Wednesday, September 02, 2009

When "Do Nothing" is better than "Doing Something"

One of the reasons I enjoy William Easterly's blog is his willingness to publish and respond to criticisms by others even when they just 'don't get it' as is the case with the most recent posting by Bryan Turner, founder and coordinator of Students To End Extreme Poverty and Youth Engagement Coordinator of Make Poverty History Canada.

"Aid" is an intervention into a market - a market that may be poorly functioning or even thriving. For this very reason, and for the fact aid by its very nature is unsustainable (if it were sustainable, they'd be called profitable businesses), "doing something" by the well intentioned as Mr. Turner proposes, may be worse than those who look with apathy and "do nothing". Further, real sustainable solutions often have very little to do with the lack of the well intentioned or even the lack of money/resources.

One issue I remember personally experiencing was finding qualified staff in Uganda with distortions caused by aid agencies paying substantially higher wages. Another is the obvious issue of funds being redirected to or alleviating the pressure on corrupt agencies and officials. These are not "straw men" as Mr. Turner proposes. Only the most recent example of waste is highlighted on Easterly's blog - developing the failed "Women's World Market" in Kabul that offered nothing unique, was in a poor location and expensive to boot. This being said, I do think it's pretty important for any dialogue/debate to distinguish between "relief" and "economic development". It is the latter that Easterly most viciously and rightfully criticizes for its abject failure over the last 50 years.


Students To End Extreme Poverty said...

Good post. Of course there are situations where doing nothing is better than something.

My point.

There are also many areas where we know we can and we should be doing something.

Should we be doing something in all instances, obviously not.

Should that be a barrier to taking action on the things that Professor Easterly himself supports? This is highlighted in More and Better Aid - Bill Easterly Style at Bill Easterly Watch.

And of course, to level the straw men charge at the "when doing nothing is better than doing something" argument suggests to me that you've missed my point.

Great post though. Cheers.

Clement Wan said...

Thanks for posting and I agree that this is an important debate to have though how you have titled your project suggests a divergence from stated objectives into a more confrontational attack on what you already acknowledge is a broken system. I do believe if you read Dr. Easterly's books you get a sense of the types of solutions he would propose - many of which seek to strengthen governments in some cases but also encourage and develop markets in others.

The problem in the world of aid, is that there are few visible success stories that have proven to be sustainable with time. This is the tragedy of aid - given that often these dollars are misused resulting in horrible incentives for governments (and sometimes their celebrity supporters) to portray their people worse off (or even make them worse off) than they are.

For these reasons, I can't imagine there should be any surprise that Dr. Easterly's posts are criticisms given the widescale failure of aid.