Should the biggest problems get the most money?

Last week Ranil over at Aid Thoughts discussed the new big thing in international aid: fragile states. The powers that be appear to have decided that these are the biggest problem out there in the aid world, and, as such, they deserve to get the biggest slice of the aid pie. I long have noticed a similar approach to prioritisation within conservation: the rarest species and the most threatened habitats get the most money.

Despite the fact that it incentivises everyone to talk up exactly how bad their problem is, on the face of this is in an eminently sensible approach to determine how to divide up a pot of money that is never big enough to solve all the problems in the world.

This, however, pre-supposes two things:

a) that there are solutions to be found to these, the biggest problems, and

b) that these solutions need a lot of money to succeed,

Neither of which are necessarily true. The biggest problems tend to me the most wicked problems, and therefore the least tractable to ordinary problem solving. And we seem to have conveniently forgotten about that old chestnut, absorptive capacity. Whilst I know little about how to ‘cure’ a fragile state (if such a thing is possible), the horror stories coming out of Afghanistan of wholesale corruption of aid flows suggest that the absorptive capacity conundrum hasn’t gone away, and is probably magnified in fragile states.

In both conservation and development I would like to see more money being devoted to solutions, especially proven solutions. That is not to say we should ignore the biggest problems, but if you don’t have a workable solution, then a lighter touch with smaller amounts of supporting funds seems a more sensible approach. Pouring money at a problem is unlikely to achieve very much more than reducing your pot of money for tackling other problems and increasing public and political scepticism of aid due to low success rates.

Great businesses, like great sporting teams, play to their strengths. International aid and conservation too often seems to play to its weaknesses, and that is much to our loss.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Very nice post. I wonder whether they will be listening though. The last time I looked the main objective of the best donors was 0.7 % of the GNP.

    When diplomats present what they are doing, they make lists of project titles amounts. Projects started, never results achieved.

    Reply

  2. […] There are two responses to calls for cash to be spent on problems that are “close to intractable” (aka as wicked problems): (a) conclude that any investment of resources is highly unlikely to yield any results and thus refrain from any attempt to tackle said problems, or (b) determine that such problems are too important to be just ignored, and that it is fair and reasonable to take a few risks and try a few different approaches to see what might work. (Whatever you do, just don’t equate big problems with the need for big amounts of cash!) […]

    Reply

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