Entries tagged with “Bill Gates”.

I’m late to this show – I was traveling last week when the whole Gates/Moyo throwdown happened. I was going to let it go, but I have received enough prodding from others to offer my thoughts – probably because I have offered extended critiques of Moyo’s Dead Aid (links below), while also noting that Gates’ understandings of the problems of aid and development are a bit myopic. So, here we go…

Bill Gates finally voiced what has been implicit in much of his approach to development – he sees aid and development critics as highly problematic people who slow down progress (or whatever Bill thinks passes for progress).  Honestly, this is thoroughly unsurprising to anyone who has paid any attention to what Bill has said all along, or indeed anything the Gates Foundation does.  There just isn’t much room for meta-criticism at the foundation or its work – sure, they evaluate their programs, but there isn’t much evaluation/consideration of whether or not the guiding principals behind those programs make much sense.  There is an assumption that Gates’ goals are somehow self-evident, and therefore critics are just problems to be solved.

Let’s just start with this part of what Gates said. To me, his comments represent a profound misunderstanding of the place of aid and development criticism – his comments represent critics as annoyances to be brushed away, implying that criticism is an end unto itself. I do not know a single aid/development critic for whom criticism is the end. Critical thinking, and any resultant criticism, is a means to the end of changing the world. Simply put, without critical thinkers to constantly evaluate, challenge, and push the thinking of those in the world of development policy and implementation, where would we be? Take gender, for example. Today, nobody questions the need to consider the gender of the beneficiary when we think about policies or programs, but in the late 1960s those who first raised this issue were critics, often viewed as “annoyances” who slowed down the process of designing and implementing projects with their silly concerns about the needs of women. Gates does his foundation, and the entire enterprise/discipline of development a disservice in this rather sad misrepresentation of the aid critic.

Had Gates simply said what he did about aid critics in the abstract, I think it would have passed without much comment. But he didn’t. Instead, he singled out Dambisa Moyo as an archetype of aid criticism. As a result, he gave a platform to someone who clearly loves the attention. I fear he also somehow made her the archetype for the aid critic, validating a writer whose “critical” arguments are rife with errors and problems (I detailed these in an extended review of her book here, here, here, here, and here). In short, Gates was rather clever here: he picked the contemporary aid critic with the greatest conceptual shortcomings and held her up as the problem, as if the rest of the critical thinkers shared her thinking, shallow arguments, and factual problems. Further, he (apparently rightly, given the reaction of twitter and the blogosphere) seems to have assumed that such critics should and would rally to her support.

Well, not me.

I am without question a critical thinker when it comes to development and aid. I have a hell of a paper trail to prove it. But I do not see myself as a colleague or contemporary of Dambisa Moyo. I’d prefer to be a colleague of Bill Easterly, Arturo Escobar, James Ferguson, James Scott, and Timothy Mitchell (all more senior than me), and I see myself as a colleague of Katharine McKinnon, Kat O’Reilly, Mara Goldman, and Farhana Sultana (all friends or colleagues of my generation).  All of these scholars have conducted extensive scholarly work on the problems of development, and backed up their work with evidence. I don’t think any of these scholars is perfect, and some have produced pieces of work that I see as deeply flawed, but all hold their work to a much higher standard than that I saw in Dead Aid.

The fact is that Gates was right: Moyo doesn’t know much about aid and what it is doing – Dead Aid made this rather clear (seriously, read my review of the book). On her webpage, she argues that she “dedicated many years to economic study up to the Ph.D. level, to analyze and understand the inherent weaknesses of aid, and why aid policies have consistently failed to deliver on economic growth and poverty alleviation.” First, a Ph.D. is no guarantee of knowing anything – and I say that as someone who holds two Ph.D.s! I have seen absolutely no scholarly output from Moyo’s Ph.D. work that supports any sense that she developed a rigorous understanding of aid at all. Indeed, her very phrasing – she sought to analyze and understand the inherent weakness of aid – suggests that her work is not analytical, but political. And after two years in D.C., one thing I have learned is that the political has very little to do with facts or evidence. In that regard, I can safely say that Dead Aid is a political book.

Second, being born and raised in a poor country does not mean that one understands the experiences of everyone in that country. Zambia is a culturally, economically, and environmentally diverse country, home to many different experiences.  Just as I cannot make any claim to understand the experiences of all Americans just because I was born here, majored in American Studies, and have lived in five states and a federal colony (D.C.), Moyo’s implicit claim that being born in Zambia allows her to speak for all those living in countries that receive aid, let alone all Zambians, is absurd.

Finally, she argues that she has served as a consultant at the World Bank, implicitly suggesting this gives her great purchase on development thought. It does not. As I have argued elsewhere, working as a consultant for a donor is not the same thing as working as an employee of a donor. I too have been a consultant at the World Bank. Technically, I am currently a consultant for USAID. These are very different roles from those I occupied while employed at USAID. Consultants are not privy to the internal conversations and machinations of development donors, and have at best partial understandings of what drives decisions about development policy and implementation.  Moyo has no practical experience at all with the realities of development donors, a fact that comes through in Dead Aid.

So let’s divorce the two things that Bill Gates did in his comments. He completely misrepresented aid critics in two ways: first, in failing to recognize the contributions of aid criticism to the improvement of aid and development programs, and second in lumping aid critics into the same basket as Dambisa Moyo.  This lumping is pretty egregious, and the overall characterization represents a significant flaw in Gates’ thinking about development that is likely to come back to bite his foundation in the ass in the near future – without criticism of the overall ideas behind the foundation, it’s programs will wither and die.  We can separate this first problem from Gates critique of Dambisa Moyo, which aside from characterizing her as doing evil (which is just going too far, really), pretty much got the assessment of her thinking right.

In short, let’s push back against Bill’s thinking on development criticism, but not valorize Moyo’s crap arguments in the process.

Bill Gates, in his annual letter, makes a compelling argument for the need to better measure the effectiveness of aid.  There is a nice, 1 minute summary video here.  This is becoming a louder and louder message in development and aid, having been pushed now by folks ranging from Raj Shah, the Administrator of USAID, to most everyone at the Center for Global Development.  There are interesting debates going on about how to shift from a focus on outputs (we bought this much stuff for this many dollars) to a focus on impacts (the stuff we bought did the following good things in the world).  Most of these discussions are technical, focused on indicators and methods.  What is not discussed is the massively failure-averse institutional culture of development donors, and how this culture is driving most of these debates.  As a result, I think that Gates squanders his bully pulpit by arguing that we should be working harder on evaluation. We all know that better evaluation would improve aid and development. Suggesting that this is even a serious debate in development requires a nearly-nonexistent straw man that somehow thinks learning from our programs and projects is bad.

Like most everyone else in the field, I agree with the premise that better measurement (thought very broadly, to include methods and data across the quantitative to qualitative spectrum) can create a learning environment from which we might make better decisions about aid and development. But none of this matters if all of the institutional pressures run against hearing bad news. Right now, donors simply cannot tolerate bad news, even in the name of learning. Certainly, there are lots of people within the donor agencies that are working hard on finding ways to better evaluate and learn from existing and past programs, but these folks are going to be limited in their impact as long as agencies such as USAID answer to legislators that seem ready to declare any misstep a waste of taxpayer money, and therefore a reason to cut the aid budget…so how can they talk about failure?

So, a modest proposal for Bill Gates. Bill (may I call you Bill?), please round up a bunch of venture capitalists. Not the nice socially-responsible ones (who could be dismissed as bleeding-heart lefties or something of the sort), the real red-in-tooth-and-claw types.  Bring them over to DC, and parade out these enormously wealthy, successful (by economic standards, at least) people, and have them explain to Congress how they make their money. Have them explain how they got rich failing on eight investments out of ten, because the last two investments more than paid for the cost of the eight failures. Have them explain how failure is a key part of learning, of success, and how sometimes failure isn’t the fault of the investor or donor – sometimes it is just bad luck. Finally, see if anyone is interested in taking a back-of-the-envelope shot at calculating how much impact is lost due to risk-averse programming at USAID (or any other donor, really).  You can shame Congress, who might feel comfortable beating up on bureaucrats, but not so much on economically successful businesspeople.  You could start to bring about the culture change needed to make serious evaluation a reality. The problem is not that people don’t understand the need for serious evaluation – I honestly don’t know anyone making that argument.  The problem is creating a space in which that can happen. This is what you should be doing with your annual letter, and with the clout that your foundation carries.

Failing that (or perhaps alongside that), lead by demonstration – create an environment in your foundation in which failure becomes a tag attached to anything from which we do not learn, instead of a tag attached to a project that does not meet preconceived targets or outcomes.  Forget charter cities (no, really, forget them), become the “charter donor” that shows what can be done when this culture is instituted.

The evaluation agenda is getting stale, running aground on the rocky shores of institutional incentives. We need someone to pull it off the rocks.  Now.

Charles Kenny’s* book Getting Better has received quite a bit of attention in recent months, at least in part because Bill Gates decided to review it in the Wall Street Journal (up until that point, I thought I had a chance of outranking Charles on Amazon, but Gates’ positive review buried that hope).  The reviews that I have seen (for example here, here and here) cast the book as a counterweight to the literature of failure that surrounds development, and indeed Getting Better is just that.  It’s hard to write an optimistic book about a project as difficult as development without coming off as glib, especially when it is all too easy to write another treatise that critiques development in a less than constructive way.  It’s a challenge akin to that facing the popular musician – it’s really, really hard to convey joy in a way that moves the listener (I’m convinced this ability is the basis of Bjork’s career), but fairly easy to go hide in the basement for a few weeks, pick up a nice pallor, tune everything a step down, put on a t-shirt one size too small and whine about the girlfriend/boyfriend that left you.

Much of the critical literature on development raises important challenges to development practice and thought, but does so in a manner that makes addressing those challenges very difficult (if not intentionally impossible).  For example, deep (and important) criticisms of development anchored in poststructural understandings of discourse, meaning and power (for example, Escobar’s Encountering Development and Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine) emerged in the early and mid-1990s, but their critical power was not tied in any way to a next step . . . which eventually undermined the critical project.  It also served to isolate academic development studies from the world of development practice in many ways, as even those working in development who were open to these criticisms could find no way forward from them.  Tearing something down is a lot easier than building something new from the rubble.

While Getting Better does not reconstruct development, its realistically grounded optimism provides what I see as a potential foundation for a productive rethinking of efforts to help the global poor.  Kenny chooses to begin from a realistic grounding, where Chapters 2 and 3 of the book present us with the bad news (global incomes are diverging) and the worse news (nobody is really sure how to raise growth rates).  But, Kenny answers these challenges in three chapters that illustrate ways in which things have been improving over the past several decades, from sticking a fork in the often-overused idea of poverty traps to the recognition that quality of life measures appear to be converging globally.  This is more than a counterweight to the literature of failure – this book is a counterweight to the literature of development that all-too-blindly worships growth as its engine.  In this book, Kenny clearly argues that growth-centric approaches to development don’t seem to be having the intended results, and growth itself is extraordinarily difficult to stimulate . . . and despite these facts, things are improving in many, many places around the world.   This opens the door to question the directionality of causality in the development and growth relationship: is growth the cause of development, or its effect?

Here, I am pushing Kenny’s argument beyond its overtly stated purpose in the book. Kenny doesn’t overtly take on a core issue at the heart of development-as-growth: can we really guarantee 3% growth per year for everyone forever?  But at the same time, he illustrates that development is occurring in contexts where there is little or no growth, suggesting that we can delink the goal of development from the impossibility of endless growth.  If ever there were a reason to be an optimist about the potential for development, this delinking is it.

I feel a great kinship with this book, in its realistic optimism.  I also like the lurking sense of development as a catalyst for change, as opposed to a tool or process by which we obtain predictable results from known interventions.  I did find Getting Better’s explanations for social change to rest a bit too heavily on a simplistic diffusion of ideas, a rather exogenous explanation of change that was largely abandoned by anthropology and geography back in the structure-functionalism of the 1940s and 50s.  The book does not really dig into “the social” in general.  For example, Kenny’s discussion of randomized control trials for development (RCT4D), like the RCT4D literature itself, is preoccupied with “what works” without really diving into an exploration of why the things that worked played out so well.  To be fair to Kenny, his discussion was not focused on explanation, but on illustrating that some things that we do in development do indeed make things better in some measurable way.  I also know that he understands that “what works” is context specific . . . as indeed is the very definition of “works.”  However, why these things work and how people define success is critical to understanding if they are just anecdotes of success in a sea of failure, or replicable findings that can help us to better address the needs of the global poor.  In short, without an exploration of social process, it is not clear from these examples and this discussion that things are really getting better.

An analogy to illustrate my point – while we have very good data on rainfall over the past several decades in many parts of West Africa that illustrate a clear downward trend in overall precipitation, and some worrying shifts in the rainy seasons (at least in Ghana), we do not yet have a strong handle on the particular climate dynamics that are producing these trends.  As a result, we cannot say for certain that the trend of the past few decades will continue into the future – because we do not understand the underlying mechanics, all we can do is say that it seems likely, given the past few decades, that this trend will continue into the future.  This problem suggests a need to dig into such areas as atmospheric physics, ocean circulation, and land cover change to try to identify the underlying drivers of these observed changes to better understand the future pathways of this trend.  In Getting Better (and indeed in the larger RCT4D literature), we have a lot of trends (things that work), but little by way of underlying causes that might help us to understand why these things worked, whether they will work elsewhere, or if they will work in the same places in the future.

In the end, I think Getting Better is an important counterweight to both the literature of failure and a narrowly framed idea of development-as-growth.  My minor grumbles amount to a wish that this counterweight was heavier.  It is most certainly worth reading, and it is my hope that its readers will take the book as a hopeful launching point for further explorations of how we might actually achieve an end to global poverty.


*Full disclosure: I know Charles, and have had coffee with him in his office discussing his book and mine.  If you think that somehow that has swayed my reading of Getting Better, well, factor that into your interpretation of my review.

I’ve been going on quite a bit about how we envision the relationship between aid and development – or perhaps more appropriately, how we do not really envision that transition, but assume that it simply happens – quite a bit lately.  But pressing on my mind during my work life is the relationship between climate change and development – how do mitigation and adaptation efforts relate to development?  The answer, of course, is that they relate to development in many different ways.  For example, mitigation efforts include things like land use, which can impact existing agricultural practices, and constrain (or sometimes enable) the options available to the designers of agricultural development projects.  Adaptation efforts emphasize the prevention of negative outcomes, a form of coping, but unless this relationship is explicitly considered they do not necessarily rhyme with development projects that seek to build on existing resources and capacity to improve people’s situations.

(I confess that I am deeply concerned that development is rapidly being subsumed under adaptation in some quarters, which is a real problem as they have two different missions.  To refocus development projects on adaptation is to shift from an effort to improve someone’s situation to an effort to help them hang on to what little they might have.  But this is a post for a different day.)

There is a danger, in this era of enhanced attention and funding toward climate change, of using climate change funds to continue doing the same development work as we were doing before, only under a new label (i.e. calling agricultural development “agricultural adaptation”, then using climate change funds to support that program even though nothing about it has really changed).  It is an annoying habit of people in agencies, who are often cash- and personnel-strapped, to try to use new initiatives to support their existing projects.  There is also a danger, in places where climate change has a greater emphasis than development, that development dollars aimed at particular challenges will be repurposed to the end of addressing climate change, thus negatively impacting the original development goal.  A year ago, Bill Gates wrote warned against just such an outcome in his 2010 Annual Letter as co-chair of the Gates Foundation.  On first read, it is a reasonable argument – and one that I largely agree with.  We live in a world of finite donors, and new dollars to address climate change often have to come from some other pot of money funding another project or issue.  These are difficult choices, and Gates has every right to argue that his pet interest, global health, should not lose funding in favor of climate change related efforts.  However, his argument sets up a needless dichotomy between development/aid (in the form of public health funding) and efforts to address the impacts of climate change:

The final communiqué of the Copenhagen Summit, held last December, talks about mobilizing $10 billion per year in the next three years and $100 billion per year by 2020 for developing countries, which is over three quarters of all foreign aid now given by the richest countries.

I am concerned that some of this money will come from reducing other categories of foreign aid, especially health. If just 1 percent of the $100 billion goal came from vaccine funding, then 700,000 more children could die from preventable diseases. In the long run, not spending on health is a bad deal for the environment because improvements in health, including voluntary family planning, lead people to have smaller families, which in turn reduces the strain on the environment.

Well, sort of.  I could make a pretty brutal counterargument – not spending on health, such as HIV/AIDS leads to a lot of deaths in the productive segment of the population pyramid, leaving a lot of fallow land to recover its nonagricultural ecological functions.  This sort of land use change is actually visible in places like Swaziland, but very hard to quantify because the studies aren’t there yet – nobody wants to be seen as potentially supporting this sort of nightmarish conservation argument.  I certainly don’t – but that is not my point.  My point was that Gates’ argument is pretty thin.

In making a political point, Gates is being a bit selective about the relationship between climate change and health.  What he is completely ignoring is the fact that mitigation efforts might limit the future range of disease vectors for any number of illnesses, thus saving tremendous numbers of lives.  This is especially true for diseases, like malaria, where a vaccine has proven elusive.  Further, he ignores the ways in which coherent, participatory adaptation programs might address health issues (by managing everything from nutrition to sanitation) in an effective manner.  While I am not arguing that mitigation and adaptation efforts could completely address the impacts caused by the loss of $1 billion in vaccination funding, his argument for 700,000 extra deaths* rests upon the assumption that nothing in the climate change portfolio will address the causes of such deaths through other means.  He’s creating an either/or that does not exist.

Again, Gates is making a political point here – which is his right.  But that political point sets up a false dichotomy between aid/development and efforts to address climate change that even Bjorn Lomborg has abandoned at this point.  We can argue in the interest of our agencies and organizations all we want, but the problems we are trying to address are deeply interlinked, and in the end creating these false dichotomies, and claiming that one issue is THE issue that must be addressed, shortchanges the very constituencies we claim to be working with and working for.

*I must admit I loathe this sort of quantification – it is always based on horribly fuzzy math that, at best, is grounded in loose correlations between an action and a health outcome.  I raise this issue and take it apart at length in my book . . .