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Sometimes it IS about the money

There’s widespread agreement that more aid and more NGO donations are not a simplistic panacea to solve development problems. Judith Tendler  35 years ago wrote about the paradoxical phenomenon of aid abundance, in which donor agencies have trouble finding enough ways spending the money they already have; it’s still true today.

Yet things look very different at the other end of the aid delivery system. During a July trip to northern Ghana, I talked to a community leader in a  small farming hamlet outside of Bolgatanga, Ghana about availability of bed nets. The nets are working to prevent malaria for those who sleep under them, he says, but the town does not have enough nets to go around. “Everybody cannot sleep under one net,” he says.

When you reach the end of the road, it IS about the money. More money that reaches the end of the road means more malaria nets, fewer cases of malaria, fewer tragic deaths. The debate has never been about THAT,  it is about WHETHER the money reaches the end of the road.

So it comes to how likely it is that different official aid agencies and NGOs are to make the money reach the end of the road. This is a bit different than whether different aid interventions “work” according to randomized evaluation (RE). Even if the interventions pass the RE test, how do you know that one hundred additional dollars given to one particular agency will translate into additional interventions? 

My visits in northern Ghana were with local volunteers from the international NGO Nets for Life . Their basic idea is to use the trustworthy network of the Anglican church, including  local bishops, priests, and church workers to deliver the life-saving bed nets. I have been involved with Nets for Life at both ends now: both in board meetings in New York and at the receiving end in northern Ghana. I can’t claim to have performed any kind of systematic evaluation of Nets for Life, and even if I had, it would hardly be cost effective to for every concerned individual to perform their own time-consuming and costly evaluation of every small NGO program.  We need a much better system for identifying who is doing better reaching the end of the road, where it IS about how much money the agency can raise. 

Until then, I have a very favorable opinion of Nets for Life, based on hearing about their mode of operation, seeing them in action in the field in visits to their intended beneficiaries in northern Ghana,  and also based on the impressive attitudes, knowledge and dedication of everyone I have met involved with Nets for Life.

So to bring closer the day when we know more about NGOs, get to know your NGO as well as you can, using every method possible, and share the information you collect with other actual and potential donors to that NGO (which is what I am doing in this post).  Again, this is all to assess the essential question: do donations reach the end of the road?

If the answer is yes, then yes it really IS about the money.

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  1. I would like to know what Aidwatchers thinks about the African (including Ghana, Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria) money making opportunities that are being investigated using moringa as described in the “Trees for Life moringa blog” at I am trying a similar activity in Colombia (see

    Posted December 20, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Permalink
  2. Quicksilversurfer wrote:

    Without disrespect, How many people already involved with an organization think that THEIR organization is doing a good job and producing results? I would guess around 100%… Is it an issue of preselection?

    Posted December 20, 2010 at 7:50 pm | Permalink
  3. Quicksilversurfer wrote:

    But the essential question is correct…

    Posted December 20, 2010 at 7:51 pm | Permalink
  4. Quicksilversurfer wrote:

    —with a qualifier: Did it produce change? or is it just a substitution?

    Posted December 20, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  5. geckonomist wrote:

    If you and Ms. Frescchi wouldn’t be so active in denying these people from receiving free shoes and shirts (“nobody needs your old …”),
    these people might have enough of their own money left to buy bednets!!

    Am so happy that a church network is involved: an excellent opportunity to distribute some more bibles!

    Posted December 21, 2010 at 4:10 am | Permalink
  6. oz wrote:

    “get to know your NGO as well as you can.” But what if the layman just cannot have the sufficient knowledge to know what is likely to “reach the end of the road?” It can be something that requires quite a bit of background knowledge on good development and NGO practices doesn’t it? Can the layman acquire all this before making a donation?

    Posted December 21, 2010 at 6:02 am | Permalink
  7. Peter Moon wrote:

    I guess if you can completely saturate the market with bednets (universal access, no point in reselling them, or using the only net avaivable to the family for yourself, no replacement issues), could bed-nets be defined as a “military”, top-down, tecnhocratic, logistical, large scale social engineering, straightforward issue that even bureaucratic planners could manage? (provided they are held accountable).

    Would be useful to provide a better definition of what makes an intervention “all about the money” (and thus technocratic, it seems). Bednet “experts” would argue that in bednet behavioural factors still play an important role.

    That’s even the case for seemingly straightforward issues, like vaccination campaigns (Duflo), Deworming (Kremer), latrines (Kamal Kar), Soap for washing hands (Valerie Curtis) etc etc.

    This post has puzzled me (reg your point of view)


    Posted December 21, 2010 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  8. Andy wrote:

    Until I read this, I had no idea you agreed with Sachs.

    Posted December 21, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  9. Peter Moon wrote:

    Exactly Andy – – Confusing

    Posted December 21, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink
  10. Quicksilversurfer wrote:

    @Andy and Peter Moon
    I do not think that there is agreement with Sachs. Easterly clearly puts a condition for money to matte, an IF (whether that condition can be met realistically by donors like you or me is a different issue) while Sachs posits that money IS the solution.

    Posted December 21, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  11. Bill Easterly wrote:

    Andy and Peter,

    yes, Quicksilversurfer, you got it right, thank you.

    My point is that when you reach the end of the road, you CAN identify SOME local problems to which money IS the answer.

    The difficulty is finding them from the center.

    And even if you could find a lot of them, they would still not add up to Aid being the Solution to Development, because neither theory nor past experience is compatible with that view. Aid would in in that case solve a bunch of local problems, while leaving many other problems unsolved.

    Those other problems will only be solved by a home grown problem-solving system (drawing on democratic and market principles) that emerges without expert direction or planning.

    And yes, I still do emphatically disagree with the technocratic view of a “solution to development.”

    Does that clarify things sufficiently? thanks for your comments.

    best, Bill

    Posted December 21, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  12. Peter Moon wrote:

    OK, Yes, thank you.

    90% of the NGO’s fundraising branches in high income countries claim that all ‘their’ problem needs is money (they are supposedly all money-IS issues).

    Must be frustrating that the one time you’re positive you are compared with Sach – (well not really – mistake). Indeed, next blog about succesful NGOs we’d probably like to see some evidence…

    Keep it up.

    Posted December 21, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  13. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    I have to express my surprise at this post in spite of your clarifications. Yes sometimes for some issues it is about the money reaching the right people. However, who is to say this should be the primary criteria by which we judge NGO’s? This would mean all NGO’s should operate as perpetual relief agencies and the best ones (assuming we can solve the knowledge problem you allude to) would be efficient at delivering free nets, services, aid to the poor people at the end of the road. While I certainly don’t condemn this approach, I do know that it is sometimes (often?) counterproductive. Even as relief NGO’s do a lot to improve the quality of life among the poor, they may be undermining indigenous government and market systems that would provide a more sustainable solution. NGO’s can and should also play a role in supporting those democratic and market principles that provide the better solution.

    Posted December 22, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  14. geckonomist wrote:

    Strange that people mention accountability: if there is one thing that Prof. Easterly et al. is not, it is being accountable for his/their misguided behaviour.
    They do not want to be held accountable for their own actions, i.e. they never compensated all those people that did not get free shoes and T-shirts…
    And if the money for bednets turns out to be wasted, i.e. does not bring economic growth to Northern Ghana, Prof. Easterly will NOT be held accountable, after all, all he did was “to have a favorable opinion”.

    Posted December 23, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  15. fundamentalist wrote:

    When famine struck Mali in the 1980’s (I think), the Mali government as the International Mission Board missionaries of the Southern Baptist Convention to have their people in country distribute food aid. Of course, there were only about 6 IMF people in country, so they delegated the task to churches and let the churches determine who would receive aid and how. Everyone but the thugs and criminals were very happy with the results.

    Posted December 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  16. Robert Tulip wrote:

    Surely output based aid can be applied to malaria prevention? If a donor would pay for certified malaria reduction, and if bed nets are the best way to reduce malaria, then NGOs should be able to combine with local businesses to utilise donor subsidies for a market oriented approach to supply nets.

    Posted December 29, 2010 at 4:36 pm | 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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