Thursday, March 31, 2011

A new field of work

The other day I got a chance to talk with an old aid worker, someone who saw the birth of this industry, if you will, and it was refreshing. He spoke of times, when he was an up and comer, when there was no field called 'Aid work', there wasn't even a future for people who were "against the system". He was probably at least 60, but was remerkably clear about the changes in the aid game that have taken place over the past 30 years. We have created not just a single profession but a plethora of jobs that are singilarily focused on improving the structure and wellness of less developed counties and their systems, or at least purport to be.

Beyond aid work, there are thousands of occupations today, the very existence of which must have been impossible to predict 60 years ago.

What will the new fields of work be in the future?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Direct aid = Good aid?

Quite often when aid is given, whether it be humanitarian or otherwise, there is pang of regret that goes along with it. Usually it is something like:

"If only the governments weren't so corrupt..." or
"If only the NGO's weren't so self serving..." or more generally
"If only aid made it through to the people it is intended for."

These related problems are well documented by the likes of or and many others.

There are situations where the aid itself is perpetuating the problem, and the answer is to not give any aid directly, but rather to support efforts that end up relieving the problem indirectly.

To highlight this (and also to elicit some responses...) was really the purpose of my last post.

Sometimes trying to give directly, though attractive for its simplicity, is not the right course of action. Giving directly to an organization that treats the wounded, in say eastern DRC, does tug at the heart strings and sound like a good idea. However, if you read my last post, it may not be the most effective way to alleviate the problem. There are many approaches to healing the wounds of war.

Giving direct food aid to Ethiopians during famines, as we have seen in the past, is the true humanitarian's response. However, other avenues for aid may have been, and surely will be, more effective at creating a lasting change in the broken food allocation systems in Ethiopia. (Lets not get started on the weapons that food aid bought.) After all, there are many, many ingredients to development.

Perhaps solutions that involve supporting political negotiations, or the development of infrastructure, or children's initiatives might, in a round about way, help to alleviate the problem. These might also be crucially, free from creating the perverse incentives that maintain the problem. We do not want warlords supported by the international aid system; we do not want Ethiopians to waiting for food aid.

We all want aid to be more effective. Sometimes the answer is to give indirectly.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The case against humanitarian aid

Although aid talk these days is centered on Japan, Ill let Tales from the Hood and La viaid loca lecture you about the issues surrounding those charity efforts. Basically, the short lesson is they don't need your old socks.

Instead, today I would like to convince you that humanitarian aid, as opposed to disaster relief (Japan) or development aid (Kenya), is bad.

Consider this: Humanitarian intervention lowers the cost of war.  Casualties of war require medical attention which requires money and resources. The Red Cross for example, brings in all kids of resources to help those in need.

"Free relief for all of my soldiers and wounded civilians? Sign me up!"

Humanitarian intervention lessens the burden of war on those who wage them; the wounded are cared for, the hungry are fed.

Consider this: The media brings in all kinds of charity.

To quote La vidaid loca link from above, "Media attention on an emergency is a significant driver of the general public’s interest in giving to an emergency."

Media brings in money.


Imagine for a minute that you are a rebel militant in some forgotten post-war country:

Together with your brothers, you wish to rise to power. You and your comrades will become rulers of the land so that you can live the life of a provider; a king. However, your resources are dwindling, and poverty is rampant. Some seasons are plentiful - when the rains come, and when resource deals are struck - but there is always the risk that activists will block trade deals, government forces will capture all the rents, and rains will fail. The risk you face is high no matter your action. The life you live is most likely short. Money is what you need. Money is power.

Which is the 'path of least resistance'? Choose one, or two that fit together:

a) Farm: Knuckle down, get a real job tilling the fields and pray that the rains are good.

b) Revolt: Go into battle with government forces on the little weaponry you have left from your last resources-for-arms deal and try to take control of the resource rich areas.

c) Look for a job: Go to the city to look for a job. Maybe you could become a taxi driver.

d) Get some education: Learn a new skill to apply to a productive endeavour in the near future.

e) Cut off a few limbs of starving children: Create a big humanitarian crisis so international aid resources come flowing into your country.

Escalate a humanitarian crisis -> media -> humanitarian aid -> free resources -> good chance to syphon off funds -> money AND  healthy soldiers -> more war -> natural resource capture -> money

Humanitarian aid has perverse incentives: it decreases the cost of war, and increases benefits to warlords for going to war.

We should not give humanitarian aid.
(...and we haven't even talked about colonialism yet)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Last Train Home

There are 130 million migrant workers in China.

They go home once a year on the New Year.

This is the worlds largest human migration.

From the incredible "Last Train Home" by Lixin Fan

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Good and Proper

From George Orwell Mr. Orwell on what a cup ought to be.

A Nice Cup of Tea
Saturday Essay, Evening Standard, 12 January 1946

If you look up ‘tea’ in the first cookery book that comes to hand you will probably find that it is unmentioned; or at most you will find a few lines of sketchy instructions which give no ruling on several of the most important points.

This is curious, not only because tea is one of the main stays of civilisation in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand, but because the best manner of making it is the subject of violent disputes.

When I look through my own recipe for the perfect cup of tea, I find no fewer than eleven outstanding points. On perhaps two of them there would be pretty general agreement, but at least four others are acutely controversial. Here are my own eleven rules, every one of which I regard as golden: