Tuesday, December 9, 2008

When a good will isn't good enough

The American and British economies delivered nine million copies of the sixth Harry Potter book…in one day. Over the past almost sixty years, the ‘West’ has spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid, yet (among a myriad of problems) it can’t quite manage to deliver twelve-cent anti-malarial meds to the children of the ‘rest’ of the world (Easterly 4). Imagine the chaos if millions of crazed Harry Potter fans had to wait sixty years to get their copies.

In Globalization, Manfred Steger outlines the cultural, political, and economic dimensions of globalization and illustrates how this phenomenon has unevenly benefited the ‘North’ at the expense of the ‘South’. According to data from the World Bank, the income gap between countries has become drastically more pronounced since the ‘onset’ of globalization in 1973 (Steger 104).

With $2.3 trillion allocated to international aid, and arguably more global awareness as a result of increased technology, why have previous aid initiatives proven unsuccessful (in terms of the economic gap between countries)? In general, I don’t think this failure reflects a lack of good intentions on the part of aid agencies or donors. Is this a valid excuse for ineptitude, though?

William Easterly, a development economist and former employee of the World Bank, criticizes the top-down approach to foreign aid in his book The White Man’s Burden. He separates people into two categories: Planners and Searchers. Planners, he says, are people who apply universal blueprints in an attempt to formulaically solve issues like poverty from a distance. Searchers, on the other hand, employ a bottom-up approach and tend to favor small-scale, homegrown projects in an attempt to solve particular problems. Easterly’s criticism of the Planner is summed up nicely in the following passage:

“Setting a prefixed (and grandiose) goal is irrational because there is no reason to assume that the goal is attainable and at a reasonable cost with the available means. It doesn’t make sense to have the goal that your cow will win the Kentucky Derby. No amount of expert training will create a Derby-winning race cow. It makes much more sense to ask, ‘What useful things can a cow do?’ A cow can nicely feed a family with a steady supply of milk, butter, cheese, and (unfortunately for the cow) beef” (Easterly 11).

Sixty years later, and aid agencies are still pouring money into that hope of a “Derby-winning race cow.”

According to Kant, the good will is the only thing that is absolutely, unconditionally good. It doesn’t matter if the action produced by the will is beneficial or not – as long as the intention behind it was good. The problem with such a mentality is that it takes away the sense of accountability when aid agencies need to be held more accountable for their results.


MVP said...

I agree with you. I think the sentiment is "throw money at it, it'll go away." Which in the end doesn't work because you still have a lot more money than the people you're throwing money at. I'm not advocating a redistribution of wealth here, I know economically it's not a very sound principle (it messes with markets, for one thing) but I understand that we can still minimize the gap between the rich and poor with little cost to the rich.

This also ties into human rights. Does everyone have the right to medical care? Ideally, yes. Realistically, no. It's just not possible or probable.

John Duncan said...

I think part of the reason that our government takes a "planners" approach is due to politics. If you went out and told people that you "wanted to help the global effort to stop [fill in the blank] from the ground up with small projects that might have long-term effects" no one would go for it. You have to put your plan out there and make it sound amazing: "we need to cure aids, this week". Is this an attainable goal? of course not. But, I don't see many small scale projects getting funding.

I think you are right that the best way for foreign aid to work is with small projects - I am just not sure that your goal is attainable, either.

EJ said...

I agree also with the statement that most of the time, people try to use more money and it fails. Something that perhaps could work better would be to use people then just money and assume it will make it to the places it needs too. If we were use people who cared and would approach the situations with caution it might just help get some things done. But here we have to worry about who we send and where and how many.