bottled water on Sunday/Monday. Come Tuesday, life went on.

Thanks to today's rain in Pagak (a place where asphalt is experienced only on television), the following will happen:

  • The once-weekly flight - cancelled last week, delayed yesterday and rescheduled for today simply because of the incompetence (there, I said it) of UNHAS - will be delayed again due to the now-wet airstrip, probably until Monday;
  • For at least the next two days gumboots will be the least common denominator in every outfit, not preventing your shins from being submerged in mud but rather allowing you to not care when it inevitably happens;
  • Our solar panels will be useless - thank goodness we just got three barrels of diesel for the generator... how will I internet myself to sleep at night?
  • Most importantly, our staff will be unable to move out to field sites except by trudging for days through the mud - trainings will be delayed, medicine won't be delivered, and life that people here spend mostly outside will retreat into dark mud tukuls...

I enjoy the peacefulness of rain, not to mention the bounty it can facilitate, so generally I don't mind. Additionally, dealing with the annoyance of rain is much better than dealing with no rain at all, as witnessed during the drought in the Horn of Africa last year.

So much of development work in the field is subject to delays that are completely out of our control: rain; fuel shortages; 4-hour local government meetings to discuss desired compensation for two cows killed by the UNHAS plane after running onto the airstrip as it was taking off last month; etc. Sadly these delays are usually misunderstood by management in NGO headquarters expecting western-style levels of efficiency. Such is life in the bush. You deal with it, do your best, and move on. All part of establishing field cred I guess.

But when it's me that needs to fly out, as will be the case in a couple short weeks, I start to worry. Time to start thinking about Plan B...