Me in Other Places

dollar bills and vicodin

I’ve done a lot of writing lately, and I wanted to highlight a few pieces I’m especially proud of.

I guest-posted on the Results for Development Institute blog, about how we can encourage drug companies to develop medicines for the poor, not just the rich. Most of my writing for the last few months has been technical documents and reporting for my day job, and short, snappy blog pieces. It was nice to sink my teeth into something a little longer and more thoughtful, and it made me envy all the CGD folks who get to think for a living.

Over at UN Dispatch, I offered unsolicited advice to the soon-to-be-established South African aid agency.

Finally, in my weekly post at End the Neglect, I talked about corruption and transparency in global health.


(photo credit: bryan_chan)

Is Bill Easterly useless?

Bill Easterly’s blog, Aid Watch, is taking some criticism in the development blogosphere right now. I normally try to avoid discussions like this because, honestly, my opinions change every 35 seconds about what the right way to blog about development is. (Or, for that matter, to do development.) We all have different ways of writing, and different motivations for our blogging. But I’m an occasional contributor to Aid Watch, and some people have questioned why. I feel like I should get into this one, at least a little bit.

For those of you who don’t obsessively follow (like I do) the RSS feed of every existing development blog, Transitionland, The Big Push, and Siena Anstis have all recently called out Aid Watch for not contributing to discussion about international development in a useful way. They’ve called it a pointless echo chamber and an unproductive and mean-spirited use of time. Prof. Easterly has responded by linking to their critiques, and defending the use of satire.

I see both sides. I think that Prof. Easterly is too quick to blame aid agencies and NGOs for problems that are systemic. He blames individual actors for doing things that are incentivized by the development industry. I would like him to write and think more about fixing the system than attacking the individual organizations. And I agree that his tone can be snarky to a degree that stops being funny and makes you tune the post out.

On the other hand, the system needs someone who will speak truth to power (or, in this case, development money). And I know from my own experience that the blunter and snarkier you are when writing about development, the more people listen. How many times have I written about the damage done by poorly considered in-kind donations? But I never got any attention until I wrote a post called “Nobody wants your old shoes.” Then all of a sudden, I was getting quoted in the NY Times.

Prof. Easterly is nasty because being nasty makes people listen. People listen because he’s willing to say things no one else will, and he says them loud and mean. Sometimes he crosses the line. But sometimes he says exactly what needs to be said.

I think that your view on the Aid Watch blog depends on where you’re standing. If you are working in development, actually doing the hard jobs and fighting to make an impact, then Aid Watch feels like one more attack on your efforts. If you are in DC, though, or Geneva or London, exposed on a daily basis to the ugly business end of development funding, then Aid Watch is like watching Dorothy unmask the Wizard of Oz. Sometimes, behind the rhetoric, there is nothing but an empty space. We need somebody to point that out.

I’m in Dushanbe now, it’s true. And I’m fighting to support a project I care about. But my last job was Washington, on the donor side, in one of the deepest and most obscure nooks of the development bureaucracy. The memory hasn’t faded just yet.

My take on Aid Watch varies from day to day. Sometimes it offends me, sometimes the thinking seems shallow, sometimes I want to stand up and cheer. But I wouldn’t call it useless.

Welcome metafilter visitors

Welcome Mat

Hello to everyone coming in from metafilter. For the record, I don’t consider myself to be an iconoclast. I am fairly certain that my ideas are 1) very ordinary and 2) shared by most people who work in international development. I’m just the person who’s willing to take the time to blog about it. And while I know I am critical, I do believe that international development can – and does – work. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be working in this field.

I know this blog isn’t all that searchable (I am working to fix that) so here are some links that might help you get a sense of what I am about:

Positive deviance, and why I like it

Why we should care about global health

Oral rehydration solution

The list of things I believe in

Learning from failure

Monitoring and evaluation

I am working a lot right now, so I don’t update that often. I have been blogging for a long time, though, so the archives run deep. (If you do go into the archives, you’ll notice I occasionally contradict myself. That’s because I’m still learning.) The best way to keep up with this blog is the RSS feed.

If you want fresh content, these are some international development blogs that say everything more eloquently than I do, use data more effectively, or both:

Tales from the Hood (currently blogging from Haiti)

Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Owen Barder’s Blog

photo credit: Jason-Morrison

Me, in other locations

I’m writing less often for Blood & Milk because I am writing in other places now. Some recent stuff that might interest you:

The Lancet is Off-Base About Aid Agencies – at UN Dispatch

Nobody Wants Your Old Shoes – How Not to Help Haiti – at Aid Watch

Teaching Americans What Haiti Needs
– The New York Times (I didn’t write that one, I’m just quoted)

Should We Be Vacationing in Haiti Right Now? – at UN Dispatch

International Development – a bibliography

Here’s my bibliography for learning about international development. It’s not exhaustive – more the very basics as a starting point. Overall, I like books for theory and background, articles for technical information and detail, and blogs for the on-the-ground perspective and a peek into the industry of development. I don’t think theory helps with a sense of how development work actually gets done (that’s my major critique of Easterly, in fact) and I don’t think you can actually do this work well without some kind of background on the picture of what development is and what its goals are.


William Easterly,  The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

Ruth Levine,  Millions Saved: Proven Successes in Global Health. Washington: Center for Global Development, 2004.

Carol Lancaster,  Foreign Aid: Diplomacy, Development, Domestic Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor, 2000.


JR McNeil, “The World According to Jared Diamond”

Roger Bate, “The Trouble with USAID” American Enterprise Institute. May 23, 2006.

USAID White paper

Brian Atwood, Peter McPherson, and Andrew Natsios, Arrested Development


Chris Blattman’s Blog

From Poverty to Power

Center for Global Development Blogs

World Bank Private Sector Development Blog

Owen Barder

The Bottom Billion Blog

Aid Watch