Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 12, 2005
By: Brad Plumer

ELIMINATING POVERTY?....Via Matt Yglesias (who has, as usual, great things to say), Dan Drezner is touting the UN Millenium Development, which aims to eradicate world poverty for a mere $150 billion a year. As Dan says, it's a proposal certainly worth discussing, though a few weeks back a colleague of mine at Mother Jones had a few skeptical things to say about the project. So let's get skeptical, if only to figure out what problems need fixing.

Reading over Jeffrey Sachs' UN report, one thing that strikes me is that he notes upfront: "Importantly, we are not advocating new development processes or policy vehicles." In other words, this isn't anything particularly different from aid policies of the past, and a lot of it does involve funneling money to corrupt governments. As Dan says, the project blacklists truly flagrant offenders like Zimbabwe and North Korea, but that still leaves a wide range of corrupt governments receiving plenty of aid.

So how is the plan going to enforce good governance in those countries? Ah:

In low-income countries where the political will genuinely exists to meet the Goals, specific investments and policy reforms are necessary to improve governance in six areas: public administration, strengthening the rule of law, increasing transparency and accountability, promoting political and social rights, promoting sound economic policies, and supporting civil society.

Worthy, of course, but much easier said than done. In Egypt, for instance, NGOs and other aid organizations have been trying to strengthen civil society for years, but it hasn't panned out all that well well. Most of the Egyptian "service NGOs" that receive foreign aid tend to get co-opted by the regime, and while they can perform a lot of valuable social services, they don't contribute much to governance reform. What's needed here, it seems, is for the U.S. to swagger on over and actually coerce (or "gently nudge") the Egyptian government into undertaking the sort of serious political changesthe legalization of political parties, more competitive elections, a lifting of press restrictionsthat can actually lead to a vibrant civil society. None of this is to disparage the Development Report, but some of these projects may require some proactive muscle-flexing on the part of the United States and, hopefully, Europe.

Another concern is a rather wonky one: the coordination of aid agencies. Since I'm here, I may as well flag a wonderful old Washington Monthly article by Nancy Birdsall and Brian Deese back that shows how, when every country tries to give out aid in its own way and pursue its own preferred projects, you get inefficiency, waste, and overlap. In Guinea, for example, schools can cost anywhere between $130 and $878 per square meter, depending on which country is in charge. So better coordination would automatically free up $748 per square metera "free lunch" if there ever was one. Now Chapter 13 of the Sachs report addresses these problems directly, which makes me think that, whatever its other flaws, it could easily lead to an instant improvement in global economic development.

Brad Plumer 5:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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