Christmas comes early in the form of Tim Worstall

by | May 24, 2012

Much delight to be had in the Daily Telegraph, where Tim Worstall is to be found firing a major broadside in DFID’s direction. Here’s a sample:

Aid should help poor people in poor areas get richer. The poster child for which is the Millennium Villages Project. The claim is that by spending only $50 per person per year on health care, better seeds  and mosquito nets, we can dig these rural areas out of their millennial destitution and make the world a better place. And if the plan worked I’d agree that we should do it.

Thing is, it doesn’t work. Jeff Sachs, the demagogue behind the project, had a congratulatory piece in The Lancet a couple of weeks back claiming that all was hugely hunky dory. As it happens, this isn’t quite so. Of the 18 measurements made, compared to similar villages that didn’t have the intervention, only one moved an interesting amount in an interesting direction. The other 17 were much of a muchness and showed very little effect from this extra spending …

…we can see no evidence at all that this sort of development aid is having any effect whatsoever. Call me a curmudgeon if you like, but I can see no purpose in throwing away cash on something that doesn’t work. And do note that this is the first time that anyone at all has tried to actually measure the effects of this type of aid. So it’s the first time that we’d had the proof that it doesn’t work. So, clearly, we shouldn’t be doing this any more. Simply stop ODA and close down the DfID saving us all that £11 billion a year.

Aren’t you tickled, readers? There are not one, not two, but three special treats here for us.

First, the argument that the Millennium Village Project (MVP) is the “poster child” for aid. Um, actually people have been asking questions about the evaluation methodologies used in the MVP for quite a while now. Here’s a blog post making just that argument by the World Bank’s Gabriel Demombynes in 2010. Here’s Madeleine Bunting doing the same in the Guardian in 2011. Have a look at what Lawrence Haddad is saying on his blog. Or A View from the Cave’s Tom Murphy. When four major opinion formers in development are asking big questions about the impact of a project, it’s probaly not entirely accurate to call it a “poster child”, Tim.

Second, the hilarious spectacle of Tim getting all hot under the collar about “evidence” even as he argues that one study – one! – that fails to demonstrate impact for one project – one! – thereby proves that none of DFID’s aid works. It’s just delicious to watch someone managing to get quite this pompous about the fact that “we do need to stick with the rules of scientific evidence” while failing to notice quite how much his approach will elicit gales of laughter from anyone serious about evidence.

But best of all is the fact that Tim works at the Adam Smith Institute.

Would that be the same Adam Smith Institute that’s the sister organisation of Adam Smith International? – you know, the one that has DFID framework contracts on private sector development, on government information and communications and on public administration reform in conflict-affected environments? The one with the £44 million DFID contract on infrastructure advice in Nigeria?

Do tell, Tim – presumably you think your colleagues are similarly guilty of frittering taxpayers’ money away and should stop bidding for DFID contracts forthwith?

I wish all aid critics were this fun.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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