Bad Aid, or why we are probably all focusing on the wrong thing

I’ve been pretty happy with some of the pushback I’ve seen on Facebook regarding the Kony 2012 stuff, but the cohort of people I’m friends with skews towards individuals who have a competitive incentive to know what the LRA is, so that helps.

Kony is probably not especially nice. I don’t think that’s sufficient, but there are a lot of uniquely awful things in the world and not all of them are helpful enough to have a face. The strategy of comparing him to Hitler is disingenuous and rather useless hyperbole. He’s hardly the worst, even among contemporaries, and certainly not if we evaluate non-human bad things. Nonetheless, aid organizations have a similar problem as environmentalists: we want to act on trendy or sympathetic issues, so pandas and Kony get the dollars and the headlines, while insects and agricultural assistance get ignored.

All of the articles I’m linking are worth reading in full, but the highlights:

So the goal is to make sure that President Obama doesn’t withdraw the advisors he deployed until Kony is captured or killed. That seems noble enough, except that there has been no mention by the government of withdrawing those forces — at least any I can find. Does anyone else have any evidence about this urgent threat of cancellation? One that justifies such a massive production campaign and surely lucrative donation drive?

via Guest post: Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things) | FP Passport.

Goals are confusing. It’s hard to come up with something simple which can be relayed to an audience readily and still have a meaningful outcome. I get that. But this one is severely misdirected. The end result of the movement is a significant fundraising drive to preserve a policy not challenged in any meaningful way.

The group is in favour of direct military intervention, and their money supports the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. Here’s a photo of the founders of Invisible Children posing with weapons and personnel of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting, but Invisible Children defends them, arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission. These books each refer to the rape and sexual assault that are perennial issues with the UPDF, the military group Invisible Children is defending.

via Think Twice Before Donating to Kony 2012, the Charitable Meme du Jour.

Aid probably has to go to somebody, but the characterization of there being a single simple dichotomy is facile. We don’t write checks to saints to undergo some titanic battle against evil; we finance deeply flawed institutions taking tepid and chaotic steps towards uncertain outcomes.

Even worse, there’s a cost to all this:

Simple stories make for very effective advocacy. The problem with simple narratives, arise, however, when they drive simple-headed policy.

Severine Autesserre takes aim at the Enough project and other activists in a thoughtful new paper:

The dominant narratives have oriented international programmes on the ground toward three main goals – regulating trade of minerals, providing care to victims of sexual violence, and helping the state extend its authority – at the expense of all the other necessary measures, such as resolving land conflict, promoting inter-community reconciliation, jump-starting economic development, ensuring that state authorities respect human rights, and fighting corruption.

Even worse, because of these exclusive focuses, the international efforts have exacerbated the problems that they aimed to combat: the attempts to control the exploitation of resources have enabled armed groups to strengthen their control over mines; the disproportionate attention to sexual violence has raised the status of sexual abuse to an effective bargaining tool for combatants; and the state reconstruction programmes have boosted the capacity of an authoritarian regime to oppress its population.

This is the problem with pushing advocacy agendas. If you are really good, and really lucky, you can get the UN or US to do one thing this year. That’s a big opportunity cost. Surely one had better make sure it’s the right thing?

via Why our hype can harm: Congo edition | Chris Blattman.

I think the corollary to the IC movement that most readily jumps to mind is the Enough project, an equally dubious but highly promoted organization designed to help distant people with complicated issues, in one case the trade of coltan by rather unpleasant military groups. The goal was to develop policies to remove financing for operations which ended in occupation, ethnic cleansing, and rape.

Unfortunately, even before (poorly conceived) regulations were enacted, these groups did not receive most or even a particularly large amount of their funding from coltan mines.  Ahead of coltan was gold extraction and even cow smuggling. Cow smuggling. Think about that for a minute: militias engaging in horrific, criminal acts of violence and sexual abuses derive funding from herding cows. Can you visualize writing your Congressman about cow smuggling in the DRC?

People die or suffer everywhere, for a lot of reasons. The introductory point of the Kony 2012 video is right: we have the capability to change that. But the broader question might be why the focus isn’t on the low-hanging fruit, problems we can resolve quickly or cleanly, or at least without ambiguity. Opportunity cost matters. If you only have a few dollars to give, and a little attention to dedicate, shouldn’t it be towards a problem worth addressing, via a mechanism that can accomplish something towards that end?

With that in mind, you should probably take a look at GiveWell, an organization which reviews and evaluates the effectiveness of a variety of charities. If your charitable donation is a purchase – an attempt to save a human life – shouldn’t you know how much bang for your buck you’re getting? This is a good starting point for that.

At the risk of piling on, your TOMS are probably silly:

The biggest argument by those who support TOMS is that the company is helping the poor and making an effort to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Unfortunately, shoe donations and other in-kind giving (or GIK…gifts-in-kind) does more to hurt the economic growth of the targeted areas than it does to help.

Extensive research concerning local shoe production is not readily available, but a close substitute is apparent and ripe for discussion: clothing donations into specific poor areas. One researcher, Garth Frazer, looked into “Used-Clothing Donations and Apparel Production in Africa”, and found that there is a significant connection between donations and production. Frazer concluded that

“Used-clothing imports are found to have a negative impact on apparel production in Africa, explaining roughly 40% of the decline in production and 50% of the decline in employment over the period 1981–2000.”

50% of the decline in employment? That means that thousands upon thousands of jobs were lost due to the “good deeds” donors thought they were doing, inadvertently preventing thousands of poor Africans from earning a living and being able to provide for themselves. According to The Nation, “between 1992 and 2006, 543,000 textile workers lost their jobs” in Nigeria, as over 150 companies have shut down due to being undercut by outside aid.

via A Personal Diaspora: TOMS: A Discussion on Bad Aid.

Having shoes to mitigate the risk of hookworm may or may not be worth the cost of increased poverty, but if you consider the opportunity costs of just giving that $25 to construct latrines (which would probably solve at least as well, and for longer periods) instead at no employment cost, the deal starts to look less promising.

All of this can be read as cynicism, but I prefer to think of it as subversive optimism. We can fix things, but first we have to learn how to fix how we fix things.


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