Zero sum games in a positive sum world

Charles Kenny of CGD has got a new book out: The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest Is Good for the West. I haven’t read it, and am not sure when I might find the time, but there’s a handy CGD wonkcast which summarises the main points.

“The US will lose some global influence, as China’s GDP overtakes it, maybe as India’s GDP overtakes it; but Britain has much less global influence today than it had at the height of the British Empire and it’s also just a much nicer place to live [for the majority].”

I.e. economic development is a positive sum game: one person getting richer does not diminish the amount of wealth available to everyone else. Add in some nifty technological innovation and the quality of life can improve out of all recognition.

So why fear the rise of China? In particular why do Western elites (as opposed to the ‘working classes’ who have seen jobs migrate eastwards) appear so wary? Is it because the unipolar world that emerged after the collapse of the USSR seemed so cosy, and they fear losing that?

Diplomacy, at least in the context of superpower rivalry, often seems to be treated as a zero sum game. My guess is this is why so many international negotiations – and especially the climate change ones – are utterly bogged down at present. The US feels it can afford to be magnanimous to Chad but not to China, and with that thought we kiss goodbye to the notion of altruistic global leadership.

I have a little theory. You know those studies that suggest after a certain level becoming richer does not make us happier? (Yes I know they are not without their critics.) Could it be that we are not so much made happy by increasing material wealth, but by how we compare to our peers? By this logic it matters little if we cook the planet so long as at the end of it we are still richer than the Chinese.

Depressing, huh? Have a little listen to the resolutely optimistic Charles Kenny, and maybe you’ll cheer up a bit.

Why does the UNDP exist? (reprise)

Three and a half years ago I asked: why does the UNDP exist? Last night I chatted to a couple of UN staffers (albeit from different agencies). They also were unable to provide an answer.

In their opinion though, some of the other UN agencies do seem to work quite well in middle income countries, who know what they want and have the capacity to provide overall management / oversight, whilst the UN agencies source neutral technical inputs, albeit rather expensively, and provide emergency additional funds when required. The problem is when the recipient government lacks the vision to stake out real leadership on most substantive issues, and instead spend their time chasing more donor cash, which is then often spent ineffectually as focus turns to the next grant opportunity.

Any supporters of the idea of a UN mandate to replace the entire government for South Sudan might want to take a moment to pause and consider the humungous bureaucracy that would result, and how, if ever, it would be possible to dismantle such a beast without returning the country to chaos. The current feuding in South Sudan is a tragedy, but surely there has to be a better solution than to bring in the UNDP! (Thankfully there are excellent other reasons not to pursue this option, which does not appear particularly likely.)

The sins of our forefathers

Last week Ed Carr and I had an amicable little to-and-fro in the comments stream of his blog on the culpability of the environmental movement in pushing economically restrictive rules on those least able to resist (the global poor). Ed concluded his post:

“Environmental governance is never going to work if it is the implementation of a ‘think globally, implement locally (ideally someplace else)’ mentality. It has to be thought, understood, and legitimized in the place it will be implemented, or it will fail.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Ed’s case in point was restrictions on charcoal makers in Zambia, which appear now to be rationalised as part of the fight against global climate change. Although I do not know the Zambia case specifically I suggested that these restrictions might actually have much older provenance in colonial times, with an intellectual heritage that dates back to laws designed to safeguard mediaeval aristocracies’ hunting privileges. And indeed that much (though sadly not all) of the modern international conservation movement now opposes such anti-poor regulations, which are rarely very effective any way.*

Some people might get a bit frustrated with this unjustified negative image that others in mainstream development may have of us in tropical conservation. For my part, however, I think we need to face up regularly to the sins of our forefathers. Push back by all means, but better to have people like Ed Carr keeping us on our toes than to naïvely assume that just because now we are a bit more people friendly we have automatic claim to the moral high ground.

It takes a lot of hard work to shed a bad reputation, and the job is yet at best only half done.

* It’s a bit of a dirty secret that some community conservation programmes were at least partially originally justified on the basis that the government of the time simply did not have the resources to police their own laws, and community conservation was as much an attempt to co-opt local allies into the enforcement effort as to generate them any particular rewards.

A yardstick measure of inequity

No development project can possibly benefit everyone equally. E.g. a project aimed at creating jobs and other economic opportunities will disproportionately benefit the able bodied. Most people would agree that is not a reason not to undertake such a project.

Some donors attempt to get around this by mainstreaming support for so-called disadvantaged groups, and requiring projects they support to incorporate some kind of support for disadvantaged people into their work. I think this is a fairly silly approach. For a start you are never going to capture every single disadvantaged person: women and HIV/AIDS sufferers are the most commonly supported, mentally ill people rather less often. Secondly bolting on such adjuncts comes at the expense of project focus, and leads to project managers overseeing work in areas in which they are far from experts. Much better, I reckon, for donors instead to support a wide portfolio of projects that ensure disadvantaged groups are given a chance. (Different donors could even specialise in supporting different disadvantaged groups.)

But if we are to accept a certain inevitable degree of inequity in project design, how much inequity is acceptable? And by this I do not just mean how much is acceptable not just to us, but to the would be community of beneficiaries? Here is my suggestion for a convenient yardstick.

Probably the single biggest dimension of inequality in the world is the nationality of your parents and/or where you were born. And yet, a few philosophers apart, this is not an inequality that gets many people especially riled. Envious: yes, angry: not so much. My guess is this is because there is no human agency involved. The outcomes are very unequal, but, by and large, poorer people have not suffered a specific recent injustice perpetrated by identifiable rich people to cause this inequality. Even with colonialism, when taken as a whole, it is hard to argue that people born today in ex-colonies are poorer as a result, and plenty of people argue colonialism brought various developmental goods in exchange for lower freedoms.

Instead most people can accept without a deep upwelling of anger that even if you are born in the bottom 5% of the population in the UK, you will probably be able to watch TV every day of your life that you want to do so. Indeed, even if you do not have a job, the UK government will pay you enough money that you can afford to watch TV when you want to. Whereas if you were born in rural Malawi, say, you might only occasionally ever get to watch TV.

Thus my yardstick is this: does your project appear to introduce more inequity than this basic starting inequality? If so you should be worried? If not, you may well be ok. In many ways it is not a very good yardstick: rural Malawians and poor Brits are not living side by side, and so the inequity is remote, hidden even. Moreover the key point is that poor people do not really have anyone to blame for this starting inequality, whereas project staff and managers are clearly identifiable for local ire if unfairness is perceived. But it does provide a philosophical anchor point that could be useful during project conception if ever you are worried about differences between winners and losers that could arise from a new project.

Maybe someone else has a much better yardstick?

Aid as democracy enabler?

Whilst on the subject of disagreeing with Angus Deaton*, I re-read Chris Blattman’s commentary recently. Blattman made an interesting point about aid supporting the emergence of democracy in post-conflict situations such as Uganda and Liberia where Blattman has worked. The basic sense of his argument, that aid money helped those countries get back on their feet having chosen a proto-democratic path, seems clear enough. Clearly the link is not automatic: recent events in South Sudan show that just having lots of aid money around does not ensure a steady upward path, but I am more than happy to buy the basic idea, that, other things being equal, aid would help and potentially help quite a lot with the transition.

This line of reasoning can easily be extended. Just as the presence, even if largely wasted, of a big aid programme can provide cover for small local NGOs to do good things (I’ve seen cases of this), so maybe the promise of aid money can provide some cover to would be democratizers. I.e. at the margin, the presence of Western donors with deep pockets might plausibly increase the attractiveness of democracy to poor country elites (obviously the same cannot be said of the Chinese). Probably impossible to prove, but it is one of those enticing thoughts that you can see politicians grabbing on to.**

On the negative side of the ledger, the incentive value of lots of aid money would be paradoxically lower when accompanied by strong anti-corruption measures. But on the positive side such an incentive could be seen as the first step on a whole ladder of rising levels of cash support for good behaviour such as I’ve mused about before. It’s never going to happen, of course, and even in the case of democracy, I am sure all parties would deny the cash offer was anything as grubby as a bribe. But if Deaton is concerned with the theoretical undermining of the social contract caused by aid, then this is a nice theoretical riposte.

Next week, back to the messy real world in which bribes are paid all the time, even if they’re not called bribes …

* On the subject of international development aid. He can keep his intellectual authority status on other bits of development economics.

** I guess the Neo-Cons under Bush did exactly that!

Messy reality beats philosophy

Catching up on my listening as well as my reading included enjoying the Xmas time edition of Development Drums that was an interview with Angus Deaton in the wake of his recent book the Great Escape that, amongst other things, severely criticises international development aid. I would recommend a listen to the whole thing*, but here is a grossly simplified summary of the key exchanges (which start from about 40mins in):-

Deaton: Aid should be spent for the benefit of poor people, but not in poor countries, as, in the long run at least, aid spent there will always undermine the social contract (we elect you and pay our taxes, we expect half-decent leadership in return).

Barder: What about Anti-RetroViral drugs (ARVs) used to fight AIDS? Surely that is a massive improvement to millions of poor peoples’ wellbeing that was achieved through aid?

Deaton: Well, yes, so I would allow that kind of an exception, but I would announce that this programme of support will expire in ten years time,  allowing time for the people to force their government into funding it instead.

Oh dear! Two very obvious problems with this solution:

  1. It won’t work. Aid dependency is far too entrenched. The donors would be blamed not the local political leaders. That might fit with Deaton’s philosophical argument, but isn’t much use in the real world.
  2. Why 10 years? Why not add on another 10 and make it 20 years? I’ve got a few more exceptions I can think of … Where, in other words, do you draw the line when back on the slippery slope? You will always find someone with a well marshalled argument to draw the line that little bit lower.

Surprisingly Barder never explicitly tests Deaton on those two points, but he does tie him in a few knots with other thoughtful probing, before Deaton remembers that a big part of the ARVs success story was achieved by lobbying (especially by the Clinton Foundation and their army of bright, young things) in rich countries to get Big Pharma to reduce their prices, i.e. it satisfies his requirement about where aid money should be spent. That wouldn’t, however, entirely get him off the hook, as I suspect many of those reduced cost ARVs are still being paid for with donor money.

All of which is a bit of a shame, because apart from that Deaton makes a number of very good points, and much of his criticism of international aid is valid and insightful. But, as many academics are wont to do, by keeping his argument (in this case) strongly rooted in philosophical (some might say ideological) foundations, he fails to grapple with the messy politics and complexity of the real world. Also ironic, as, according to Owen Barder, Deaton is known for careful treatment of data.

* And British listeners can enjoy a nice little audio pun at the end!

Blogging in bursts

The title about sums up activity on this blog last year. Expect that to continue. I wish I could blog more: I have far more ideas for blog posts than ever get written. But despite the demands of work I still really enjoy writing this blog, so worry ye not: the determination is mostly definitely there to continue with it. I’m still also trying to encourage the odd guest post, but it seems such others are even more pressed for time than I am.

And with that I wish you a happy (rest of) 2014.


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