Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions: Aid & Unintended Consequences


I used to be an idealist. I joined the Peace Corps, lived in a small village in Africa for two years and expected that I would work in international development and policy when I completed my service.

But I was incredibly disappointed by the ineffectiveness of aid programs I encountered in Mali. Generally speaking, none of the large development aid programs I observed had any real, sustained impact. (I define “sustained” as self-repeating: an investment that causes a positive feedback cycle of economic, cultural, environmental or social activity).  I saw a lot of one-off construction projects and give-aways.

Governmental aid agencies and NGOs were eager to get work done, spend money and were not careful about corruption issues. I saw a lot of money misspent in my two years in Mali through laziness, corruption and incompetence.

In the end, I have a more basic problem with aid: Gifts, grants and giveaways make people less like to build things for themselves.

One of the examples I offer in this regard is from a village in western Mali. This small town had a market garden built for them by an international NGO, with several wells that had been constructed by another NGO. When a fellow volunteer started her service in this village, two of the three wells had collapsed and needed to be rebuilt.

My colleague asked why the village council didn’t get organize an effort to get the wells repaired, and her neighbors said that they were waiting for an NGO to come along and do it for them. The wells had been built by somebody else and the village felt no ownership. The people knew someone would come and fix them, and sure enough, some NGO came along and fixed them after a year or two.

I can’t think of a clearer way to discourage people from investing in their own town than by making them feel it’s unnecessary.

This is obviously an anecdote, but it exemplifies the patterns I saw throughout Mali. My village had four concrete buildings, and all of them had been built by NGOs. My neighbors were wonderful people, and wonderful partners. They welcomed the cash I raised to build a solar electricity system in the little health clinic, but when it broke they didn’t raise money or effort to fix it.

I am far from the first person offering this analysis. William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo are two economists who arge that aid is antithetical to development for a variety of reasons: disincentivizing ownership, crowding out local investment and pushing up value of local currency.

Dr. Moyo goes a step further than other aid critics: she asserts
that the aid is bad for Africa. I think she’s right; my experience is the anecdotal reinforcement of her research. So what’s the solution? I don’t know. But I do know aid is not working for Mali.

I plan to write more about alternatives to traditional aid; there are some case studies to come.

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Why Health Care Reform Might Create Jobs

One of the arguments against health care reform is that it is “job-killing” (wait, destroying) because it will force small businesses and individuals to purchase health care when they can’t afford it– preventing expansion, hiring, etc.

Here’s a different way to look at it.  Detaching health care from employment by offering affordable insurance options for individuals will create a more favorable environment for innovation and the development of small businesses.

Of the 50 million uninsured Americans (16% of the U.S. population), 39% are between the ages of 19 and 34. It’s all very well and good not to have health care when you’re 25 and have no assets for hospitals to collect when you default on your debts.

It’s quite different when you’re 35 and you own a home, have a partner or possibly a little one running around. Giving up employment-based health insurance for a family is a little different than taking risks for yourself.

The growth of our economy depends on executing innovative ideas. No creative software developer has achieved a $4 million pre-money valuation when they’re thinking about the costs of prenatal health care. I have many friends who won’t leave their jobs, even though they might like to try something new or pursue a dream, because they have kids, or because they provide health insurance for their partner.

Our failure as a society to provide every person with affordable access to health care is repressing our economic growth by keeping creative, adventurous and responsible people tethered to institutional jobs.

The issue is not unemployment. More than 8 in 10 uninsured Americans are members of working households (households in which more than one member is employed). Businesses can’t afford to provide it for their employees and less-than-affluent people can’t afford to purchase it for themselves.

When every American is required to purchase health care, that will (at least theoretically) bring insurance prices down by spreading the costs of health care across the entire population.

Making access to affordable health insurance universal will make experimentation and risky business behavior slightly less risky. If health insurance is less expensive, the marginal cost of hiring additional employees will be lower, encouraging hiring and job creation.

Furthermore, with improved access to affordable health care, it’s one less thing to worry about when considering starting a business or testing a new idea.

In summary, in addition to meeting basic criteria for a caring society, creating a universal health care society will unleash the fearless power of great ideas.

Photo Credit: sun dazed on Flickr

Knocking on Doors


My boyfriend and I were eating tacos while it poured rain a few weeks ago.  It was really, really pouring—puddles in the street—but we were warm, full and enjoying the previous night’s Conan.  A soaking wet puppy of a young woman raising money for the Human Rights Campaign knocked on our door.  We wrote her a check, gave her a grocery bag to keep her clipboard dry and sent her on her way after asking a billion questions.

HRC sends their canvassers door to door – to every door on a block – from inner SE Portland to the shmancy suburbs.  I was really impressed.  That’s certainly not how we do it in Alaska.  You might get shot, really, if you knock on the wrong door at the wrong time in Alaska.

When I have doorknocked for progressive causes, the organizers pre-screen the doors depending on the purpose of the canvas.  If you are identifying potential supporters, you might knock on a wider swath of doors, including known likely supporters and unidentified voters.  If you’re trying to turn out the vote immediately prior to an election, you only knock on the doors of known supporters.  Either way, you’re not too likely to knock on a completely hostile door.

The concept of sending someone out alone to knock on every door in town to ask for money for a controversial cause—that’s brave.  Presumably they are accomplishing some educational goals by exposing non-supportive people to their cause, but still.  She must get yelled at all the time. Well, we asked her.  She gets yelled at all the time.  But she was lovely. She said we made her night.  I think she made mine.

Commitment to Civil Discourse

I commit to using this blog to talk about ideas and not about the people who have them.  I also promise that I will use epithets only kindly.

I will also try not to take myself too seriously.  That is why I will sometimes blog about the time I spilled a latte in my backpack, onto my laptop – thus turning my Macbook screen into an aquarium.

But I believe our country has reached a turning point where we must decide: Are we committed to taking each other seriously even if we disagree?  Also, what are our fundamental values?

I’m also interested in development issues and trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life.  I’m probably going to blog about those issues every now and again.