One of the oldest ideas in economics is gains from specialization. Adam Smith talked about it 233 years ago. All of us are good at a small number of things and suck at most everything else. The economy as a whole produces more because we each specialize in what we do best and then trade with everyone else.
We see Beyoncé specializing in music videos, which she trades to Bill Gates for his specialized production of software. We will get more of both music videos and software from Beyoncé and Gates than if each (without the possibility of trade) had been forced to supply their own needs for software and music videos.
Beyoncé would be forced to take time away from videos to try to figure out her own software, and Gates would have to divert time from software to learning how to sing and dance in a swimsuit.
Economists are often congratulated for their impressive grasp of the obvious. Yet if this principle is so obvious, why is it routinely violated in the aid world? It’s gotten worse with the Millennium Development Goals. Each aid organization tries to meet all MDGs and each fails to specialize. Therefore some aid agencies are forced to supply things they are bad at – the equivalent of Gates’ music videos – for which there is no demand.
UNICEF is working on swine flu, the traditional province of WHO, who is distracted by trying to do development research, which is the traditional specialty of the World Bank, who is in turn distracted by a new emphasis on children, which is the strength of – just to complete the circle – UNICEF.
Even very small aid agencies fail to specialize – Luxembourg’s $141 million aid budget was divided among 30 different sectors (out of a possible 37). The tiny Luxembourg budget also went to 87 different countries.
With high overhead costs for each separate activity for each country, the ratio of overhead costs to funds for the activity gets extremely high, sometimes over 100 percent. UNDP has one of the very LEAST specialized aid budgets by country and by sector, and it actually does have a ratio of overhead costs to aid disbursed of 129%.
One suspects overhead costs devoured even more of program costs for the $20,000 Greece spent on worldwide post-secondary education, the $30,000 the Netherlands spent on promoting worldwide tourism to developing countries, the $5,000 Denmark spent on worldwide emergency food aid, or the $30,000 Luxembourg spent on conflict, peace, and security. (Remember, these small sums may have been split even further among country recipients.)
One could think of many political economy reasons why aid agencies resist specialization. From my casual experience in a large bureaucracy (the World Bank), the primeval bureaucratic instinct is to give a tiny piece of the pie to every possible lobby group (internal or external). But what’s most clear is that it shows aid agencies lack of accountability, because it is such a wasteful practice that also drives the aid recipients crazy with duplication of efforts by every aid agency in every sector in every country.
So please, aid agencies, go back to Adam Smith, and try to capture some of those enormous gains from specialization. And NGOs, kudos for doing a much better job than official aid at specializing at what you do best, and please resist pressures to have a piece of everything.