Aid Allocation double whammy fail whale

Two related pieces I found on twitter point out that we haven’t perfected aid delivery by a long shot.

First, Owen Barder at CGD points out that the percentage of aid going to the poorest countries is actually falling.

Perhaps not so amazingly, places like the EU only allocate 27% of its aid to the group of low income countries. The WB at least manages to get 55% of its official development assistance there.

Then the redoubtable Ryan Briggs shows that, inside of poor countries, aid does not flow to the poorest people in those countries!

Ryan’s paper studies “a two-year sample of geolocated aid projects from two multilateral donors to 17 African countries containing a total of 195 regions” and contains the following awesome quote from PT Bauer:

“…foreign aid is a process by which poor people in rich countries help rich people in poor countries.”






Score one for Jeffrey Sachs in the geography versus institutions debate

While hopefully all economists believe that both institutions and geography are important to development, there is a debate in the literature about which factor is more important.  Acemoglu, Johnson, and Robinson, for example, come down on the side of institutions, arguing that geography mattered in the past but is no longer significantly correlated with income.  I understand econometrically why they need to make this claim but it has always seemed to be relatively weak to me.  I give my students an excerpt from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shadow of the Sun called “Mountain of Ice.” Kapuscinski, one of my long-time favorite writers on Africa, came down with a virulent form of malaria and the description is so horrifying that it ensured I never missed a dose of my anti-malarial medicine when visiting malarial regions.

I think economists are sometimes too flippant when they downplay the effects of diseases like malaria on income.  I wonder if they would feel the same if they came down with the same strain that Kapuscinski did.

There are many difficulties with getting people in malarial regions to use bed nets effectively.  Before I read Nina Munk’s tremendous book The Idealist, I didn’t realize that people were using them to protect their livestock rather than their kids.

The company Psyop has teamed up with the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) to try to change people’s perceptions of malaria.  To do so, they have created a 90-second animated film called “Nightmare: Malaria” “that begins as a sweet bedtime story before quickly devolving into a hallucinatory trip that paints a picture of how the disease affects a body. Symptoms such as high fever, violent convulsions, vicious sickness, and attacks on the liver and brain are rendered with psychotic energy befitting a Hunter S. Thompson tale.”  The moral of the story is that people can avoid these symptoms by using bed nets.

They have also created a video game, where “players avoid killer mosquitoes and collect teddy bear tokens amid fever-dream visuals, [which] further impresses how diabolical malaria can be.”

I was curious about who the target audience for these things are.  Surely they aren’t the people in the malarial regions themselves, given that they probably already have a good idea what malaria looks like (and probably don’t have the time or money to be watching these videos and playing the games).  It isn’t totally obvious from the article but it seems like the idea is to educate Western audiences to the horror that is malaria.  It seems to be working in that the “game was downloaded to iOS and Adroid devices over 130,000 times…[and]… has already resulted in 42,000 visits to the AMF donate page, which should translate nicely into a lot of nets.”

I like how innovative this approach is but it still needs to be paired with ways to get people in malarial zones to use the nets effectively.

Grading Aid

I just learned about the Aid Transparency Index and it is a very cool undertaking.  The group grades all major aid organizations across 22 indicators.  In 2013 they started taking into account not only how accessible the data is, but also how accessible the format is in which it is provided.  Click here for more on the indicators, here for their methodology, and here for the 2013 results. 


Speaking of accessibility, I wish I could reproduce the graphics they have showing the results.  It is one of the flashiest, yet totally clear, illustrations I’ve seen.  So what’s the lowdown on the 2013 results.  They find that:

“The top ranking agency is U.S. MCC, scoring 88.9%, while China takes the last place scoring only 2.2%. At the top end, MCC (88.9%), GAVI (87.3%), UK DFID (83.5%) and UNDP (83.4%) are all nearly 10 or more percentage points ahead of the next highest donor. The average score for all organisations is comparatively low at 32.6%, with 25 organisations scoring less than 20%. As in previous years, larger organisations generally perform better overall. Multilaterals as a group tend to score higher than bilaterals, although the performance of individual organisations within each group varies significantly.”

The group recognizes though that this is just the beginning of the challenge.  They note that understanding how and why people use this data will continue to be a goal for all development actors – and will mean working closely with diverse partners to make a real difference.”

Compared to What?

The WB is again hitting up rich governments to “replenish” the IDA’s coffers.

Oxfam’s man in DC, Nicolas Mombrial, thinks the IDA is a good investment.

I guess it won’t surprise many of you to hear that I don’t.

His post is pretty long but very short on why the IDA is a good investment. He does cite some accomplishments, but gives no information on the cost-effectiveness of these accomplishments:

“Regardless, it is clear that IDA has had some impressive results in the last decade,for instance, helping ensure 65 million people receive access to health services and 8.5 million people get access to seeds and fertilizers.”

OK, first off, “access to health services” is not really a very interesting or valuable quantity. I’d like to know about improved health outcomes. Same with the access to seeds. Tell me about improved agricultural productivity.

Second, what about the costs? The last 3 year replenishment of IDA was for 49.3 billion dollars. So for a decade of IDA, we can use 150 billion dollars as a cost number.

People, for $150 billion dollars, you could give 75 million people each $2000 in cold hard cash.

From my point of view, that sounds a lot better than giving them “access” to services.

Now sure, there are aid agencies worse than the IDA (phone call for USAID), but there is nothing in Mombrial’s post that backs up his claim that the IDA is a good investment, and in my opinion, it’s actually a bad investment relative to unconditional cash transfers.



The Interwebs are not just for plumbing lessons!

Interesting NYT OP-ED, asking that poor people in developing nations be allowed to just hook up to the internet and have fun!

Here is a nice chunklet:

The Indian government has several valiant plans to bring Internet access to the villages, but they largely center on connecting government offices for ID databases and for software simulation to teach citizens skills like plumbing. Wouldn’t it be better if the poor were offered direct connectivity over their phones, free or cheap, and were left to decide what they wanted to do with it?

Mr. Zuckerberg’s belief that connectivity is a human right is honorable. Where he and his allies err is in imagining that fun is not, and in underestimating the power of entertainment to transform society. Chatting with friends online may not save the world, but if it can get more people to log on, the rest will follow.

Many years ago, when I worked for a lifestyle magazine, I was given my worst assignment ever. I had to call some of the richest people in southern India and ask them what they usually had for breakfast. The first man I called told me, “I don’t eat gold biscuits.” It was a well-deserved reprimand for presuming that rich people were somehow different from other humans.

It is equally ridiculous to presume that what poor people want from the Internet is lessons in plumbing.

The conflict between what the donors want and what the recipients want seems to almost be universal.


I’ll take “Things aid workers never say” for $500, Alex

Very funny list here. I especially liked, “economic growth is the only way to lift people out of poverty”

Plus some bonus ones from me:

“The local beer tastes like ass”

“Locals who take a romantic interest in us likely have an ulterior motive”

“My mom brags about me all the time”