For those of us who believe that international development is a good thing (or ought to be), Michael Hobbes’ essay for the New Republic makes for a depressing read – all the more so because Hobbes is no dyed-in-the-wool opponent of foreign aid.

He recounts many examples of aid projects that fail to make a difference – or make things worse:

“A project in Kenya that gave kids free uniforms, textbooks, and classroom materials increased enrollment by 50 percent, swamping the teachers and reducing the quality of education for everyone. Communities in India cut off their own water supply so they could be classified as ‘slums’ and be eligible for slum-upgrading funding. I’ve worked in places where as soon as a company sets up a health clinic or an education program, the local government disappearswhy should they spend money on primary schools when a rich company is ready to take on the responsibility?

“There’s nothing avaricious about this. If anything, it demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit we’re constantly telling the poor they need to demonstrate.”

But what about evidence-based development – i.e. projects that bother to measure the outcome of different forms of assistance? Isn’t this an improvement on simply dispensing largesse without heed to its effectiveness?

It is – but even here there are pitfalls. Indeed, good results from a pilot project in a particular location may present an irresistible temptation to ‘roll out’ an identical formula in all sorts of other places:

“…it’s appealing to think that, once you find a successful formula for development, you can just scale it up like a Model T. Host governments want programs that get more effective as they get bigger. Individual donors, you and me, we want to feel like we’re backing a plucky little start-up that is going to save the world. No international institution wants to say in their annual report: ‘There’s this great NGO that increased attendance in a Kenyan school district. We’re giving them a modest sum to do the same thing in one other district in one other country.’”

And yet a slow and painstaking process of testing and re-testing is exactly what’s required:

“The repeated ‘success, scale, fail’ experience of the last 20 years of development practice suggests something super boring: Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied. It’s not that you test something in one place, then scale it up to 50. It’s that you test it in one place, then test it in another, then another. No one will ever be invited to explain that in a TED talk.”

The testing and re-testing of innovation is something that properly functioning markets do ‘automatically’. Henry Ford may have been successful in scaling up the Model T, but many of his rivals were not – and it was the market that did the weeding out. The danger of ‘big ideas’ in international development is that, sustained by external resources, they can grow unchecked by reality (until it’s too late).

Of course, the notion that we should just give up and abolish the foreign aid budget is another ‘big idea’ – generalising from specific examples of bad practice (of which, admittedly, there are many) into a dogmatic assertion that all aid is a bad thing. Yes, properly functioning markets (together with properly functioning democracies, governments and civil societies) are the best way of spreading beneficial innovations – but when they’re absent, aid provides a substitute.

For this substitute to work, however, it needs to be self-limiting – consciously eschewing big ideas and paying constant heed to local conditions.

Mind you, we could do with more of that sort of attitude back home.

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