Saturday, October 19, 2013

Important Thing To Remember About Foreign Aid

In reviewing an important new book in the popular literature about foreign aid, political scientist Chris Blattman makes a great point:
"Aid isn't a uniform mass. Deaton knows this, and my guess is he's talking about a particular kind of aid. I don't think he means emergency relief for disaster and conflicts. I don't think he means the money behind peacekeeping forces and post-war assistance. He might exclude child sponsorship. I'm guessing he's not talking about money spent on vaccine research in the West. He might even exclude support for elections and party-building and other democratization."
This nuance often gets lost in the marketing scrum surrounding foreign aid commentary, but is an important insight that critically reduces the issue's partisanship. Less partisanship over foreign aid allows coalitions to form that cut across the noxious Republican-Democrat divide. Novel and easily-changed coalitions allow good policy to be tested and scaled up, and bad policy to be eliminated quickly. The more the "foreign aid" concept is put into a simplified, homogeneous box, the easier it is for political entrepreneurs to employ it as just another weapon in our partisan total war.

Foreign aid should be understood as merely a convenient shorthand for all manner of social, economic, and political transfers occurring between countries of varying levels of development. Under this conception, issues not typically considered "foreign aid" would benefit from its relatively nonpartisan identity and moral seriousness (immigration), and also classic mechanisms of foreign aid might be better exposed as merely tools used by established political and economic interests to pursue their private goals (food aid, geopolitics).

Just as "regulation" can't simply be added up--some areas have too much regulation (occupational licensing), others too little (environmental degradation)--foreign aid encompasses effective resource flows and ineffective ones, depending on the goal. Only by being clear about what we're talking about for a given aid program or policy can we make real progress towards achieving a sufficient level of development for everybody.

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