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.

Why don’t we do better?

Sam Brownback

I have mentioned two or three or thirty times that I am not the only person in the development world who obsesses about how we could do our work better. Everyone has ideas; it’s a very common topic of conversation among people who work in this field. Most of us have the same ideas. So why don’t we ever get to act on them? There are a few reasons I can think of:

Donors don’t always know what they are doing. Government donors are usually democratic nations, which means in practice that foreign aid programs are often defined by legislatures with no real background in international development. So you end up with earmarks for pet ideas, rules forbidding useful practices like harm reduction, and an overall lack of direction. Private donors tend to go for exciting quick impact ideas like mobile health clinics and cash-for-work projects. Overall, complicated, unsexy ideas like health system strengthening may go unsupported.

Donors are politically motivated. I have seen health projects where the donor chose the pilot areas because of mysterious HQ calculus about the possibility of terrorism or political instability. Or take a look at how funding goes to Gaza and the West Bank. Donors have reasons for supporting international development funding that go way beyond supporting international development, and it can be hard to take that money and make it useful. Many (maybe most) organizations tend to try anyway.

Lack of time. There is a steady supply of new research on what works in international development. There is no steady supply of time in which to read that research and figure out how to apply it in practice. Some places have a technical team at headquarters to keep up with new research and recommend how to use it. That’s not as common you would think, though, because that kind of work counts as an overhead expense. High overheads make it hard to get grants and donations.

Host country capacities. A good development program works with the host country government to build its skill set, so that impact will continue once the program is over. Sometimes that means obeying host country regulations that contradict best practices, or spending a year convincing a government to change its rules. For example, some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa were achingly slow to adopt community therapeutic feeding (plumpy’nut and other RUTFs) even when the data showed it was much more effective than older ways of treating malnutrition. It’s miserable being stuck in a project that could be doing far more than it is allowed to, but I think the alternative – setting up an aid system that is parallel to the government – or worse yet, contradictory – is worse in the long term.

Funding and evaluation cycles. It’s very hard to design a program that will have a long term impact and also start showing results in two years. It’s not impossible; I’ve worked for several projects that managed it. But it’s hard. It limits your options severely. And inexperienced or unskilled NGOs may just aim for quick results and worry about the long term later.

This is not an exhaustive list. It’s just off the top of my head. What am I missing?


Photo Credit: Iowa

Chosen because Senator Brownback once tied up hundred of hours of manpower from an HIV/AIDS program because he didn’t understand the difference between harm reduction and risk reduction.

Dear Enough Project, refugee kids are people

(photo from Enough blog)

Updated on July 13 – Enough has issued an apology for this poorly handled distribution, and committed to doing better in the future. You can see their apology here. I was impressed; it was like a case study in how to take criticism with grace.


The Enough project works in advocacy against genocide, particularly on Darfur. All well and good. I don’t know much about the intricacies of Darfur, or the intricacies of advocacy. I know some people think Enough is too heavy on the celebrities, and others think they do good work. That’s not what this post is about.

This post is about the idiotic, dehumanizing, tacky stunt they pulled in a refugee camp in Eastern Chad. They brought a limited number of New York Knicks jerseys on a visit to the camp, and made the kids fight for them. You don’t believe me? I will quote the blog:

“(We) separated the children into groups based on which blocks in the camp they lived. Then we began to hand the jerseys out as evenly as possible. The scramble began, and within minutes the jerseys were devoured. Though we informed them that we had no more to give, the children still scrambled up to us to peer into the empty bag to ensure a jersey had not escaped our notice.”

Okay, not fight – scramble. And note the dehumanizing language – devoured – like the kids are starving animals. This makes me mad. Refugee children are human beings with human dignity who should be treated as such. Enough just came and taught the kids that there isn’t enough for everyone and the good stuff goes to the strong and fast.

Now you ask – what would I have wanted them to do? Well, first of all, I would posit that there is no reason to bring New York Knicks jerseys to a refugee camp except to feel good about yourself. If you are determined to bring the jerseys I still have three suggestions:

  • Bring enough jerseys for all the kids (a lesson many of us learned in kindergarten)
  • Give the jerseys to schools to use as prizes or rewards for high-performing students
  • Use a transparent lottery system to select parents to be given jerseys for their kids

All of these would take more time and effort than just carrying basketball jerseys to a refugee camp and throwing them at kids. It’s worth it.

At this point, I would like Enough to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I’d like them to develop guidelines on appropriate donations and methods of donations for visitors to camps. They should refuse to visit camps with any group or individual who does not follow those guidelines. And they should publish those guidelines on their blog for public review and comment.

PS – If you don’t want my advice on how to handle a distribution to refugee children, may I recommend the Sphere standards?

I’d appreciate it if anyone who reads this post would go over to the Enough post, tell them what you think of this dumb stunt, and leave a link to this post.

Last note: Before you post a comment telling me that Enough means well and we shouldn’t criticize them, read this post.

A manifesto of sorts

Development work is designed to change people’s lives. Its specific goal is impacting human beings and the way they live. Done badly, it does damage. This makes it inherently serious, as serious as practicing law or medicine and it should be treated that way. If you want to practice medicine, you don’t start your own clinic. You go to medical school.

I am not telling you not to get involved. We need good people working in development. We need them desperately. But warm bodies and enthusiasm don’t help people. Good programs help people. And it’s very hard to create good programs if you are starting from scratch. There is an enormous body of knowledge, both academic and practical, on how to improve peoples’ lives. Not taking advantage of that body of knowledge is unfair to everyone involved.

Oprah’s Big Give, and what’s wrong with it

This is a remarkably good post about what’s wrong with Oprah’s Big Give. The comments, however, are some of the lamest I have ever seen. They run the gamut, from a classic Sernovitz, to just plain missing the point, to my favorite, “Why would you ever criticize someone who is trying to do good?”

I find the tone-deaf comments extremely frustrating. They demonstrate to me that no one is taking charitable giving seriously; that somehow people believe all projects are equally valuable and effective. Give a car to a restaurant manager or an impoverished veteran. It’s all the same. It’s charity! And charity is good!

Some projects are better than others.

It’s not just that different nonprofits do different things. Some charities are better at stretching their budget. Some have better methods. Some are led by better people. It’s not all the same, and it’s not all equally important. Money spent on bad charity is at best wasted and at worst damaging.

I’ve mentioned this before: good intentions are not enough.

ETA: Mike makes an excellent point in the comments – the author can’t seem to decide if he hates the rules of the show, or the contestants. It seems to me that he was trying to say that the show is rigged to fail, and fail it did, but that point doesn’t really come across clearly.

Bad granting can hurt communities

I have mentioned before that bad donor projects will hurt they communities they are in. This article demonstrates that a bad grantmaking process will also hurt communities. Which makes sense when you think about it, but how many people think about it?

In the case of the Northwest Area Foundation, I think they went off the rails as soon as they decided that a new organization had to be created for implementation. It’s always tempting to make something new and better but too often it’s just new, inexperienced, and not up to the demands being made. It’s my opinion that you always work with existing groups if you can.

I saw a lot of small developing world NGOs formed around a single issue go through endless rounds of training so they could apply for different donors’ grants. It did often make me wonder how much work they could get done in the time it took to be trained.

Lolita beds?

Any time I hear about the importance of making sure everything you do is culturally sensitive, I think of problems like this. We can’t even manage to be sensitive to our own culture, more often than not. (For those who read the article – I shall refrain at this point from discussing the British educational system.)