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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Foreign Aid: Is it effective?

It is difficult to judge whether foreign aid has been an effective strategy for encouraging “development” as there are somewhat hazardous definitions and assumptions floating around both concepts (aid and development). To determine whether the effects of foreign, or even domestic, aid leads to desirable outcomes depends on the circumstances to which that aid was applied and how the outcomes were defined and were to be measured.

The World Bank takes a round-a-bout way of defining “development” in terms of economic growth. Economic growth itself is related to a general increase in a society’s wealth. Wealth, in this sense, would imply a net decrease in poverty in an economy to its capacity to provide goods and services that directly contribute to, more-or-less, westernized ideals of a quality life (access to effective health care, sanitation, potable water, safety, education and economic opportunities, democracy and so on). [i] Thus, development is often associated directly to reductions in poverty and its associated chronic problems (health, sanitation, even an enabler of democracy).

But economic growth also has less desirable consequences. Growth can amplify class and economic disparities, lead to unmanageable urbanization areas, slums, environmental degradation, have no clear correlation to democratic forms of government (China is a stellar example) and, ironically, economic instability (take for example Greece, Spain, Portugal at the present time).

In general, thanks to economists as Banerjee and Duflo, the domain of development economics is finally trying to address its failure in alleviating the real problems human beings face. This is largely due to its insistence upon its own theoretical purity. Too often, economists are driven by ideology and resist challenging their honored assumptions (embodied in their models) by the insights from other sciences (psychology, anthropology, for instance). The work of Banerjee and Duflo evidences an effective challenge to ideologically driven economic assumptions by, in some ways, relating to us lessons that I recall were taught by the work of Marvin Harris several years ago. In his approachable, simple book, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, written in 1975, he showed to the lay public that what we assume to be irrational or bizarre behavior in an alien culture (and, most certainly, the poverty Banerjee and Duflo work with is indeed an alien world to most of us in America) has rational reasons to exist to the people in that cultural milieu.

For instance, Jeffrey Sachs believes foreign aid, if applied rationally and in large scale, can be effective in alleviating poverty. He presents a list of characteristics that aid programs should follow that are very optimistic and likely too unrealistic and impractical in today’s environment. Notably, Sachs believes aid should be centered on measurable outputs and less upon abstract ideals as democracy and economic growth.  There is value in Sachs’ arguments however in that he emphasizes understandable, readily available technologically adept inputs, achievable targeted outputs, adequate financing from coalitions of funders. We should take Sachs’ argument with moderate seriousness because his approach seems based upon the flawed assumption of economic rationality (a least from the point of the intervening agency; the happy-path assumption that if we apply simply technology smartly, we get smart results, is deceptive).

Representative of more-or-less Libertarian inspired economic theories, espousing that aid causes more harm than good, would be the arguments of George Ayittey. He rightfully criticizes the premise of foreign aid by pointing to disappointing, conflicting results in Africa. He claims aid is motivated less by practical, realistic planning but rather from emotionally (meaning, irrational) biased motivations on the part of the developed countries. Aid invites corruption, waste,  creates dependency and discourages innovation and empowerment for those to whom the aid is directed. But this kind of thinking is even more flawed than that of Sachs as it supposes the poor in foreign cultures are motivated by the same economic desires and goals as Ayittey himself.

Unfortunately, none of these authors define complete, realistic models that seem capable of providing a roadmap to a future of significantly reduced human suffering (which is the whole point of intervening with aid, or at least it should be). Banerjee and Duflo however have presented findings are based on very creative, informative experiments and meaningful data (or so it appears). Additionally, their sensitivity and ability to describe and understand “irrational behavior” is a very important example of critical thinking necessary for addressing this problem.

Banerjee and Duflo argue convincingly that common evaluation models for the effectiveness of aid is inadequate, or biased (if it is evaluated at all) and must be improved. The value of their work (aside from its successes, however limited in scale they appear), is to show that the so-called irrationality and short-sightedness of the poor that frustrates aid programs, or makes them appear to be so ineffective as to be ludicrous, has more to do with the blinders of culturally-biased assumptions of the aid granting countries.[ii] Banerjee and Duflo demonstrate an effective approach to researching and gaining understanding of how to address specific, small-scale improvement opportunities. They are also collecting valuable data.

Ignoring the potential ethical questions raised by critics (pointed out by Easterly in his NYR article) who observe, perhaps rightly, that aid is motivated by paternalistic assumptions, or even some kind of left-over colonialist collective guilt, of the aid granting countries, a interesting thought experiment is to imagine what the implications would be of a large scale replication of Banerjee and Duflo’s five lessons to “development” (leading to a significant alleviation of poverty).

For this experiment, suppose there are 1.5 billion “poor” in the world. Imagine if 30% of the world’s poor were effectively lifted from poverty (by whatever definition you have) in one or two generations (20-40 years). Now the world has about 450 million healthy, educated, intelligent people. Assume they have benefited from western-style prenatal care and their educational level has a mean of primary and secondary education (maybe up to our notions of an 8th grade level).

Have our models of development outcomes aimed at alleviated poverty given any thought as to what happens next? What are those healthier, smarter people going to be doing with themselves? Will there be a social, economic, environmental infrastructure capable of carrying this new population? To assume that all of the younger, smarter, ambitious would aspire to stay in their rural or small city settings to be teachers and social workers is hardly realistic. Would they instead be compelled to migrate to urban areas to seek economic opportunity? Would those urban areas be ready for this new migration? The larger scale cities hardly seem able to do that now.

The point here is that models of development need to take a whole system-of-systems in approach in its design, its measurement definitions, and not stop their models at the point of desired outcomes. In the Evaluation Logic Model [iii]sense, Outcomes lead to new situations with new complications and potential problems to solve. There are unending chains of Situation-Target-Outcomes in development aid. Planning and execution has to be informed such that aid does not lead to unintended consequences. Therefore, it seems an approach like Banerjee and Duflo’s coupled with some kind of systems thinking methodology (approaches like Peter Checkland, Gregory Bateson) could be developed as our next step.


[i] World Bank. Beyond Economic Growth: Student Book.

[ii] Easterly, William. Measuring How and Why Aid Works--Or Doesn't. Wall Street Journal - Eastern Edition. 4/30/2011. Vol.257,Iss.100;p.C5.

[iii] Program Development and Evaluation, Univ. of Wisconsin, http://www.uwex.edu/ces/pdande/evaluation/evallogicmodel.html. Retrieved 20110623.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri. W. W. Norton & Company. January 2001

This was Manil Suri’s first novel, written in 2001. He is an applied mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. [1] He was the author of a few short stories prior to his first novel. When this book was published, the author had been away from India for about 20 years (he had in fact come to the US as a student at Carnige Mellon when he was 20). However, once it was published in India, some prominent critics there called it an “Indian novel”.  The novel takes place in contemporary Mumbai and is based upon some of the people the author knew of in his apartment building while growing up in Mumbai.

The stage of the story centers on the lives of people in an apartment building. The protagonist, Vishnu, inhabits a stair landing between the ground and first floors. He is very poor, somewhat of an alcoholic, middle aged, and lay dying on his landing. Vishnu gained this prized spot in the building (prized due to his standing or caste) by purchasing the right from the previous occupant. Additionally, in exchange for occupying on the landing as his residence in the building, he does odd jobs for some of the families (such as standing in line to get milk in the morning, washing dishes, and so on).

Life in the building goes on as he lay dying. There are two Hindu families living on the first floor, a Muslim family on the second, and a widower who rarely comes out of his apartment on the third floor. The two families on the first floor have an ongoing tension, rivalry, and bickering going on between the wives over several of things. For example, their shared kitchen (on the same floor) is a place of a sustained passive-aggressive arms race. Accusations fly from one woman against the other for assumedly taking more than her share of water ration from the cistern on the roof. This could bring on a reprisal in the guise of “borrowing” the other family’s ghee (clarified butter) or other, and so on.

As it slowly dawns on these women that Vishnu is ill (the novel begins with one of the women delivering Vishnu’s morning tea and finds him comatose and having soiled himself), they begin fighting over which family should take responsibility for doing something. This becomes an ever more volatile issue between them as the day goes on, both demanding of the other to pay for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. At one point, the two husbands, neither of whom have much control over their wives and generally keep out of the way of the conflicts and from each other, decide to arrange for an ambulance between each other without their wives’ knowledge or approval. Once the ambulance arrives, neither wife agrees to pay the ambulance attendant until after much arguing and struggle. Once the ambulance has been given their fee, he demands someone sign for the responsibility for Vishnu’s hospital bill. Neither family was prepared to go that far and the ambulance left, with Vishnu at that point either near death or having had actually died.

Much else of the narrative takes place in Vishnu’s mind as he fades in and out of consciousness and his memories of childhood, his youth, scenes of his lost love (who was a prostitute). Vishnu never married and had no immediate family in the sprawling city, his relatives living several hours away by train in the interior of India. Eventually, his soul begins to leave his body and he is able to hear the voices of the insects crawling around the stairway and within the walls, able to see the lives of the other residents go about their day, all the while continuing his fading from the present into the past. As he “climbs” the stairs, compelled by some urge to go to the roof of the building, be begins to believe himself to actually be the final incarnation of Vishnu, rather than being dead (which does not seem to occur to him at all). As he ascends to the top stairs, his visions become more and more laden with imagery of Hindu mythology until, at last, he enters the home of all the gods who are all waiting to greet him. His journey then rapidly takes him to the close of his story, into the company of Krisna who sits in a beautiful forest playing his characteristic flute. Vishnu, greatly puzzled at realizing he is not the incarnation of his namesake god, asks the boy ‘What now?’ to which is replied, ‘Why, you rest and then go back, of course’! Vishnu is then finally at peace after a long, very difficult life of poverty, struggle, and humiliating death (though appropriate for his station in life).

One of my favorite characters of the novel was Mr. Jalal. He was the husband of the Muslim family from the second floor. His story within the novel was significant as it became something of a flashpoint in one of the many subplots. Jalal was a skeptical, intellectual, and critical man, well read in western and eastern philosophies and religions. Mostly an agnostic (while other characters, including his wife, were obsessively superstitious and religious), he was at the time of the novel dealing with a spiritual crisis of his own. He was seeking for himself some kind of religious experience, or feeling, something that did not appeal to the intellect or the emotions but to the soul, and experience which he felt he needed but could not find. He believed the key to the religious experience was suffering and he tried several different methods to achieve the requisite amount. However, he was basically afraid of pain (‘why must pain be so painful’, he said to himself at one point) which further complicated his journey to arrive at a religious experience.

One of the acts of suffering Jalal attempted was to lie down with Vishnu on the landing, perhaps as an act of contrition to God (or gods) to be at a level of one so lowly as Vishnu, or perhaps to contract the disease that the residents assumed had had made Vishnu ill. Before doing this, however, the daughter of one of the first floor Hindu families and his son made their try at elopement. As the young woman went down stairs, she left an article of clothing on Vishnu as a keepsake.

Jalal had a fitful dream that he interpreted as an authentic religious vision of the Hindu god, Vishnu. He was awakened in the early morning of the next day by the other first floor family (rivals to the one whose daughter had run away with Jalal’s son). (Bear in mind Vishnu was likely very much dead at this point but the families were not all that interested it seems to verify this fact). Once awoken, he excitedly recounted his vision of Vishnu to them. He had, unfortunately, merely recounted a scene from the Bhagavad Gita that he was at the time not aware he had read years ago and had forgotten. But he was sure he had achieved his goal of a genuine religious experience and that he was now a prophet, of all things, Vishnu. It was his calling, he believed, to bring harmony to the two great religions of India, Islam and Hinduism.

When the vendors and others (all Hindus) who did not live in the building learned that the Hindu family’s daughter’s shawl had been left near Jalal, who was clearly crazy or drunk, and that his son was also missing, rumors quickly spread that the girl was a victim of foul play. A small mob formed, marched to the second floor, intending to extract justice. They beat Mrs. Jalal senseless and caused Mr. Jalal to fall from a balcony as he tried to escape.

What this novel portrays of a modern Indian city is quite exciting. All of the Hindu married couples had been arranged marriages. Each of these marriages started off on somewhat awkwardly but each had, it seemed, grew to be in love with each other. The daughter who attempted an elopement with Jalal’s son, was in fact having such a marriage arranged prior to the Jalal’s demise. It was interesting to see how she abandoned the younger Jalal later on the day of the elopement and after they left the city. Once she realized that they were to start a modest, humble life in a smaller city, she thought better of the arranged marriage: it was more attractive to her to be worshiped by the homely engineer her parents had arranged a marriage to. I had assumed that such marriages were mostly a thing of the past, not something in a modern, high-tech India (even pre-high-tech India of the 70’s and 80’s) would be common.

Next, the castes, or stations of life, the vendors and Vishnu had in comparison to the higher life of the building’s apartment residents was arresting: I had no familiarity of these separations of people other than a vague understanding of such a cultural condition. Further surprising was how the vendors who sold their wares to all the families with no apparent prejudice or ill will to the Jalal’s, and even in some cases had served that family for many years, would all succumb to being swept up in a religion-inspired violent act against them. 

There are also frequent scenes of how valuable space is to the lives of the characters. A stair case landing makes a legitimate home for someone. Some people of lower castes as Vishnu can take up residence on some of the lower stairs. The stair case itself serves as a metaphor for both spiritual journeys (for Vishnu certainly and then for Jalal, too, to a certain extent) and for caste, class, and rank (the higher floors were occupied by higher income families). Cramped, shortages of space also figures prominently to the two Hindu families whose rivalries and resentments emerge most often in the shared kitchen.

In one way, the novel could be a kind of social allegory for India. Vishnu embodies the interplay of earthly powerlessness but with a certain kind of spiritual power (through his progression from living to death). We see a vibrant, intense Indian city that is a crowded, noisy place. Your place in society, whether Hindi or not, makes up more of you than it would be made of in America. Tradition, religion, and superstitions (even spells, witchcraft and so on) are very important to many people (as it is here) that further defines the self in India for an Indian. This is a valuable, fascinating book and an impressive first novel.


[1] Manil Suri, Biography. http://www.manilsuri.com/suri-bio.htm.  Retrieved 20110701.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Do we need the UN? Review of Weiss' "What's Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix it"


Weiss, Thomas (2008). What's Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix it . Malden, MA: Policy Press.  (Paperback).   ISBN-10: 0745642985.  ISBN-13: 978-0745642987


Weiss starts his book with a well founded critical view of the UN. He leads his readers to a set of positive course-corrections. However much his solutions make sense, they will require substantial effort and, perhaps, even more good luck (timing of changes, dynamic change-leader figures like Kofi Annan, shifting power centers, climate change crisis, and so on).

He begins his work by identifying the single most aggravating problem in the UN that of entrenched concepts of sovereignty among the member states. This Westphalian imprint condition may be the root cause of all the ills of the UN (Weiss likens it to an ill patient in some passages) as it seems a likely cause to the UN’s tendency to bureaucratic stasis. Whether or not Weiss’ characteristics of Westphailian sovereignty are the actual root cause to the UN’s global governance problems should require further study and consideration. For it is also possible that an organization as complex as the UN may not, by its nature, be functional in the conventional sense of what we (Americans) think organizations should be and how they should function. That is, the entrenched sovereignty problem may actually be more of a coloration or facet of something far deeper and less easy to define existing in the nature of human beings and their social functions.

Weiss’ analysis begins by identifying three UN’s: The first is a World Issues Theatre upon which state actors play out their vital roles for their constituents and the world’s stage (Castro, Kruschev, Gore, GW Bush, etc). Second, are the Secretariats, the work-a-day representatives of their nations, who could perhaps be characterized as the team players in perpetual, winner-take-all sovereignty scrums. And third are the NGOs, the nongovernmental orgs of committed citizens, idea mongers, and others.

Next, Weiss rightly identifies how the US has historically been a kind of competing global governance institution to the UN. As a result, much of the UN’s recent history (post cold war) has been one of how to curb the ambitions of its most powerful member and primary competitor. The UN’s governance structure, though, institutionalizes this problem; UN military action can only really take place with US approval (while US actions can always take place without UN approval).

Another important impediment to change is the Security Council. As a de facto board of governors, the council rarely makes consistent or swift decisions (Libya aside). Its membership is static, jealously guarded, and so resistant to change that doing away with it altogether may be the best remedy. At any rate, the need to change the make-up of its membership and processes is vital for the UN’s future. As Weiss shows, however, the debate surrounding this extremely important issue verges on farcical impasse.

Does the world need the United Nations, or any overarching global governance institution? One answer could be ‘If not the UN, then what?’ Given the web of environmental and economic interdependencies of our global lives, coordinated, intergovernmental-regional governance schemes naturally emerge due to one necessity or another. But whether the world needs a single, giant, monolith like the UN is something that the organization itself should be seriously debating –for its sake and ours.

For all the things wrong with the UN, Weiss does explain how it has been effective in some ways that maybe it had not intended or planned. For instance, the UN has been effective in small, out of the ordinary instances. For example, the Ottawa land mines treaties, World Health initiatives, global pandemic warning systems, The ICC, and some effectiveness in keeping human rights upfront as a global issue (or at least good theatre). The UN provides a vital institutional space for a North-South dialog (where else or how else could this happen to the extent it does in the UN is difficult to imagine). And even the outcomes of the development agenda goals, though largely ambiguous, have alleviated a certain amount of human suffering (and for that we should be grateful).

The changes in the structure and responsibilities of the UN that should be considered ought to require even further study. Fundamental to Weiss’ framing and description of improvements is that there is too much autonomy given to state actors. That is, he seems to be saying that UN membership should be a privilege with a set of responsibilities and expectations on state behavior. For this, Weiss proposes recasting state sovereignty in terms of “R2P” (the “responsibility to protect”). That is, states must behave with peaceful, responsible intent with other states and toward its own people. It is difficult to imagine states ceding the right to treat their own citizens in one way or another, let alone how they treat other states. But Weiss’ R2P may be unrealistic as it is based on the hope that such change can be driven by a romantic ideal of enlightened self interest.

The solution to balancing the military power of the US, for Weiss, is to simply have an equal military power player emerge, ideally in the guise of the EU. The fact that Weiss did not entertain that China is a more realistic candidate suggests, perhaps, a bit of a neo-Liberal stance exists in this suggestion. The EU would be more comfortable choice of course for an American. But if what better world governance needs is a military player to balance that of the US, then what we may have to live with is what evolves rather than what we wish, or are comfortable with.

After reading Weiss, it is still unclear whether the UN is a beast, a wall, a snake, or a spear. It could be characterized as a sick patient but then the next question is what constitutes a healthy version of this patient, or whether it has ever not been a sick patient is not to be found in this Weiss’ present book. It is likely that the UN is all those things and even more. More importantly to any discussion of change, is the likelihood that in the science of organizational studies there is probably no other organization in modern times quite like the UN. Its characteristics, complexities, contradictions, and innumerable systems of systems, may in fact defy the current range of understanding and explanatory power we have on how organizations work and, from there, how they can be improved. Thus, if we really do not fully understand, or have adequately models to describe the organized chaos of the modern UN, prescribing fixes will be unfortunately based on inappropriately applied organizational models. Treating such a ‘sick patient’ that way may bring on more harm than good (and there may be evidence for such incidents if we were to look for them).

In the end, Weiss’ text is positive and provocative as it should challenge readers’ assumptions of this strange, exotic organization. The world needs a coordinated, global governance organization but perhaps the UN has taken on more than it is capable. And this may be one of its major faults that it could immediately (meaning in 8 to 10 years) address. Perhaps the UN should look at what is working well and put resources into improving on and building up those institutions. In the meantime, those institutions which are proving less and less effective, such as the Security Council and military interventions, should be slowly disbanded. Clearly, desired outcomes from interventions (development or emergency relief) and certain initiatives (human rights or climate change) may have to come in smaller optimizations rather than the grand schemes of world government.