12 April 2011

Development's Rum Punch

For some people, aid and development endeavors seem as simple as serving up a spoonful of sugar that is brimming with kindness, energy, compassion and good intentions. Simply add sugar to the prescribed medicine and we can save the world!

Unfortunately, we know that it is not so simple. Communicating this is even harder. Telling a women that her favorite clothing distribution organization could be preventing growth and contributing to the poverty cycle is not received well. Speaking with a gentleman about orphanages being filled with children who have been orphaned not due to the death of parents, but voluntarily after an orphanage has been established, will make you seem cold-hearted and uncaring.

The aid skeptic is one which tries to seek the truth and is often accused of being a cynic at best and uncaring/disconnected at worse. When faced with the task of determining how billions of dollars should be used to alleviate poverty around the world and domestically, solutions should be found, tested and shared. What does not work should be openly admitted and quickly discarded.

Aid has not been a failure; Owen Barder speaks well to this point. In fact, everyone's favorite mis-interpreted skeptic Bill Easterly has said that it has not been an utter failure as well. However, after years of doing it we still do not know many solutions.

What is striking to me is the way that people react when faced with skepticism. Chris Blattman experienced this push-back when speaking at the DRI conference at the beginning of March. After presenting his ongoing research into the ties between poverty and violence, Blattman was met with strong criticism of his project. After spending 15 minutes saying that he was unsure about the causality in either direction, he was assailed for supposedly saying that poverty had nothing to do with violence.

The mere suggestion of a contrary viewpoint causes an immediate cognitive dissonance. For some in the audience, hearing Blattman's suggestion that poverty alone might not cause violence set off the defenses. The same was seen in Easterly's talk on the benevolent autocrat earlier that day.

We need healthy skepticism in aid and development just like we need innovators and cheerleaders. Just because someone is skeptical of the newest aid fad does not mean that the person does not care. The skepticism comes from a place of wanting better and more effective interventions.

 We all want it to do it better, so why so much hate for the aid skeptics?