Lifting the Burden

As a newbie to the world of international development (ID), I have been reading up to understand the dynamics between the developed and developing countries (aka low income or less developed or less resourced).  Currently there seem to be many consultants, advisors, advocates, bureaucrats, and other professionals who attend multiple conferences and summits and crank out numerous reports, position papers, and analyses which are translated into world-wide programs and initiatives that are funded by governments and the major philanthropies (but never fully enough according to the funded).  At the center of ID effort are the UN Millennium Development Goals (UN Goals), set in 2000 and toward which (I have heard) slow and uneven progress is being made (e.g., MDG Wikipeida article).

The lack of progress in ID has troubled many professionals, in and out of the field, one of whom is William Easterly, whose book, White Man’s Burden, I have just read.  Published in 2006, it builds on his research as a professor of economics at NYU and experience in international development and is an extension of his previous book, The Quest for Growth (Easterly website).  His thesis is that the current approach is top-down, plan-driven, uncoordinated, and unconnected from its intended beneficiaries and not only has failed but has inflicted harm, especially by propping up dysfunctional, pernicious governments.  His conclusion, seen through the eyes of the left, may be that ID is just a perpetuation of pre-war imperialism, but to me, being more of a centrist, it is more about good intentions being smothered by a self-serving bureaucracy which has no system of accountability for its results.

Easterly offers a number of recommendations for the improvement of ID including:

-bypassing governments and provide economic development aids (like vaccines, food supplements, roads, sanitary systems) directly to the people and communities that need them;

-providing governments with technical assistance to improve their function in delivering services and in strengthening the infrastructure needed for businesses to start and grow (regulatory reform, banking, stock markets); and

-expecting (requiring) ID organizations to evaluate their efforts (he says the funders/donors should hold their grantees responsible for results since the aid recipients can’t).

Given the broad scope of his books, Easterly does not analyze the ID effort aimed at improving global health (another posting topic); however, he does review the international response to the AIDS epidemic in Africa and observes it was initially ignored by the West and is now a tragedy due to the emphasis on treatment over prevention.  His position is that, while the billions of dollars are being poured into treatment are saving lives among those infected, more billions need to applied to inventing, testing, and implementing effective preventive measures for the treatment effort to have meaning.  And if there is a limit to the billions (which there is), then the bias should be toward prevention.

I see a logical extension of Easterly’s recommendations for improvement the use of mechanisms for the sharing and learning from best practices in ID, ways in which successful practitioners, especially those in-country entrepreneurs who have been successful, can propagate their models.  In a previous posting, I described the way in which the provision of essential medicines in East Africa was improved through the Strategies for Enhancing Access to Medicines Program run by Management Sciences for Health and how the program was designed from the outset to be replicated.  I also mentioned how the Healthstore Foundation is using a franchising model to spread its success.  I think the professional ID community could benefit from adoption of these approaches; they do not provide universal solutions but a way to promote innovation to overcome the current stagnation.

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