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.