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Development aid in context

I’ve just started More Than Good Intentions, the new book on impact assessment in international development by Dean Karlan* & Jacob Appel, and was struck by a figure given in their introduction: US$2.3 trillion has been spent on development aid over the past 50 years.  (They don’t specify how this figure was constructed, or whether it’s in nominal or constant dollars.  However, Easterly cites the same figure elsewhere, so I’m going to run with it for the moment.)  K&A mention this in the context of arguments about development effectiveness, with the usual gloss – the question of how that much money could have failed to spark development.  Reading this now, however, I’d sooner ask the opposite question of why anyone might assume that such a trivial sum could suffice to materially transform large swathes of the world.

Think about it: US GDP in 2009 was $14 trillion in nominal terms.  In a single year, the wealthiest country in the world produces up to 6 times the value of all the money spent on aid over the last 50 years.  To put it in per capita terms, US per capita GDP in the same year was $45,989 in nominal dollars.  Let’s assume that the $2.3 trillion in aid was spent equally over those 50 years, for approximately $46 billion in aid per year.  Let’s assume as well that this aid went exclusively to the bottom billion during each of those years.  That leaves us with about $46 per person per year over 50 years – about a month and a half of subsistence at an average of $1 a day.**

This is a highly stylized and inevitably inaccurate description of how aid funding is spent, but I found it useful to put these numbers into context.  Why should we expect that a sum like $46 per person per year, no matter how effectively spent, might successfully pull nations out of poverty?  Why should we expect this paltry ammunition to succeed against the array of historically and politically contingent reasons why countries find themselves unable to grow or to equitably distribute the benefits of growth?

Of course, this isn’t actually an argument against aid, or improving aid effectiveness.  The fact that it isn’t sufficient to raise all impoverished people out of poverty doesn’t mean that the limited but real benefits that it can provide – like improving access to healthcare or education – are suddenly worthless.  And certainly almost everyone in the development community sees aid as necessary yet insufficient for development.  However, to echo Fukuyama’s critique of the lack of historical context in recent political science work (which you can read in my notes [PDF] from his recent talk at SAIS), I find it a bit troubling that we as development practitioners are still quite so focused on the causal link between aid and development, sometimes at the expense of broader thought about how countries develop and why.  As a commentator at the Fukuyama talk said, much development work feels like it’s “trying to do history in a hurry” – and with insufficient tools at that.  Alongside rigorous evaluation of the type K&A advocate, I’d love to see a stronger understanding of historical contingency & context in discourse on development.

* I worked on one of Dean’s projects with IPA, and he generously sent me a galley of the book for free.

** For the sticklers on research methods, yes, I know that nominal & real dollar amounts aren’t directly comparable; that aid hasn’t gone to a tidy billion people per year for exactly 50 years; that $1/day is actually a complex estimate of poverty [PDF]; and that living on $1/day doesn’t actually mean you get a dollar per day.  It’s a thought experiment, yo.

Nigeria & the Anglican schism

Whilst looking around on Worldmapper for my recent post on liberation theology in Africa, I found this map of the global distribution of Anglicans, which makes clear why the Church of Nigeria has played such a pivotal role in the potential schism in the Anglican Communion:

If you haven’t been following this debate, there’s a brief overview here.  To generalize a bit, there’s a conservative-progressive split in the communion that roughly corresponds with Southern and Northern churches, and it intensified over the Episcopal Church in the USA’s ordination of an openly gay man as the Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.  I certainly think the ECUSA is on the right side of history on this point, but, as this thoughtful article from Killing the Buddha relates, African resistance to Northern theological hegemony is also tied in to historical legacies of colonialism and contemporary local-level struggles to expand the reach of the Anglican church.  Just like everything else, there aren’t any easy answers.

What to read on the Congo

In the spirit of my recent post about what to read on Rwanda, here’s my take on the DRC.  (I’ve also updated this list several times, most recently in June 2015.)

Other recommendations?

What happened to African liberation theology?

I’ve been puzzling over this question for a few weeks now, ever since reading about the connection that Samuel Huntington drew between the evolving Catholic church (with regard to Vatican II and liberation theology) and democratization in Latin America.  Liberation theology sprang up from the 1950s – 1970s as an intense critique of the church’s role in abetting oppression and poverty, of which there was plenty in both Latin America and Africa at the time – but whilst it left a lasting impression on both faith practices and (selon Huntington) politics in LatAm, it didn’t seem to spread across the Atlantic in any meaningful way. (The exception appears to be South Africa, where “liberation” had an unusually clearly defined sense.)

This might go back to the general debate over why Africans don’t protest more (see here and here), but I’m also wondering about the specific political facets of religious life in Africa that might have incentivized religious leaders not to adapt and adopt this type of faith-based social movement.  Were organized faiths regularly co-opted by by the state during this period?  Or did religious leaders & laypeople face the same incentives against rebellion as any other citizens?  Science Encyclopedia offers some stylized facts about religion and the state in Africa, but nothing systematic enough to draw conclusions.

With regard to Catholicism specifically, January Makamba points out that this tradition was not nearly as deeply entrenched in Africa as it was in Latin America, which could be relevant if theologians are less likely to adopt new ideas across denominational lines (or across different faiths all together, given that there are estimated to be more Muslims than Christians in Africa).  Check out Worldmapper’s depiction of the distribution of Catholics around the world:

For comparison, here’s a map of global population distribution:


Latin America clearly has a greater-than-proportional share of Catholics, although central and east Africa also appear to be holding their own, making it less immediately obvious that “lack of Catholicism” is a good explanatory variable.  Thoughts and recommendations for further reading would be welcomed!

What to read on Rwanda

Having received a few requests recently for books on Rwanda & the genocide, I thought I’d list those that I’ve found most valuable in understanding the peri-genocidal state.  (I’ve since updated this post several times since publication, most recently in June 2015.)

What else would you recommend?  (Update: see the comments for some additional recommendations!)