Angus Deaton and the foreign aid debate

Angus Deaton is in town, promoting his new book, The Great Escape. I am a huge fan, so off I went to a breakfast discussion at the (super-plush!) Legatum Institute, to hear him talk about it. And of course he was brilliant and interesting on inequality and the stuff that really matters. Then the last third or so of the talk was taken up by a big diatribe against aid, on the basis that it does more harm than good.

I almost always find myself disagreeing with strong opinions either for or against aid. On the whole I don’t think it’s as important as either its supporters or its detractors think it is.  But if an intellectual giant like Prof Deaton pays so much attention to it, you’d assume that the evidence base is pretty strong. Not quite. The aid chapter of the book relies on a series of anecdotes and inferences – which in any other case, I suspect an academic of the standing of Angus Deaton would not consider adequate as the basis for drawing such unequivocal conclusions.

People have tried to get beyond stories and test the relationship between aid and governance more systematically – some find a negative relationship, others a positive one, at least with some aspects of what we think of as good governance.  We shouldn’t be surprised that the evidence isn’t clear – all attempts to link aid strongly to macro level outcomes like ‘growth’ or ‘good governance’ seem doomed to failure. It’s just not that simple. Disappointingly for the polemicists among us, the answer to any question about aid is almost always….’it depends’.

…all of which serves to introduce this much more detailed analysis by my colleague Richard Mallett:

No role for aid? Some thoughts on Angus Deaton’s new work

Richard Mallett, ODI

I don’t like Mondays. This is true in general, but this week’s was made particularly disappointing by a fruitless visit to a university bookshop in an attempt to procure Angus Deaton’s latest, The Great Escape. Hadn’t had any in stock since August, apparently. Not strong. Thankfully, my disappointment was short-lived: I soon learned that the man himself would be talking about his new tome at the LSE the next day. Perfect – a chance to snare a copy (and feel like a student again).

His talk was excellent. Crystallising vast amounts of data and information, Deaton took his audience on a journey starting several hundred years ago, showing how the remarkable gains in wealth and health made over this period have not just been accompanied by, but have actually created, screaming gaps in living standards (the health and wealth inequalities we see today).

But I left feeling not altogether satisfied. The reason for this was, I think, the treatment given to aid towards the end of the talk, which kind of came out of the blue: there was no particularly strong suggestion at any point that aid would become a central theme of the conclusion (Fred Andrews of the New York Times has likewise described the book’s discussion of aid as ‘jarring and odd’). But it did – and Deaton’s assessment is not an encouraging one.

Continue reading

Evidence, policy and badgers

Fascinating discussion on how evidence from a randomised trial should be used in policy making, on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning.  Summed up in this exchange…

Interviewee: ‘we have learned from the randomised trial’

Presenter: ‘yes, but what have we learned?’

in the middle of several minutes of really high-quality discussion about what, if anything, has been learned from the trial and subsequent introduction of badger culling in the UK.  The answer to the question ‘what have we learned’, turned out to be very different for the two sides of the argument. Leaving aside the cute little badgers, it’s partly a debate about the translation of evidence into policy when there are strong interests involved.  It’s not my area, but the evidence from the trial seems to be complex (as so often…), with different things going on and judgments required about tipping points, the relative importance of different factors, and the degree of latitude to be expected in translating from a trial situation into other environments. A bit of a masterclass in why it’s usually the politics and rarely the evidence that matters for decision making in the end.

You can hear the full exchange here (at about 2 hours 43 minutes)

Going postal

Dear reader, there is nothing make fun of here.  Nothing.

9 October

World Post Day is celebrated each year on 9 October, the anniversary of the establishment of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1874 in the Swiss capital, Berne. It was declared World Post Day by the UPU Congress held in Tokyo, Japan, in 1969.


The purpose of World Post Day is to create awareness of the role of the postal sector in people’s and businesses’ everyday lives and its contribution to the social and economic development of countries. The celebration encourages member countries to undertake programme activities aimed at generating a broader awareness of their Post’s role and activities among the public and media on a national scale.


OK, a small smile may be permissible…

A Fox News EXCLUSIVE on post-2015

This just in from Fox News:

EXCLUSIVE: The United Nations is planning to create a sweeping new set of “sustainable development goals”

Um… and we’ll have more from Fox News a bit later in the programme.

To be fair, though, their read of the implications – that the SDGs will “likely require trillions of dollars of spending on poverty and the environment, a drastic reorganization of economic production and consumption — especially in rich countries — and even greater effort in the expensive war on climate change” – hardly constitutes a distortion; it sounds pretty much spot on to me.

And tempting as it may be to chuckle, don’t forget how that the 1992 Earth Summit’s “Agenda 21”, became a bête noire for US conservatives, as David Steven observed here last year, quoting US right-wing author Nancy Levant among others:

Let me try to say it in one sentence: Agenda 21 is the end of America.

If they felt that strongly about Agenda 21 – about as inoffensive a sustainable development policy statement as I can think of – just imagine how much of a cause celebre the SDGs have the potential to be in US red states…

Where are the women? Gender imbalance in MY World mobile phone voting

This is a joint post with Frances Simpson Allen, of the UN Millennium Campaign

Women doing the MY World survey in Bangladesh

Women doing the MY World survey in Bangladesh










The million votes – and counting – in the MY World survey will keep data geeks (like us) happy for years.  There’s lots of stories in there, but there’s one in particular which has us scratching our heads and we’d like to know what others think.  It’s this.

We have been experimenting with different ways of collecting data via mobile phones.  About a fifth of the votes come in via phone, mainly text messages or people calling a number and recording their answers.  And while overall the votes are pretty evenly balanced between men and women, the phone votes are strikingly male (all the data can be found here).

Globally, two men answer the survey by phone for every one woman. Of the fifteen countries where there are more than 2000 mobile phone votes, there were only two, Nicaragua and Kyrgyzstan, where women’s votes outnumbered men’s.  In India, Bangladesh and Ethiopia more than 90 per cent of phone votes come from men.  In another five countries: Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Pakistan and Nepal, more than three quarters of phone votes come from men, while in Ghana, the DRC and South Africa, between 65 and 75 per cent of mobile votes came from men.  India and Nigeria also have large numbers of online votes, and there men also outnumber women though by a much smaller margin (around 60:40).

This imbalance is much higher than rates of phone ownership would suggest.  According to industry research, across Africa, 56 per cent of mobile phones are owned by men, and 44 per cent by women, while in South Asia the figures are 63 per cent men and 37 per cent women.  The Kenya figure is also particularly striking, given that a recent survey suggests there is very little difference in mobile phone usage rates between men and women.

The SMS MY World survey so far is not sampled (although we are doing sampled surveys through other means in a growing number of countries) and relies on people choosing to take part.  It’s clear that, under these conditions, women are less likely to offer information via mobile.  With one of our mobile partners we are testing female-specific messaging to see if more women opt-in when the question is phrased differently. We don’t have results from this pilot yet and we are keen to find out from others involved in similar exercises if the gender imbalance is a general finding or something specific to MY World.

There is huge optimism about the possibilities of using current technology to improve data collection, and through that to improved transparency and accountability.  Much of that is justified.  But the old problems – making sure that data is representative and doesn’t reflect existing biases and inequalities – apply to new technologies as much as to more traditional ways of collecting data.  The experience with MY World suggests that this may be a bit harder than we’d like to think.

What Have We Learned About Institutional Change?

institutional changeA number of noteworthy reports on institutional change, development, and foreign aid have been published recently. There is much agreement between them, suggesting that we have reached a tipping point in knowledge in this area. I will briefly summarize the results here and provide links for those who want to explore the subject further. Continue reading

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