Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Can’t Get Ahead: a review of Barrett and Carter’s Article

On the whole, this article brings up very important points about the current climate in the development industry. The shift from development assistance to emergency relief is real. Inappropriate or ineffective targeting of beneficiaries is real. Structural poverty is real. However, Barrett and Carter miss a great opportunity to take this discussion to the next level.

It is certainly true that there is a cycle of poverty, vulnerability, and disaster that keeps people from improving their living conditions. This is evidenced by anecdotal evidence from the field, which notes that sometime we work with the exact same beneficiaries for more than a decade, with little discernable change in their quality of life, in spite of numerous small changes in behaviors or environment. This fact alone, however, does not mean that there is not enough money going to development assistance; given the fact that Barrett and Carter also criticize targeting for being ineffective, perhaps we should consider more efficient uses of the development funding that exists before investing more money into a system that demonstrably fails the poorest of the poor.

The authors state that there has been an overall shift from development assistance to emergency relief. They do not present much data to support this, but it is well-supported by both anecdotal evidence and shifting priorities with donors such as Food For Peace. However, food aid is not the only type of assistance, and it is the highest-value assistance. Other types of assistance have been changing, but not necessarily towards emergency relief. We have seen a move toward more high-value contracts, away from medium and small grants. We have also seen a move away from traditional development sectors (education, health, agriculture) toward democracy and governance, civil society, and economic development. This reflects reductions in funding at major USG donor agencies as well as disillusionment with traditional development interventions at the donor agencies. It is not clear whether this has resulted in improved or worsened return on investment, but it does not show a clear movement of cash resources toward emergencies.

There most certainly has not been a serious enough long-term investment in the development industry to determine whether or not development assistance makes a significant impact on global welfare. The decreasing amount of funding available for long-term development makes it increasingly less likely that we will be able to tell if interventions are working on a global scale. Just because an intervention appears to work at the local level within the period of measurement does not mean that it contributes to overall long term improvements in the human condition. If we want to know whether or not development assistance works, then we need to make a serious investment in it, and in honest and long-term monitoring and evaluation that reaches beyond the direct scope of the interventions in question to the indirect by-products, positive and negative.

On the other hand, the money that has gone to development work to date has not always been well-used. Empirical data, anecdotal evidence, and personal experience show that there are a number of inefficiencies in the development industry that would not be tolerated in the corporate world. Regulations on the use of US shippers and transportation for international shipping and travel raise the costs of getting food aid and human resources to developing countries unnecessarily. A lack of systematized organizational learning prevents development organizations from internalizing and implementing improvements to interventions, resulting in less effective programming being repeated.

The article cites the change in the percentage of PL480 resources that goes to emergencies and development projects, and claims that this contributes to the “vicious cycle in which reactive relief efforts further undermine already-fragile market and social institutions”. I agree that a too-heavy focus on emergency response relative to development activities with long-term security-enhancing results exacerbates poverty. However, the change in the proportions of PL480 can’t be evaluated without first asking whether food aid is even an effective means of doing development. There are enough good arguments against food aid as a tool for development that it merits further research. One problem, though probably not one of the greatest, that I see with emergency assistance is that you have Emergency People who work on Emergencies, and Development People who work on Development, and the two groups have more in conflict than in common. I think that we need to see our way to a more integrated, holistic approach to all poverty interventions, so that there is a smoothing of the transition to development.

The article states that the tying of aid to geo-political goals exacerbates the problems associated with an increased proportion of aid going to emergencies. It is true that the political aspects of development aid make it inherently less effective than it would be in a perfect world. However, the question remains, why should countries give development assistance if not to achieve geopolitical goals? Our shared constructs of nation, state, and government do not include motivation for or a mandate fro philanthropy or poverty alleviation abroad: if it is not demonstrably in the interest of the socially-constructed political entity, there is no motivation to do it. The only argument for nations engaging in international poverty reduction is that it is morally good. However, in the context of nations that have poverty and justice issues of their own internally, it is a hard sell to convince people that spending money abroad for a moral good is more important than spending it at home to make citizens better off. We can’t even prove that aid reduces anti-Americanism, thus improving national security, since many of the countries that have received the most assistance from us are the most intransigently anti-American.

Barrett and Carter state that “there is little evidence that [linking relief and development] works.” (36). This is supported by anecdotal evidence, but again, some of this is due to the disconnect between the planners of relief and development responses. It is true that the success of interventions, particularly emergency interventions, depends on a sound institutional and policy environment in recipient nations. However, on the other hand, nations with truly sound institutional and policy environments rarely are the largest recipients of emergency and development aid. Instead, the places where poverty is deepest are countries where corruption reigns, violence is endemic, and the separation between the rich and the poor is huge.

I agree with the authors that aid has not reached the intended beneficiaries effectively, and that there are better ways of doing things. However, under the current political climate and funding structure, it is very difficult to see how we could make the necessary changes in implementation. Implementing organizations know that people-centered holistic community development projects that work with and through successful local social entrepreneurs are the most successful. However, USAID and the other large donors fund large, multi-year, single-sector projects that do not take into consideration the collateral damage of the trendy intervention of the day, and frequently insist on out-dated and ineffective implementation strategies rather than innovative and responsive strategies. As long as governments are giving aid, it will be political. As long as it is political, it will be a market ruled by oligopsony, with USAID, WB, and the EU providing all the meaningful funding, and thus determining the type of product available.

My favorite point in the paper was that “The common denominator to these examples is that poor people respond to insecurity today in ways that compromise their capacity to build a better life tomorrow. Such behavior is rational.” This is 100% true, and if we do not incorporate a more refined sensibility about both transforming negative coping strategies and a fundamental respect for the rationale of people’s choices, we will continue to be a part of the problem. If people are engaging in negative coping strategies, then we need to ask them what they need to switch to positive coping strategies. We can’t just assume that they are only doing these things because they are stupid or don’t know better. Often, there is a lack of access or availability of information or resources that prevents them from coping in positive ways.

Monday, March 06, 2006


I've been tagged by eninnej with the 5 resources meme. The mistress of procrastination and gender is asking me to 'fess up and choose an expertise, and then state which five resources, online or otherwise, I would give someone to introduce them to my field of expertise.

Well, I'm kind of a jack of all trades, master of none, but more than anything else, my field of expertise is International Development Theory and Policy. So, without further ado, here are the recommended resources:

1. Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen. This book is a good introduction to modern thinking about poverty and development, written by a brilliant Indian economist. I don't agree with everything that he says, but I think that it is a good start to getting your mind around the key issues.

2. Food Aid after Fifty Years, Christopher Barrett and Daniel Maxwell. This book is a great introduction to food aid, including a relatively honest assessment of its pros and cons.

3., the US Agency for International Development website. This is a good way to get an idea of how the US government does business in the development industry, and to learn what types of activities are supported in various regions.

4. Paul Krugman and his other site: My favorite economist. Well, second favorite after my father-in-law. This isn't technically International Development-related, but he does write about it once in a while, and his ideas are broadly applicable.

5. The Center for Global Development: a great website for learning about the issues facing the development industry today. You can learn about specific regions, policy issues, or technical progress. My personal favorite is the section on Aid Effectiveness.

So there -- it is done. Now I will tag two people: Grampa and Brother-in-law. I'd tag The Professor, but his blog is all serious and work-related.