Humanitarian aid organizations are bloated, unaccountable beasts that must be hunted down for their voluminous and valuable fat

That’s not exactly what Michael Barnett and Peter Walker say in the latest Foreign Affairs, but it is a reasonable or at least tempting extrapolation. They are two of my favorite humanitarian scholars, and their essay argues we need a regime change for more accountability.

There are many good points, among them: the oligarchs of conflict and disaster hold better intentions than, say Russian oligarchs, but oligarchs they are:

Western governments also have a controlling influence over the core pillar of the global humanitarian network: the UN and its specialized agencies, such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program, which lead the charge in crisis zones. Orbiting this system are a dozen or so NGOs that receive most of the funds distributed by the major Western donors and dominate disaster response, among them CARE International, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam International, and World Vision International.

One shameful yet predictable consequence is the bloated cost-ineffectiveness of most aid in most crises:

…During ongoing crises in five countries in 2012—in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan—national NGOs saw a mere 14 percent of the resources channeled through the UN’s common humanitarian funds. And in post-earthquake Haiti, nearly 90 percent of U.S. contributions went into the pockets of international agencies and organizations, as documented by the Center for Global Development; only one dollar in ten actually reached the victims.

This is not actually overhead, at least as the organizations themselves define it. It is local salaries and land cruisers and other expenses from organization and delivery of help. Some of this is necessary of course but most is questionable at best. But unaccountable oligarchs have little incentive to trim fat, let alone cut into muscle.

And if you think that is bad, remember than half of the money people do receive is probably mediocre quality programming, since there’s no accountability there either.

In fairness, aid in humanitarian crises is probably far more effective than regular foreign aid, where I’d be surprised if a dollar in twenty reaches a poor person’s pocket. Humanitarian aid is better probably because people die in front of the front line workers when they fail. This focuses the heart and mind.

But apparently not so much that more than a dollar in ten reaches victims.

Fortunately, disruptive forces abound:

For one thing, new sources of humanitarian aid are shaking up the sector. In 2013, donors outside the club—including Brazil, China, Turkey, and the Gulf states—contributed 14 percent of government-derived humanitarian funding,

…Abandoning outmoded “truck and dump” methods of providing aid to the vulnerable, agencies are now experimenting with direct cash transfers and voucher programs

…Diaspora groups, too, are coming to the fore. In fact, global remittance flows exceed the total volume of foreign aid (of which humanitarian assistance is a small part) by a factor of three, and some of these funds are spawning local relief agencies.

But Barnett and Walker’s recommendations on how to be more accountable are more lackluster. It does not sound a lot like regime change. Some examples:

The first step would be for the club to make good on its promises to help vulnerable communities build up their resilience to crises and prepare for disasters ahead of time.

…Donor countries should continue to encourage and reward evidence-based results.

…Improving accountability, however, will not be possible without building true partnerships with local actors—before, during, and after an emergency.

To become as accountable to local populations as they are to the donors who sign their checks, humanitarians should learn to listen to those they aspire to serve.

The economist in me says: “Show me the incentives.” I see no shift here.

The oligarchy are not going to seriously listen more, cut costs, build evidence, or let alone act on the evidence unless they are threatened with the pain of extinction or irrelevance. Thus I have more hope for more disruptive forces.

For instance, in the aid realm, maybe the best thing that happened to USAID was George W. founding two competitors: MCC and PEPFAR. That seemed to have awoken the bureaucratic beast from its slumber, at least a little.

So, I have some hope that the cash and remittance revolution will shake some of the humanitarian oligarchy from their bloat, and shine a spotlight on their bloated costs. But only some hope.

I suspect that Barnett and Walker have a more grisly fantasy about what they would like to do (Release the hounds!), but it probably only comes out after several beers rather than via a Foreign Affairs editor.

Much like the Ferguson police department, the ICC seems to prefer to indict only black men

The list of indicted people is here.

Much is being made of South Africa’s failure to arrest Sudanese President Bashir, as he fled back home today.

By the letter of the law the nation of Mandela should have arrested Bashir. I would have liked to see this happen, but there are several reasons I will not chide the South African government for its failure.

The main one is that the International Criminal Court will have legitimacy only if it is seen as effective, impartial, and universal. Unfortunately it has failed on all three.

On effectiveness, most of the ICC’s investigations, indictments, and court cases have been shambolic.

On impartiality, the fact that only Africans are indicted is obviously political. Nations with power and patrons do not get indicted, I imagine because one of the big nations vetoes it officially or unofficially. This completely de-legitimizes the whole court. This one isn’t really the ICC’s fault, though the principled thing to do might be to resign over interference rather than just keep trying to arrest more black people.

Finally, universality. From none other than a Bashir press conference today:

So long as the world’s largest countries do not sign on, the moral weight of ICC indictments will not weigh heavily on countries like South Africa. Especially when they’re asked to do very risky, domestically unpopular things like arrest a nearby head of state at a diplomatic event.

To paraphrase an old saying, when we point our finger at South Africa this week we should remember there are three fingers pointing back at us.

Conflict, Ebola, and other ABCA talks

The videos are up from last week’s Annual Bank Conference on Africa (ABCA) on violence and fragility.

Among them are Ted Miguel on climate change and conflict.

Here is me presenting on the role of cash transfers and therapy in reducing crime and violence in Liberia:

And related to my post last week on what we should learn from the Ebola outbreak, here are Dave Evans, Rachel Glennerster, and Lily Tsai on the economic and political aftermath of Ebola:

‘Murica, through weaselly eyes

In general, the French government recommends that its citizens “adopt a reserved manner with persons of the opposite sex” while in the United States. This is in part because of American prudishness, and in part because — you guessed it — “possession of firearms is permitted and common” in the United States. French tourists are thus advised to “keep your calm and sang-froid” in all circumstances. The French have been paying attention to Ferguson and McKinney, too: When dealing with the police, “it is imperative … not to raise your voice and [to] avoid sudden or aggressive gestures.”

Rosa Brooks looks at how different national embassies warn their citizens before traveling to the USA.

The winners and losers from the empirical shift in economics

Noahpinion proves why he is one of the best economics tweeters, with a riff on the winners and losers from the quasi-experimental shift in economics.

1/I just wanted to riff on this blog post about the shift toward quasi-empirical methods in econometrics.

2/Here’s who I see as the winners and losers from the shift (besides people who *do* quasi-experiments, obviously).

3/The biggest winner: The public and policymakers. The results of these experiments are often easy enough for them to understand.

4/When academic econ results are hard to understand, policymakers tend to ignore them and go with politically inspired simple stuff.

5/But quasi-experiments can often bring research insights to policymakers in a way they can understand and apply, to everyone’s benefit.

6/Another winner: Women in economics. When theory doesn’t rely on data for confirmation, it often becomes a bullying/shouting contest.

7/Women are disadvantaged in bullying contests. But with quasi-experiments, they can use reality to smack down bullies, as in the sciences.

8/A big loser from the shift: Free market purists. In fights between “Econ 101 theory” and quasi-experiments, the science tends to win out.

9/Theory lends itself to simplicity (for tractability reasons), and simple theories of markets tend not to have lots of market failures.

10/But reality is a thicket of market failures, and quasi-experiments let the results of that thicket be viewed in reduced form.

It continues. And the original blog post.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

“Previously, we treated your lack of response as an oversight. Now, if you do not call [telephone number], we will treat this as an active choice.”

They collected an additional $1.8 million within a month.

  • David Evans strikes again, in a repeat of his performance in March, he summarizes the recent The Annual Bank Conference on Africa, with pithy 1-2 sentence summaries of 48+ papers. If he keeps doing this, we should really have a Kickstarter for his conference travel.
  • A paper in PNAS reports a new disease spread by the same mosquitoes who carry the malaria parasite.
  • A new PLoS Biology paper estimates more than half of all bio/med research is irreproducible, and scientists spent $28 BILLION trying. Reasons range from vague descriptions in write-ups to widely distributed cell lines that are mislabeled (breast cancer cells which are actually skin cancer for example, and labs who buy them not doing a $200 test to confirm).
  • The Atlantic reports that high end clothing company Patagonia had the will and flexibility (being privately owned) to commit to using fair labor practices in the factories that supply them, but failed through no fault of their own. According to the article, the problem lies with the middlemen – labor brokers, who import garment factory workers to Taiwan, and charge them exorbitant fees (e.g. $7,000) deducted from the bank accounts where their wages are deposited. (Recall a few weeks ago, we mentioned a qualitative study pointing to the importance of labor brokers in Egypt controlling access to jobs).

And Pizza Hut again proves the private sector is an endless source of global innovation:

In America, they’ve pledged to eliminate artificial flavors, In Hong Kong, they’ve introduced a pizza box that turns your phone into a projector,

Pizza Hut/Ogilvy Hong Kong


while in Australia, well there really are no words for what it’s doing there. (Both h/t and condolences to office Australian, Hugo).

What should we learn from the Ebola outbreak?

I’m at a conference where researchers are looking back at the consequences of and lessons from the West Africa Ebola outbreak. Videos should be online later this week, but in the meantime some miscellaneous highlights.

First, paraphrasing Dave Evans, at the World Bank:

  • 60 seconds after releasing the high and low estimates, people forgot there were low estimates. In future, what he would do is run thousands of simulations, not two, and report the average and distribution rather than the high and low.
  • But this is inherently difficult because the size of the economic impacts depended wholly on whether and how far the disease spread. And this was incredibly different to predict.
  • In the end, the economic damage was much closer to the low end estimates than the high end ones, largely because the disease didn’t spread outside the initially-affected countries.

My own sense: when an Ebola case was found in a minimally functioning state, with advance notice this could happen, it was generally contained. This is what has happened with most Ebola cases in Africa over the last 15 years or so.

Second,paraphrasing Rachel Glennerster from JPAL:

  • Going around shouting “the sky is falling” was great for raising money but was very damaging to the local economy. It drove people to hold back their spending, and firms to shut down, and those hit hardest are the many, many people in the informal urban sector who no longer have a business.
  • It can also make the disease worse. Possibly the most damaging act was the WHO reporting that the death rate from Ebola was 90%, when the survival rate was actually much, much better (especially with treatment). To contain the disease, one of the main things you needed people to do was go to a clinic when sick. And yet who would go to a clinic if you told them they’ll die anyways.
  • So these messages were incredibly counterproductive for controlling the disease and the economic fallout, even if the hysteria was correct.

All of this might be excusable if you thought that hysteria was needed to raise money. I don’t happen to believe that’s true, and if it is, shame on us.

Finally, paraphrasing Lily Tsai and Ben Morse from MIT political science:

  • People affected by the crisis—from losing their job, to knowing victims, or seeing dead bodies—trusted the government less, at least temporarily
  • This is a problem if you need the state to believe and cooperate with a government in order to contain the crisis. So how do you build trust?
  • The government of Liberia hired community outreach workers to communicate public health measures, and where these workers went trust in government rose. Compliance with curfews, safe burials and quarantines were higher as a result. Later they now support everyday laws like taxation.
  • Working through the government, even though it was more difficult in the heat of the moment, paid off in terms of trust and state capacity after the crisis.

What’s interesting is that the outreach workers probably did relatively little for people. Information was important but they were not the vanguard of a huge aid or health effort. How much of his effect was the illusion of a state, the ritual of a state? What mattered was shaping people’s beliefs about the intentions and capacity of the government.

Perhaps an overall takeaway: to contain an epidemic, build trust and hope not fear and suspicion.

Participatory versus executive decision-making, the randomized control trial

A new paper on Sierra Leone, Chief for a Day, presented by Maarten Voors at the ABCA conference:

in a random subsample of villages the traditional elite, including the chief, were made responsible for project management. In other villages, responsibility for project management was delegated to a committee of randomly selected villagers.

While our simple theoretical model proposes that more powerful chiefs will be more corrupt by diverting more resources from the public good to their personal benefit, will under-invest in management of the project, and will seek to undermine the performance of managing committees, our empirical findings provide a more nuanced and mixed picture of the quality of local management in Africa.

Our field experiment finds little evidence that local elites managing an aid project divert more resources than the average villager, or that more powerful chiefs divert more than less powerful ones. Moreover, the village elites are able to manage a development project better than a committee of randomly selected villagers…

Projects managed by village elites are also more likely to start and be completed on time, are better constructed and maintained, and provide more (perceived) benefits for the villagers.

I think this project is more an indictment of the often naive approach to local politics in most NGO and other development programs, rather than an indictment of participatory decision-making per se.

One example: if we look at our own communities or organizations, clearly a leader or committee can be more effective if there are established channels or organizations that provide information or implement decisions, if people understand the roles and responsibilities of the decision-makers, or if those decision-makers have legitimacy in the eyes of the governed.

What that means is that changing the identity of the decision-maker may be less important if the organizations and processes and popular understanding are not changed as well. There’s a difference between changing the identity of who is in the CEO position and changing whether or not power goes to a CEO or a brand new committee.

Another example: what matters for executive decision-making is probably how constrained and accountable is the chief. Businesses prefer CEOs to committees, but that CEO is still accountable to a board, shareholders, labor law, the market, and a set of rules governing transitions of power. SO CEOs have incentives to be effective. So “chief” does not equal “despot”.

In sum, local politics may be difficult to change if it is not understood.

Links I liked

  1. Twitter shuts down an API that saves politicians’ deleted tweets
  2. The World Bank’s annual development conference on Africa is next week at Berkeley. Download the papers or watch the livestream presentations.
  3. Rather amazing about-face from the man who posted the viral Facebook message about Caitlyn Brenner
  4. The plot thickens on the Science scandal: Qualtrics (the survey firm) tweets that they can undelete LaCours’ data, then delete the tweet
  5. Columbia journalism dean Steve Coll on the future of journalism
  6. The New Yorker random cartoon page
  7. Quote of the day, via @AdviceToWriters: “Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.” — Joan Didion

Why you should not go to law school

Amanda Taub has a brilliant article in Vox:

 over the years, I have realized that the people asking me that question aren’t really asking for my advice about their careers in the law. Rather, their real question is almost always something else: will law school be a solution to my fears about the future?

…You know the terror of the undefined future: the fear that comes of seeing so many possibilities and pitfalls open up to you that they swirl into one vast, terrifying abyss. And what’s that faint noise you hear from its shadowy depths? Could it be the plaintive cries of your mom’s friend’s son who had so much promise but never made anything of himself? Or the laments of your second cousin who’s stuck in a dead-end job?

These fears are understandable. The world is a scary place for people just starting out in their careers. It can feel especially scary for the kinds of people who find themselves pondering whether to go to law school.

They tend to have done reasonably well in school their whole lives, and then pursued liberal arts degrees in college. That means college graduation brings a double-whammy shock of chaos: not only are they losing the structure of the academic system in which they excelled, but they’re also setting out in that new, seemingly unstructured world without the kind of clear career path that comes from a more technical degree. Of course that can make the post-college world seem like a terrifying abyss.

You could say this about any graduate study. Too many students do it because the real world does not have a nicely laid out application path.

People go into consulting and banking and a few other private sector industries for the same reason: they come recruiting and make the path as easy as possible. Hence they hire an awful lot of people who will hate their job and be doing more or less meaningless things. That is how I first ended up in accounting. Leaving early was the best thing I ever did.

Most useful is Amanda’s point that there are other ways to get across the terrifying abyss. Generically, the advice is this: seek out the less obvious doors and knock on them. The obvious doors that everyone can see are mobbed.

Related, here are my past posts on getting a job in international development and should you do a PhD?

“The Misregulation of Human-Subject Research”

That is the subtitle to a new book, The Censor’s Hand, by Carl Schneider, a Professor of Law and Medicine at University of Michigan. It’s an assault against the state of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) that supervise research on human subjects.

From an interview with Inside Higher Ed:

Good regulation is accountable, but IRBs are effectively answerable to nobody. Good regulation has clearly defined jurisdictional limits, but IRBs may intervene as they wish. Good regulation is guided by clear rules, but IRBs have little more than empty principles. Good regulation is disciplined by fair procedures, but IRBs can ignore every fundamental precept of due process. Good regulation is transparent, but IRBs need not even explain — much less justify — their decisions. Good regulation is staffed by experts, but IRB members cannot be competent in all the specialties they regulate. Good regulation has manageable workloads, but IRBs regulate more details of more research in more ways than they can review responsibly, and they have steadily broadened and intensified their hold over research.

In short, the IRB system makes unreliable decisions because it is lawless and unaccountable, because its organization, procedures, membership and imperialism are so inappropriate. The problem is not regulation, it is bad regulation.

They are good points. The fact that I thought twice about posting this, for fear it could offend the authorities, might be evidence  in favor of his argument. “Keep your IRB happy” is one of the main things I teach my students, because your career can depend on it.

Even so, Schneider goes much too far when, later, he says, “Nor is there good evidence that IRBs actually improve research or protect its subjects.”

I agree that my human subject experiences seem more and more like lawsuit protection, focusing on risk mitigation for the University rather than the research subjects. At the same time, I see colleagues and students intent on ethical infractions, usually minor, all the time. Colleagues of mine have also had their computers seized by autocratic police, and the encryption pushed on them by the IRB was the only thing that saved their subjects’ privacy and safety.

Nonetheless, I agree: the bureaucracy is broken. A couple of weeks ago I was getting my haircut a few blocks away from campus. The daunting prospect of getting a simple human subjects approval and a data collection contract in two months had weighed on me all day, and I’d spent the afternoon banging my head against a bureaucratic wall. Purchasing, lawyers, and project management at Columbia are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. When my haircutter asked how I was doing, I replied honestly: the Columbia bureaucracy was getting me down. He started laughing. “You’re the third person to say that to me this week!” he replied.

So some places are worse than others.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Dean Karlan, Esther Duflo and many others will be at the World Bank Thursday AM, streaming live here from 9AM to 12:45PM (Washington, DC time). They’ll be talking about the new results in Science on the programs for the ultra-poor, and what’s next for scaling up.
  • The New York Times Magazine has an interesting feature on a Russian agency devoted to creating and planting hoax news stories in the U.S., and trolling other internet targets.
  • What’s worse than Ebola and keeps Bill Gates up at night? Pandemic flu. According to a simulation run by his foundation, if a flu strain like the 1918 Spanish flu appeared today, given modern travel patterns, it would be in every major city within 60 days, and by 250 days would have killed 33 million people. That also means that low spending on health in developing countries is everybody’s problem.
  • As if to underscore his point, one business traveler brought Middle East Respiratory Syndrome back with him to South Korea, where it seems to have spread rapidly. Currently at least two people are dead, 700-1300 people are under quarantine, 200 schools are closed preventatively, and at least one other infected person brought it from there to China, where nurses reportedly held a lottery to see who would have to treat the patient.
  • Income smoothing isn’t just for the poor, according to a new paper by Carlson, Kim, Lusardi, & Camerer. Despite earning an average of $3.2 million, 15 percent of U.S. football players declare bankruptcy by the time they’ve been out of the league for 12 years. Effects are independent of how long they played or how much they made, and the bankruptcies start almost immediately on retirement.

And, France’s ambassador to Cameroon wins at podiums:


(via the Embassy’s Facebook page)

Who is a New Yorker?

The dreamers simply outbid us for our New York, and in the process, they created a city we no longer loved quite so much. This is apt to make such musings hard reading for us.

…I do not mean to insult you, Non-Native New Yorker. I am sure you are a very fine and authentic person, doing many authentic things in that fourth-floor walk-up you struggled so many years to achieve. But I have to be honest: To us, most of you will never be New Yorkers. You just don’t have it in you.

Real New Yorker status can be acquired. Both my parents had it, though it probably took them decades. I know others, scattered here and there. But it cannot be acquired by reading Joan Didion and investing all of your adolescent angst in a few square miles of concrete. It cannot be acquired by going to awesome, funky bars that are totally different from the ones at home and meeting a heroin addict bartender/freelance sex worker who wears cowboy hats and Doc Martens and quotes Allen Ginsburg while the two of you smoke cigarettes underneath the High Line. It is not displayed by your encyclopedic knowledge of the best places to buy exotic foodstuffs.

That is Meg McArdle ruminating on her past life as a New Yorker. Superb essay.

Is the single best anti-crime investment behavioral therapy?

As in Liberia, in Chicago? Further evidence that behavioral therapy focused on emotional regulation, impulse control, planfulness, social skills, and positive self-image can have large effects on crime and violence. Mainly, it seems in many cases, through emotional regulation and impulse control.

This paper describes how automatic behavior can drive disparities in youth outcomes like delinquency and dropout. We suggest that people often respond to situations without conscious deliberation.

While generally adaptive, these automatic responses are sometimes deployed in situations where they are ill-suited. Although this is equally true for all youths, disadvantaged youths face greater situational variability. This increases the likelihood that automaticity will lead to negative outcomes. This hypothesis suggests that interventions that reduce automaticity can lead to positive outcomes for disadvantaged youths.

We test this hypothesis by presenting the results of three large-scale randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of interventions carried out on the south and west sides of Chicago that seek to improve the outcomes of low-income youth by teaching them to be less automatic.

Two of our RCTs test a program called Becoming a Man (BAM) developed by Chicago-area non-profit Youth Guidance; the first, carried out in 2009-10, shows participation improved schooling outcomes and reduced violent-crime arrests by 44%, while the second RCT in 2013-14 showed participation reduced overall arrests by 31%. The third RCT was carried out in the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) in 2009-11 and shows reductions in return rates of 22%.

We also present results from various survey measures suggesting the results do not appear to be due to changes in mechanisms like emotional intelligence or self-control. On the other hand results from some decision-making exercises we carried out seem to support reduced automaticity as a key mechanism.

A new paper by Heller, Shah, Guryan, Ludwig, Mullainathan, and Pollack.

Sorry but I do not know of an ungated copy. But a summary is here.

Research positions at the IRC

Following in my tradition of posting job announcements only on behalf of people that marry me, I present several new positions in the International Rescue Committee’s research department. It is growing, it’s the center of impact of evaluation in the humanitarian sphere, and you will have a great boss.

  1. R&D Director
  2. Deputy Director, Evidence to Action
  3. Deputy Director, Research
  4. Grants and Finance Coordinator
  5. Policy and Communications officer