To help the world’s poor we need to think small

A roundabout water pump. This superficially appealing notion has become a standard example of the naivety and hubris of many Western interventions in poorer nations.

Why do so many aid projects that seem so impressive at a small scale, fail so spectacularly when they are scaled up?That’s the subject of one most interesting and important articles I’ve read in a long time. In it the aid worker Michael Hobbes reflects on his profession. What he recounts is not pretty: expensive medical equipment sent to villages without the electricity to operate it, small studies in Kenya used to justify not giving Indian children textbooks and charities that plunge themselves into chaos by slashing their internal administration so they can claim to have low overheads. Hobbes suggests that all these examples arise from the development sector’s pursuit of a single formula for lifting people out of poverty which can be rolled out wherever people are in need. This, Hobbes argues, is unrealistic: poor societies are complex and varied, and will respond in a highly individual fashion to interventions. This leads him to a sobering conclusion:

I’ve just spent thousands of words telling you all the ways the incentives of donors, recipients, and NGOs contradict each other. Why not just scrap it altogether?

Because I don’t think that’s the conclusion these examples suggest. I think they suggest something much less dramatic: It’s not that development is broken, it’s that our expectations of it are.

First, let’s de-room this elephant: Development has happened. The last 50 years have seen about the biggest explosion of prosperity in human history. China, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Turkey, Mexicothese aren’t the only countries where you’d rather be born now than 50 years ago. Even the poorest countries in the worldBurundi, Somalia, Zimbabweare doing way better on stuff like vaccinations and literacy than they did earlier in our own lifetimes.

You sometimes hear this Cambrian proliferation of well-being as an argument against development aid, like: “See? China got better all by itself.” But the rise of formerly destitute countries into the sweaters-and-smartphones bracket is less a refutation of the impact of development aid than a reality-check of its scale. In 2013, development aid from all the rich countries combined was $134.8 billion, or about $112 per year for each of the world’s 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. Did we really expect an extra hundred bucks a year to pull anyone, much less a billion of them, out of poverty?

Development, no matter how it happens, is a slow process. It wasn’t until about 30 years after Mao’s death that China’s per capita GDP reached lower-middle-income status. The country’s growth is arguably the fastest of any country’s since we, as a species, started gathering economic statistics. Even in the most cartoonishly successful scenario imaginable, countries like the Central African Republic (per capita GDP: $700, adjusted for purchasing power), Burundi ($600), and the Democratic Republic of Congo ($400) will take decades just to reach the point where China is now.

The ability of international development projects to speed up this process is limited. Remember how I said the deworming project had a 60-to-1 ratio between the price of the pills and the increase in wages for the kids who got them? The increase was $30. Not $30 per year. The kids earned $30 moreover their lifetimes as a result of the deworming treatment. You find this a lot in the development literature: Even the most wildly successful projects decrease maternal mortality by a few percent here, add an extra year or two of life expectancy there.

This isn’t a criticism of the projects themselves. This is how social policy works, in baby steps and trial-and-error and tweaks, not in game changers. Leave the leaps and bounds to computing power. If a 49-cent deworming treatment really does produce a $30 increase in wages for some of the poorest people on Earth, we are assholes for not spending it.

And this is where I landed after a year of absorbing dozens of books and articles and speeches about international development: The arguments against it are myriad, and mostly logistical and technical. The argument for it is singular, moral, and, to me anyway, utterly convincing: We have so much, they have so little.

If we really want to fix development, we need to stop chasing after ideas the way we go on fad diets. Successful programs should be allowed to expand by degrees, not digits (direct cash payments, which have shown impressive results in Kenya and Uganda, are a great candidate for the kind of deliberate expansion I’m talking about). NGOs need to be free to invest in the kinds of systems and processes we’re always telling developing countries to put in place. And rich countries need to spend less time debating how to divide up the tiny sliver of our GDP we spend on development and more time figuring out how to leverage our vast economic and political power to let it happen on its own.

Is he correct? I don’t know enough about development to say. However, the notion underlying Hobbes argument that societies change slowly and unpredictably is one I would endorse. Economic changes often have roots that are centuries old. For example, it seems that the fact that the industrial revolution happened in Europe and not Asia can be traced back to the demographic impact of the Black Death way back in the fourteenth century. We might not want to wait centuries for our efforts to transform the lives of planet’s poorest and it may be that with deliberate planning and greater resources we can do better. However, Hobbes makes a compelling that patience will always be a prerequisite for social change.

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