Sunday, October 25, 2009


As you may have guessed from my last entry, I've spent quite a bit of time lately reading instead of doing what I should be doing, which is grading the giant piles of exams sitting on my desk. And now, to break the tedium of reading dry, statistics-heavy books, which I am doing to break the tedium of grading, I'm now going to write a tedious blog entry to try to organize some of the ideas floating around in my head as a result of reading (thusly passing my boredom along to you).

Aside from the idea that “development” is way too complicated to organize in the all-encompassing way that many aid agencies try to do, there's another aspect of Easterly's book (The White Man's Burden) that has been particularly interesting to me (especially because I've been avoiding doing my own work lately). That is the idea of accountability.

Easterly spends a lot of time talking about how aid agencies are inefficient because they are not held accountable for their actions. Time and time again, international organizations put together big, impressive goals for the reduction or even eradication of poverty and the improvement of basic conditions in developing countries, and then miserably fail to make any headway whatsoever toward the achievement of those goals. And what happens? Nothing. It makes zero difference one way or the other whether or not these goals are met (except that millions of people continue to suffer, which isn't so great).

Easterly goes on to say that setting goals that are unrealistically high, or setting goals that may be achievable but without a concrete plan for how to achieve them, may not be a recipe for disaster, but it is certainly one for wastefulness and inefficiency. I guess in my mind I feel like this problem persists in the aid community in part because there is an of assumption that giving aid to poor countries is Good Work, being done by Good People who are just trying to Help Others. Thus, even if they fail at doing what they are supposed to do over and over again, it is justified because it is a worthwhile endeavor.

As you can maybe tell, I like Easterly's ideas and I especially like his main point: that the best solution (actually, not so much a solution, but rather an adjustment in approach to an unsolvable problem) is to stop setting big, overarching, idealistic goals, and to start setting small, realistic, and measurable ones. Saying “we are going to reduce the number of people living on less than a dollar a day by 30% by 2015” is a pretty difficult goal, given the number of different factors that conspire to keep people living under these conditions. Better to focus on specific sectors – education, health, and so on – and set specific, smaller-scale goals in each of these areas. The end goal is the same – reducing poverty – but the second approach provides a framework under which to actually move toward its achievement.

Easterly is mostly talking about the big international associations when he describes the aid issue – the UN organizations and USAID and such. But I think that the accountability thing applies at all levels of development work. My own laxity in grading is an example – there are no real consequences if I don't finish grading the exams in a timely manner, and in my own head, I guess I don't feel as guilty as I should about putting it off because . . . well, my being here is better than nothing, after all, isn't it? So even if the work I'm doing isn't terrible, I'm not as motivated to do my very best work as I should be.

OK, well, speaking of that, I guess I should get back to doing some of that work that I'm avoiding. One more thing I want to point out, though, is that this is why it is necessary to be extremely careful when donating money to any kind of aid organization. You might assume that large, well-established organizations are large and well-established because they have developed effective means of achieving their goals, and that this implies that the money you donate will be used effectively. But this is not the case, in part for the reasons I mentioned here. A stunningly large proportion of money donated in good faith – even or especially to big, established organizations – is wasted. I'll have to write some more specific examples of the way I see that happening here. But for now – grading, yay!

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