Earlier this month, a Gates Foundation representative (Mark Suzman, Acting President of the Global Development Program) made a post epitomizing what I feel is a key fallacy in the world of giving: that any and all progress in struggling countries can be attributed to aid.
The thesis of his post is that “A greater focus on results and accountability means that overall aid spending has been getting smarter, more focused and more effective. Increasingly, taxpayer dollars are spent on proven interventions that are saving and improving lives.” And the only support given for this thesis is observations about aggregate improvements in health, wealth and education (drops in childhood deaths, drops in the number of people living under a given poverty line, etc.)
Mr. Suzman concedes that “Economic growth in China and India has been the primary engine of this improvement,” but in his discussion of other regions including Africa, there is a strong implication (difficult to convey in an excerpt, but clear if you read the piece) that the mere fact of improvement points to the effectiveness of aid.
There is no mention of possible non-aid-related factors behind the improvement in these regions, such as:
- Improvements in government programs and government accountability, which could happen because of aid to governments or for other reasons
- Improvements in technology
- Local people making progress on their own problems, even if such progress isn’t visible in national-level GDP statistics
This fallacy is one that we see often. People often ask how we can recommend that donors not support certain areas, such as water or education, saying things like “If we don’t support these areas, who will?”
The answer may be that no one has to. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the first countries to emerge from poverty didn’t receive any aid from wealthier countries, and there is no easily discernible influence of aid in many of those that have emerged since.
People can and do solve their own problems. Rather than giving ourselves responsibility for everything they’re struggling with, we should focus on the areas in which we’re most likely to be able to help.