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How is the aid industry like a piano recital? A defense of aid

In 1991, India faced a looming balance of payments crisis. India’s leaders responded, making what are now generally agreed to be some very good decisions: they devalued the exchange rate and instituted a systematic set of economic reforms that lowered high trade barriers and eliminated repressive internal regulations, helping to dismantle India’s notorious license-permit Raj. These reforms averted what might have been years of stagnation or slow growth (avoiding the fate of a Mexico or a Brazil in the 1980s). The reforms also paved the way for the next decade and a half of accelerated growth, and helped some 300 million people escape extreme, grinding poverty.

Lant Pritchett, Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School for Government, argues that the aid industry deserves credit for these reforms and the associated huge improvement in human well-being, but not quite in the way you might expect.

It wasn’t that the World Bank and the IMF required India to make those reforms through conditionality. Instead, Pritchett says, it was the existence of a broad, international movement called “Development,” and an industry called “Aid” that created the conditions for Indian leaders to act as they did.

How so? First, many policy makers involved in India’s reforms spent their early careers working abroad for multilaterals, gaining exposure to ideas not prevalent in India at the time, and gaining experience watching these ideas either work or crash and burn in countries around the world.

Second, the aid industry funds the thousands upon thousands of obscure, detailed economics papers and studies that make up the knowledge base of the movement called Development. Without the painstaking work behind those studies, the movement of Development would never have a chance at producing those rare, brilliant insights with the power to transform hundreds of millions of lives.

To produce those fortuitous moments of brilliance, where the right policy meets the right person and the right opportunity, the movement called Development has to have the depth and breadth within it to produce detailed technical knowledge on a million different topics from tariff codes in India, to migrant remittances in Spain, to firm governance in Korea. Here’s where the piano recital part comes in:

I see the aid industry a lot like a piano recital. It’s kind of boring and it’s tedious and most of the people are wasting their time. But every now and again by God we make a difference and when we do make a difference it really transforms economies and lives for a very long time….

Any movement, be it development or classical music, has to maintain its core.  Music has thousands of young aspiring pianists performing bad recitals that no one but their parents want to hear, all for the purpose of producing just one virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz or one innovative Philip Glass. Aid projects that can’t demonstrate impact and economics papers read by an audience of ten are the development movement’s equivalent of a million and one timid and dissonant renditions of Für Elise performed in student piano recitals the world over. But they are the core that allows for the possibility of “transformational excellence” in a movement.

For Pritchett, what aid does best is to “form the base of the pyramid that creates the possibility of the top.” And the power of successes in development—the rare policy insight, or the competent handling of a potentially disastrous crisis—is so great, and has the power to transform so many lives, that those successes justify the existence of the whole flawed movement, many times over.

Agreements or counter-arguments, anyone?

You can watch Lant Pritchett’s full presentation from the 2010 DRI annual conference, in which he argues this case much more skillfully (and employing other entertaining metaphors), in the audio slideshow below. The audio file of the Q&A following the talk is also posted.

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  1. Scott wrote:

    The claim that poverty has been reduced by 300 million, as this blog has noted with the case of global poverty measurement, is contestable. During the same period, hunger has not decreased. In fact, it may have increased slightly. This is partially an aside to the claims he is making, but is relevant if he is accepting as true the premise that the policies implemented were good and had poverty reducing impacts.

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 7:20 am | Permalink
  2. Manuel Chávez wrote:

    I agree with Lant, just I wonder why he put himself in the place of the listener and not of the pianist. A very interesting question (one I’m actually trying to answer on my Ph.D, disseration) is why the mediocre pianist continue playing and giving recitals. Is that she/he belives that she/he could become the next Horowitz/Glass? is that she/he knows that playing the piano (not matter how bad she/he does that cointributes for the next Horowitz/Glass to emerge? is just that the pianist enjoys doing that? is something else?

    in the video: me playing the paino . . .
    Encuentra más videos como éste en A LEER

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  3. A nice paean to development, but the Chinese and other East Asians want to know: “What’s the aid industry got to do with it?” Perhaps it’s time to (re)read Hirschman about development activities in a world with nothing like today’s aid industry.

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  4. Anne wrote:

    I thought this was great – it’s 53 min so I guess that’s why not many people have commented. Worth the listen for sure.

    Loved the isomorphic mimicry bit vs. real functionality. Also the coke bubbles – that can also be applied to aid criticism too – if it doesn’t touch levers to change the whole system – they too are effervescent.

    Not sure why the crowd would laugh at Mother Theresa…she wasn’t trying to be part of the aid industry and she was in India long before it ever existed. She comes from that other human tradition called charity – where you self-sacrifice to serve others. The aid industry has nothing to do with self-sacrifice and more often than not – very little to do with serving others. I guess there was just some confusion there.

    Anyway – here’s a user recommendation for the ‘slidecast’ – I’m a metaphor slut, what can I say? Thought it hit the myriad of aid nails on their multiple heads.

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Rati Tripathi wrote:

    I studied Economics and have been working in the Development Industry for seven years but never quite thought of things in this manner. Thank you very much for this intelligent pro-aid argument. Rati Tripathi

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  6. Ana Pulido wrote:

    Anne, thanks for pointing that out. I was in the conference and felt uncomfortable when he picked Mother Theresa to mock her job. But my perception was that people laughed for his eloquence, not exactly laughed-off Mother Theresa. I think it was not a valid example, but I got what he was trying to say.

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Trent Eady wrote:

    I loved this post. I think the pyramid/piano recital view is accurate for lots of human enterprises. I’m reminded of a disturbingly/refreshingly candid article published in New Scientist:

    Most science, they say, is not only useless and pointless but completely dull. And yet science is one of civilization’s most important enterprises and one of its greatest hopes.

    I like the cheerful, humorous mix of realism and optimism in the aid and science analyses.

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  8. Trent Eady wrote:

    Oops, the link I posted only gives you a preview of the article. You can read a bigger chunk of it here:

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  9. Dan Kyba wrote:

    I enjoyed the lecture; I get what he was saying about Mother Teresa as well as the charity comment made by a blogger afterwards;

    The isomorphic mimicry analogy was new to me and I think great. Listening to it I was immediately reminded of a very old book by P. T. Bauer (Equality, the Third World and Economic Delusion) wherein he critiques a series of politically correct arguments favouring aid; thirty years on, embedded in isomorphic mimicry, that political correctness continues to thrive within the aid industry.

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Permalink
  10. So would that make all aid workers Searchers then? Searchers that practice and preform with the hopes that they can come up with one masterpiece that changes the world?

    Posted March 23, 2010 at 12:00 am | Permalink
  11. Jeff wrote:

    Fascinating lecture that got me to look at aid in a new way. (Nice to hear I am part of a movement…) I like the dancer/pianist metaphor,but ultimately don’t think it works for aid. The base of the pyramid is not just a huge talent pool from which geniuses (and development successes) emerge. Poorly executed aid does not simply waste the resources that paid for that aid, it also discredits potentially successfully approaches, creates bad incentives that drive talent and resources into unproductive uses. Bad recitals waste our time. Bad aid does harm to recipient countries.

    Lant’s anecdote of his aid success in contributing to Indias tariff reduction is, I think, instructive and points to what the aid should perhaps modestly strive to do. Instead of being the driver of big plans, MDG’s etc. the aid industry should be creating a community of understanding and a set of social norms among the development “tribe” and when a home grown entrepreneur, policy maker, needs some advice, some tool or some data, the aid industry should be there to provide it. It won’t be sexy, it won’t provide photo ops, but it will reduce the harm of bad aid, and support more home grown, transformational successes.

    Posted March 23, 2010 at 12:15 am | Permalink
  12. Laela wrote:

    I agree with the above that this was a fascinating lecture, but I am also unconvinced about the metaphor. As an individual without a child taking dance/piano lessons, I benefit from the talent at the top of the pyramid without being forced to sit through the bad recitals. I also suspect that the majority of recital-goers do not seriously believe or hope that their child will be the next virtuoso. But poor individuals and communities often have little choice in which aid programmes they become the recipients of, and they often do have real hope that projects will improve their situation. Repeatedly practising bad aid programmes on vulnerable communities is not the same as inflicting a bad recital on friends and family. Like Jeff says, there is a lot more damage to be done.

    I do like the argument that all the experiments, good and bad, contribute to a movement and to a knowledge base that will allow future decision making to be better informed – this is something that would instill me with more confidence that the frustrating days are worth-while! But, as this blog more generally argues, the lack of evaluation of aid, as well as the lack of co-ordinated sharing of experience and knowledge, means that this is currently not the case. Perhaps if evaluation methods were improved and more widely used and that information shared, and all interventions were forced to take heed of that knowledge, we might be able to improve the ratio of bad recitals to genius talents.

    Posted March 23, 2010 at 4:25 am | Permalink
  13. Anne wrote:

    “What Works In Aid” is not a new thing…it’s been part of every report, study, evaluation, academic article, book, side bar, etc since I started studying Development in 1996. I don’t think a lack of knowledge or information is the problem…it’s all the other underlying contstraints we talk about here that impede better results. Aid industry not a magician with powers that are more special that those of everyone else and every other system we are embedded in.
    Let’s not forget we are tiny players in the overall picture of what makes the world go round.

    Posted March 23, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  14. Suvojit wrote:

    My internet connection doesn’t allow me to watch the video and I may be mistaking the context in which Prof Pritchett gave the piano example.
    But at a time when there is such an outcry for hard evidence, the piano story is a weak argument. It is likely someone will some day use it to demonstrate how aid-proponents tend to be mushy and forgiving of aid’s failings.

    Posted March 23, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  15. Amanda wrote:

    A few questions
    1. Thanks for reminding us that we don’t need a hero’s model of development (ie, Mother Theresa didn’t do much, relatively). Good reminder for the WMB crew – Easterly, are some of your searchers effervescent?
    2. What I learned from Jeff Sachs is that development should first do no harm. Are some of these bad recitals causing harm? How can we become better at avoiding this, or at least siphon off the ones not part of the movement?
    3. Related to #2, what about the opportunity cost of these people doing useless work at the base, even if they are part of the movement? Can we do more to crystallize points of view? Does this matter?

    Posted March 24, 2010 at 3:25 am | Permalink
  16. Salma wrote:

    I think the piano/classical music comparison is great. But it is also a disturbing comparison we don’t have to luxury to wait for aid to produce brilliant results. Music is an amenity, but poverty eradication is life and death.

    Posted March 28, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  17. Mr. Econotarian wrote:

    I’m all for funding research on development, but what percentage of aid money actually goes there? Would the world be better off if all the money that goes to aid went just to development research?

    Development’s greatest challenge is how to respectfully tell people that their culture is keeping them poor, and they need to change it.

    Posted March 29, 2010 at 2:02 am | Permalink
  18. margaret wrote:

    Perhaps instead of a pyramid which culminates in one peak performance we could view the collection of aid efforts as one mass of differing ideas and efforts. Since the situations requiring aid will each differ in many ways there will be a pool of solutions from which one in particular will prove to be most effective. If each group strives to be the very best it can be it will be ready to fill the needs as they arise.

    Posted April 3, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

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  3. By Aid as piano recital | Jeune Street on March 31, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    […] Laura Fresci elaborates: For Pritchett, what aid does best is to “form the base of the pyramid that creates the possibility of the top.” And the power of successes in development—the rare policy insight, or the competent handling of a potentially disastrous crisis—is so great, and has the power to transform so many lives, that those successes justify the existence of the whole flawed movement, many times over. […]

  • 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.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

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