The other Clinton, on development strategies

Over at Foreign Policy, Bill Easterly comments on Hillary’s big development speech yesterday. His basic conclusion: mostly meandering babble, but it’s not her fault.

One bit I liked: his comparison of Clinton 2010 (paraphrased: “we need more aid coordination and  reform of aid institutions in Washington”) to Truman 1949 (“we need more aid coordination and  reform of aid institutions in Washington”).

I think you could find the same statement in almost every major Washington development speech of the last half century.

I’m really no politico, but let me tell you my gut on this: if you really wanted to waste your time the next two years you would start talking about reforming aid architecture.

Navel gazing is not a development strategy. Coordination is the impulse of bureaucrats.

What would I do? I would stop trying to export the Patriot Act and take the long view: use what levers we have to strengthen oppositions (even the ones we don’t like), encourage more institutional checks and balances in centralized governments (i.e. almost every developing nation), and foster medium and large firms in foreign places. I think those are good bets for long term peace, security and growth.

There you have it: two years of foreign policy and aid advice for free, based on approximately five minutes of reflection. You get what you pay for, folks.

(Note: in the unlikely event you have real power and read this blog, please disregard all advice you receive. Do not, I repeat, do not try this at home.)

8 thoughts on “The other Clinton, on development strategies

  1. I’m an econ post-grad supposedly studying aid, and I really have nobody to blame for the deficiencies in my own knowledge other than myself, but recently I have become increasingly worried that as much as I have played around with macro aid data and read lots and lots of papers on aid, I know next to nothing about what aid has actually done, in the sense of what did the donors attempt and what did they actually get done? Did donors try to build lots of hospitals in Kenya? Did Tanzania have a massive aid funded road building program? Did donors pay half the government’s wage bill for a decade in Mali? I wish I knew more about the scale and scope of what has been attempted over the years …. if anybody could point me to books/papers where I could start finding out, I would be extremely appreciative.

    My knowledge of “what China is doing in Africa” is limited to various bits of journalism (I ought to read Deborah Brautigam’s new book) but if the impression I have gained from these reports is accurate, it strikes me that regardless of donor coordination etc. China is getting on and doing things on a big scale.

    Have Western donors ever attempted things on such a grand scale? Have Western donors ever tried to build roads, railways, power generation, docks etc. in the same way as (I think) China is now doing? If so, when and where and what happened?

  2. “I’m really no politico, but let me tell you my gut on this: if you really wanted to waste your time the next two years you would start talking about reforming aid architecture.

    Navel gazing is not a development strategy. Coordination is the impulse of bureaucrats
    What would I do? I would stop trying to export the Patriot Act and take the long view: use what levers we have to strengthen oppositions (even the ones we don’t like), encourage more institutional checks and balances in centralized governments (i.e. almost every developing nation), and foster medium and large firms in foreign places. I think those are good bets for long term peace, security and growth.”

    Your critique of the current US approach to assistance – that it misunderstands effective political and governance development, that it pays inadequate attention to private sector growth, and that it is excessively driven by US political/security objectives – is reasonable, and is in fact widely shared in Washington. Your argument boils down to – architectural reform is a waste of time if the underlying theory is unsound. But resolving these challenges is inseparable from the architecture question. Sound theory is useless if implemented through flawed architecture. And there can be no doubt that the current structure is deeply, irremediably flawed: http://www.brookings.edu/global/foreign_reform_chart.pdf

    Will fixing this system be a lengthy, difficult process? Yes. Does it therefore follow that to try would be a waste of time? No.

    PS – Your dismissive comment that “Coordination is the impulse of bureaucrats” is no more than an unfair ad hominem that casts bureaucrats as some misguided sub-class. This is a taunt, not an argument.

  3. I’m glad for your disclaimer, Chris!

    As someone who works on aid effectiveness professionally, I can say with great certainty that even if coordination is an impulse of bureaucrats it will contribute to the reduction of millions of dollars of waste – in each country it works in. Spend a year or two studying the aid portfolio of a country, say Liberia, which you know well. After that time, tally up how many projects have precisely or largely duplicated other projects, and how many have attempted things that have happened before.

    You’ll be amazed at how much money you’d free up for useful new things when you eradicate that.

    After that, count up how much money gets spent per sector and plot it in a graph. To give you an example from work I did – in 2007/08 Malawi got 30% of non-budget support aid to Health and 1.3% for Private Sector Development, 1.4% for Vulnerability, Disaster and Risk Management and 0.2% for Energy and Mining.

    Doesn’t strike one as an effective balance of resources does it? Well, it mainly comes from donors scrambling over one another trying to find something in Health, Education and Economic Governance (audit and the like) to fund.

    Malawi is taking aid coordination very seriously now, and I’m doing similar work in Tz and Zanzibar to try and assess the scale of the problem here. Again, I expect we’ll identify huge potential gains.

  4. I would like to support your claim on coordination. Coordination has become a goal in itself, not a means for getting better results. Aid is more evaluated on the measure of coordination than on the measure of results for the beneficiaries. I am not talking about the recipient who coordinates on what he accepts, I am talking about the donors pushing evermore coordination and joint efforts and trust funds. I remember a discussion at the UN where the a donor was pushing language like: ” more joint projects BECAUSE they are more efficient” the following days were spent by other UN member states trying to change the because in ” when” or ” if”. Everybody who has worked in the field knows that clear responsibilities are more efficient than mixed up management setups. Meanwhile the indicators for “aid efficiency” in humanitarian aid contain more on the amount spent on coordination than on the results of all the aid. A good overlap means that the recipient gets twice what was promised. Spending on coordination alone means he gets nothing.

  5. That’s a good point. Probably I would rephrase to “coordination is a bureaucratic impulse” if I had to rewrite the post. This is not to say that bureaucrats are necessarily bureaucratic, only that there are institutional incentives and imperatives to coordinate and control and avoid duplication, when what may be need is competition and messiness and creative destruction in the process of aid and governing.

  6. Sam, normally that ‘good overlap’ means another potential recipient gets nothing. Sure we shouldn’t spend on coordination to obscene levels, but actually, pursuing coordination costs virtually nothing, just a bit of time and effort to align planning processes.

    BTW coordination doesn’t mean joint projects per se, but that whatever actions are being undertaken are rationally allocated and prioritized. I have difficulty understanding why anyone would argue this isn’t a good thing?

  7. As an aid skeptic skeptic, may I propose that the cyncism over resolution to reform aid is partially motivated by aid skeptics’ fear that actual reform might make the object of their derision slightly less derisible?