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Skepticism Takes the Day Off

When you see men voluntarily breaking rocks in the hot sun to build their village’s community center, you think they must really want it. I saw this on a visit to a project by The Hunger Project in the Eastern Region of Ghana. The Hunger Project believes in people helping themselves.


Sure the skeptic would naturally seek more systematic and rigorous evaluation, and could think of plenty of things that can go wrong in any aid project. But let’s give skepticism the day off and salute the people who work so hard to help themselves and those who help them do so, against tough odds.

A salute to Dr. Naana Agyemang-Mensah, the hard-driving Director of the Hunger Project-Ghana, who works long hours to mobilize communities to help themselves. To the midwife in the birthing room in the completed community center, who lowers the mortality risk for mother and baby. To the microcredit bank in the community center, who gives loans to the members and makes sure they repay. To the food bank volunteers, who store food for the hungry season until the harvest.

Another salute to Professor George Ayiteey, whose Free Africa Foundation distributes insecticide-treated bed nets to the dusty remote villages I visited today. To G.B.K. Owusu, the local coordinator, who follows up with the chiefs and residents of each village to make sure the nets are reaching them (see net in use below).


And finally, once again to the men at work in the hot sun to build their own community center – a better image for aid than the stereotypical helpless child.

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  1. Fred wrote:

    Should we not be skeptic about aid impacts only when it comes to relatively small NGOs?

    Why not also leave skepticism behind when it comes to aid impacts of World bank projects?

    Is this a double standard?

    Most aid projects have some positive impact on the ground, at least in a partial equilibrium sense, so we can always have a nice picture.

    For an NGO focused on fighting hunger, I have yet to find a single statistic in the THP website detailing how malnutrition prevalence changed after their interventions. Nor do their resource allocations seem particularly geared to ending hunger.

    “Oh!, but it must be working, look at the picture, people helping themselves, a health clinic. Surely this must be good!” I hear some say.

    Time for a litmus test: after five years, if support from THP collapses, Will the avowedly improved welfare levels remain? Will the collective action problem remained solved? Will the services be self-financing form the community’s productive activities?

    Beware of the picture fallacy. When the World bank says it has delivered $10M in bed nets to a community in a boring 600 page report, we all throw our arms up in the air claiming output, not input measurement. Meanwhile, when an NGO delivers said nets, but post some pictures on its website rather than produce a massive report, voila, the input is the output. Why question it?

    Images speak louder than words (caveat emptor)

    Posted April 7, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink
  2. nick gogerty wrote:

    nice to see positive images of people working, contributing and acting for the longer term. Bill, just curious do you interact or have any opinions on architecture for humanity They seem to go with a nice local approach to things and think things through.

    Posted April 7, 2009 at 7:05 pm | Permalink
  3. Rachel Strohm wrote:

    Well, actually Innovations for Poverty Action is evaluating THP:, search for THP.

    Posted April 8, 2009 at 4:08 am | Permalink
  4. And finally, once again to the men at work in the hot sun to build their own community center – a better image for aid than the stereotypical helpless child.

    I agree. It changes the point of view for aid.

    Then again, as Fred says, this is just a symbol, not an acceptable depiction of results by any NGO.

    Posted April 8, 2009 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  5. mister z wrote:

    FFS people, W.E. said the purpose of posting the picture was merely to “salute the people who work so hard to help themselves and those who help them do so.” Give it a rest.

    Now, let’s see this picture juxtaposed with the picture of the Washington/Brussels lobbyists at work, whose efforts to prevent agricultural subsidy reform, prevents so many Africans from *trading* their way out of poverty.

    Posted April 8, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink
  6. Fred wrote:



    I looked it up and indeed they are being evaluated!

    The fact that THP submits itself to a rigorous evaluation is very encouraging, and sends a very strong signal about them.


    Posted April 8, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Permalink
  7. Calle wrote:

    Fred: I totally agree with you, double standards it is.

    Also, for me it seems like this is Easterly’s first meeting with this kind of aid projects! Small-scale projects is what the NGOs do. For me a simple five-time-visits-to-Africa PhD student, it has been known for a long time. Double standards and lack of local level knowledge, my appreciation of Easterly is decreasing.

    Posted April 9, 2009 at 2:00 am | Permalink
  8. Dr. Easterly,

    Thanks for sharing this story. I realize there was probably more happening than even what the picture shows. It’s exciting for me to think about partnership and empowerment like what seems to be happening here.

    Posted April 9, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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