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Will Aid Escalation Finally Crash in the Mountains of Afghanistan?

There has been a remarkable escalation in the scale and intrusiveness of aid interventions over the years (this was one of the major conclusions of my survey paper on aid to Africa).

It seems to be reaching the reductio al absurdum in the current debate on whether to escalate US intervention in Afghanistan.

Let’s review the record:

Aid Phase Objective Outcome Time Period
Projects to improve infrastructure, health, education Improvements in clean water, child mortality, school attendance, and literacy Partial success 60s, 70s
Structural adjustment lending to fix economic policies Change national economic policies to be pro-market and pro-development Failure 80s
Institutional reforms Clean up corruption and democratize Mostly failure 90s
Fixing failed states, combining aid and military intervention Peace/ Development/ Democracy Failure 2000s

A few questions about this record:

(1) Why did aid change after partial success?
(2) Why did aid try to do something more ambitious after a less ambitious effort failed?
(3) Was there good evidence (or any evidence) to support each phase of escalation?
(4) Is aid going to keep escalating, like say in Afghanistan?
(5) Should the well-documented aid failures in Afghanistan (see recent stories in the FT and the New York Times) sound the alarm about aid escalation?
(6) Would it be better to do less ambitious things that work rather than extremely ambitious things that don’t work?

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7 Comments

  1. That chart is a joke, right?

    Posted October 23, 2009 at 1:00 am | Permalink
  2. I have a problem with the equation of changing the direction of aid with an ‘escalation’. I’m not sure aid has escalated. One of the many facts Moyo got wrong in Dead Aid is that aid volumes have been secularly increasing.

    As for the intrusiveness, dead wrong. Structural adjustment was the height of blunt conditionality and intrusion in aid. New aid modalities and approaches are attempting to become less intrusive. We can say a lot about how they fail and what more they should be doing, as I do on a daily basis in my job. But the fact remains that there are more aid modalities that attempt to avoid distortion of developing country poverty now than there were 20 years ago. They’re not perfect, but they are at least there to improve.

    And finally, small interventions that work are fine. But what ‘works’ depends on your definition. Is immediate impact ok? I think only for humanitarian crises. I don’t agree with the use of money and expertise for development activities unless we at least try to aim for a five-ten year impact, things that remain useful or leave a lasting impact. That means two things: 1) evaluating project / activity impact well after the project has finished; and 2) working at the same time to increase the revenue generating capacity of local Governments or NGOs or whoever, so they can take over the useful activities using their own funds.

    Posted October 23, 2009 at 3:04 am | Permalink
  3. Matt wrote:

    While they represent a sizable hunk of “aid”, can you really let 3 policy outliers (Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia) define the 2000s as the “Fixing failed states, combining aid and military intervention” aid phase? Or is this only US aid?

    Posted October 23, 2009 at 5:34 am | Permalink
  4. Jim wrote:

    Structural adjustment really had very little to do with aid.

    Posted October 23, 2009 at 7:05 am | Permalink
  5. geckonomist wrote:

    Extrapolating this line of thinking would result by 2033-2045 that aid and politics will promote war and genocide, in order to achieve higher income per capita.

    After that a Marshall plan can be wriiten to improve infrastructure, health and education.

    Sounds familiar.

    Posted October 23, 2009 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  6. Neville wrote:

    Ironically the terminus, proceeding along this line of increasingly coercive interventions is indistinguishable from colonialism (for their own good, of course). Someday the do-gooders will wake up to this reality.

    Posted October 23, 2009 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  7. nadeem haque wrote:

    Bill I agree with you aid has escalated to the point of absurd. It is stifling the child. Aid consultants are everywhere doing everything. Locals are now seen as incapable of doing anything and are responding with letting all systems erode.

    Why has it happened?

    Very simple! Aid bureaucracies are large, growing and unaccountable. Aid functionary does the report and advising and gets rewarded for cute stories and clever while all failure is the responsibility of the idiot governments. Meanwhile aid functionary lives on a tax free salary in some poor country in a mansion with a number of servants.

    Not to forget the many conferences at beautiful locales where nest to nothing is discussed except jargon and stories of how lovely the innocent babies are.

    I apologize to the few well meaning people who are trying to make a difference. But much of aid establishment is the way i describe it. A bureaucracy out to expand its empire! A bureaucracy that has no accountability and is really quite corrupt.

    I think that this needs a serious unemotional debate but no one wants to have it and the aid Establishment is too powerful to allow it.

    Posted October 24, 2009 at 10:19 am | Permalink

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    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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