Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Why Foreign Aid fails

Just finished reading William Easterly's book, White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

The book lays out a distinction between what Easterly calls "planners" and "searchers". The planners represent the dominant position in foreign aid since WWII. Planners are those who believe that foreign aid can be planned from top-down. A planned economy/aid system in other words. Planners also tend to emphasize exterior-only causes and solutions. In integral that is they emphasize only right-hand solutions to problems.

Interestingly this consensus tends to reach across both right and left parties/political philosophies. Right-wing elements tend to emphasize military unilateralism and national security/occupation while left wing talk of "Ending poverty." Jeffrey Sachs new book is titled just that. He is the most recent incarnation of the planner mindset.

The problems with the planners are legion but a few of the key ones:

1.un-democratic and non free-market. Groups like NGOs, UN, etc. are given these tasks.
2.Such groups are not accountable and therefore like all bureaucracies exist to further their own power.
3.They dis-empower local peoples to not to responsibility, to not buy in. It does not assume wisdom on the part of local peoples. It is in a sense neo-imperialist (whether or left/right varieties).
4.Utopian unachievable goals which are not then met and leave greater donor fatigue, depression.

Easterly who has had years of experience in this field argues for the searcher model. The searcher model works not on ending world poverty but doing some good in the world with the people who actually will live in these places, raise children, and be the ones who must take ownership.

Easterly has a strong libertarian bent. His criticism of planned foreign aid is an application of Hayek and Missus' critiques of planned economies both of the Soviet communist and the Welfare state Liberal worlds (see Road to Serfdom). But he also points out that there are more radical left wing elements who can line up with libertarians interestingly against foreign aid but for different philosophical reasons. [I've often thought it would be interesting to explore a relationship between Hayek and Marcusse though they have massive differences as well. But specifically in the notion of one-dimensionality and road to serfdom. I guess the difference becomes their respective cures but often similar/same diagnoses of the illness.]

It is part of the postmodern world's insight of the criticism of the impartial modernist observer. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Godel's Mathematical incompleteness theorem, Wittgenstein's language games, all point to the idea that an observer in some way or another affects and changes the scenario which is observed. [This is not to say that such influence is total and dominant a la postmodern narcissism].

Because of the incompleteness, the inability to predict and plan from above, and the existence of people on the ground changing the situation, planners fail. Not to mention they are dealing in integral terms with at best half of the universe. Godel's incompleteness theorem states that no mathematical theorem can cover all of math because it could not account for itself. Just so, a planned foreign aid economy does not plan for its own insertion. Sachs falls into this trap.

Easterly talks about opening up the free market to foreign aid. If left wing advocates of liberal internationalism so strongly free trade to build up foreign countries and right-wingers in the States so strongly support free trade domestically, why is it neither promote the idea in foreign trade circles.

I think ultimately the libertarian bent can only be one of many. Particularly (in my conservative streak) the question of international security. Globalization brings trans-national and cross-national entities into relationship but without some oversight there are no rule sets. The libertarian mindset I think is often far too naive about how destructive cultures and nation can and do become. It assumes individuals working in their own self-interest, usually defined as rational. But that is in many ways not the case. People act based on their value systems and needs, some/many of which by the standards of what is labeled rational are deeply irrational. The irrationality is to assume people are always working in their own rational self-interest and that such rational self-interest even if achieved across the board automatically brings harmony to the parts.

But that only partial critique aside, it is a deep work.


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