Moving away from aid in development


Today, world leaders are meeting in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa for the third Financing for Development summit. This builds upon the work of previous summits to produce a framework for the funding of development programmes and all that entails. It's an important discussion, not least of all because after decades of hurling cash at nations, growth in recipient nations has been sub par. Clemens et al. indicate that a 1% increase in aid in one year results in a 0.1-0.2% growth in real GDP per capita on average, which emerges in the following 5-10 years from the aid increase. Previous studies have conflicted in their findings of the impact of aid on growth - this paper reconciles the various views by controlling for confounding factors and considering just those factors that tend to have a short-term impact. Such a modest increase (combined with the fact that this is an average figure - many countries would not have benefited from aid at all) indicates that the effectiveness of aid is, from a charitable perspective, suspect. In subsequent posts on this subject, I’ll write on alternatives to aid.

Development aid is often confused with humanitarian aid - and this makes it look much more appealing than it really is. Few people would advocate not donating to emergency causes in other nations to help in the aftermath of a crisis; long-term development aid doesn't have this morally glossy hue. The main reason is simply just that the evidence doesn't show it to be very effective.

The economist Dambisa Moyo has written extensively on this subject in her book, Dead Aid (2010). She puts forward the argument that aid in Africa has served only to entrench aid dependency, and result in market-distorting inefficiencies. The consequence of this approach is one in which donor nations are off the hook but none of the promised benefits have accrued to the recipients. Moyo also indicates some evidence to show that nations that didn't receive aid have done better than those that have. Her research and argument goes further than many mainstream development economists (i.e. Paul Collier, who maintains that the right kind of aid can be helpful) - for Moyo, it's not just that aid has been ineffective, but that aid has entrenched the poverty it sought to cure Africa of.

This provides great context for Lucy Martin's paper on the impact of tax compared with aid. Martin finds from experiments in Uganda that citizens are 13% more willing to punish leaders for misusing tax revenue on average - but those with most experience of taxation are 30% more likely to punish government. The theory is simple: the loss of utility is higher when, not only do you lose earned income, but that income is not put to good use to produce social goods. The fact that in many countries, poor citizens do not pay tax results in less anger and frustration at poor governance. Aid as a substitute for tax revenue hence enables this process to continue and results in less frustration - and less clamour for better governance, without which the institutions that result in development cannot develop.

In 2006, William Easterly wrote:

The evidence is stark: $568 billion spent on aid to Africa, and yet the typical African country no richer today than 40 years ago. Dozens of “structural adjustment” loans (aid loans conditional on policy reforms) made to Africa, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America, only to see the failure of both policy reform and economic growth. The evidence suggests that aid results in less democratic and honest government, not more. Yet, unchastened by this experience, we still have such absurdities as the grandiose plans by Jeffrey Sachs and the United Nations to do 449 separate interventions to reach 54 separate goals by the year 2015 (the Millennium Development Goals), accompanied by urgent pleas to double aid money.

Nothing much has changed since his time of writing, except we have committed yet more resource to an aid programme which is at best ineffective and at worst harming the prospects of the world’s poorest. The insights of extensive research and leading economists should inform us to proceed carefully and to give more weight to those areas of development that might be more fruitful. Most importantly, when the evidence suggests we might be doing enormous harm to those least able to bear it, our governments should be proceeding with humility and caution rather than hiding behind their cheque books.