Lessons Learned

The most surprising thing I have learned in this class is that in 2016, development theories are still being tested and tweaked. It was interesting to me that despite the existence of established development careers, recognized international organizations and academic programs such as the one I am enrolled in, development and making a difference is still ‘touch and go’. At first, it was a tad disheartening or discouraging but as Dr. Kendhammer always said, if he (or someone else) “knew the answer they would share it”.

What was most useful however, was the fact that we thoroughly discussed and picked apart the existing theories, venturing off the pages of our required readings and examining them in the context of countries where they have been applied or tested. Added to that, there is of course the newfound knowledge that there really is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to the problems facing developing countries. Solutions need to be contextual and there is no one fix for all problems.

One thing I believe is that the urge countries in the Global South have to “catch up” with the Global North or “close the gap” is not very realistic or smart. I have learned there are a wide array of factors that contribute to development in different contexts and I firmly believe that if countries would focus more on addressing their internal problems such as poverty, and growing without comparing to developed countries they would do a lot better in the long run. Growth, change and development should be more about the country and its citizens than about trying to get what or where others are.

With regards to poverty my perspective has definitely changed, poverty is a multi-tiered problem that ought not to be tackled at surface level. There is no one universal, single cause of poverty, as such, the best way to find effective and efficient solutions are to view poverty as the multi-tiered issue it is and tailor solutions that can address more than merely one of the contributing factors. I  do not believe the “aid” approach accomplishes that.

The attempts by the Global North to address problems of poverty in the Global South has had both successes and failures. However, too often they are short term solutions to real, long term issues, also I think development and aid whether in the form of finance, projects, programs have become somewhat of a culture where they are given or done but measures are not put in place to ensure their success. Often the projects and programs themselves are sometimes not very useful in tackling the problems being faced in some countries.

Although the course left me more pessimistic about development and relations between countries, I think the knowledge gained provides a great foundation for the way forward because we know what does not work, what has not worked, that context is important and that there are layers to achieving development. In that regard, I feel better equipped to attempt to address the problem of poverty

Impact Evaluation of Aid Projects

Evaluating the impact and success of an aid project is dependent on several factors. Collier points to transparency, while Easterly argues that local details are important. Aid projects are generally aimed at improving the lives and circumstances of citizens in developing countries. As such, to paint with a broad brush, one can say that an aid project has worked if it has met the goals it set out to achieve. It is also important to note here that Collier argues once aid reaches approximately 16 percent of a country’s GDP it ceases to be effective, this can also serve as a guide for measuring the impact or success of an aid project. Another important factor in determining the success of an aid project is actually ensuring the aid gets to those who need it. Easterly has a great example of mosquito nets ending up on the black market or being used for other things such as fishing, as opposed to getting to those to need them.

Measures such as consistent data than can be studied by other researchers, interactiveness are key requirements in evaluating the success of an aid project. Clemens and Demombynes also point to key factors such as project outcome, determining whether goals were achieved and determining whether the community within which the project was done was positively impacted. In some cases, randomized controlled trials can be used.  The task is to assess the change brought about through the project and compare it with the change that may have occurred had individuals not been a part of the project. The challenge with this approach however is that one would need a control group of individuals not a part of the project to more accurately assess change and outcomes. There is also the reality that other factors could contribute to the same change the project is claiming responsibility for.

Unfortunately, not all aid projects can be measured by impact evaluation techniques and in those cases, determining whether the project has worked becomes more difficult. Easterly posits that the easier it is to determine whether an aid project is working, the likelihood of success is higher.

While it is possible to answer “yes” to aid projects working, there is the problem of aid projects generally being micro solutions and not macro, essentially placing a bandaid on bullet wounds. However, there are instances where aid projects have worked, likewise there are some sectors where successful projects are more likely or at least easier. Further, Collier points out that aid has tended to be more effective where governance and policies are already reasonable.

I don’t think aid will ever get to that point where it is always 100 percent successful or where it always works. However, I agree with Easterly in his contrast of the “Planner” versus “Searcher” approach. He writes;

“A Planner thinks he already knows the answers,” conversely “A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional and technological factors.” Planners trust outside experts. Searchers emphasize homegrown solutions.

Keeping this in mind when planning aid projects may increase the likelihood of answering “yes” to aid projects working.

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Paul Collier (2007), The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Falling Behind, and What Can Be Done About It, Chapter 7

William Easterly (2006), The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, Chapter 6

Michael Clemens and Gabriel Demombynes (2013), “The New Transparency in Development Economics: Lessons from the Millennium Villages Controversy,” CGDEV Working Paper, #342

Does Aid Work?: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Aid

Successful evaluation of whether or not aid “works” must start with the purpose or goal of the aid. To know if something is working, we must first know what this thing- in this case aid- is aimed at addressing or fixing. If aid is intended for singular purposes such as economic growth or feeding the poor, it is perhaps a bit easier to evaluate the effectiveness of the aid. However, the interconnectedness that exists in development makes it challenging to isolate what exactly aid will have an impact on, it also means that aid used in one sector or area in a developing country is likely to have ripple effects in other sectors or areas.

Generally, we look at whether particular projects have been completed, or whether some short term solution has been arrived at. While this probably looks great on paper and has proven to be an excellent way to ensure continued aid, it does not prove that aid works. Aid should not be a continuous handout, or continuous projects with no end in sight. As such, we ought to measure or evaluate whether or not aid works by assessing whether it meets the needs of the people it is intended to “aid”, whether this aid has a positive impact on the economy and society of the developing country it is given to and whether the amount of aid going forward reduces or is likely to reduce because growth and progress is occurring.

Do aid-driven projects and programs adequately address the challenges being faced by citizens in developing countries? Are the projects stand-alone projects that, once completed are essentially forgotten? Do these programs and projects address the contextual issues and challenges that are hindering economic growth and development or are they bandaids for bullet holes?

As Blattman and Niehaus argue, while aid-driven programs and projects accomplish some things, they are often inefficiently and expensively executed. Further, there is, more often than not, a lack of adequate and appropriate measures put in place to ensure that the program or project functions as it ought to in order to yield the desired benefits. For instance, good institutions are a key factor for development, so building a school is a project that can be viewed as beneficial to a developing country, but without ensuring good, well trained teacher, government willingness and ability to upkeep the infrastructure and pay staff, students ability to get to the school, availability of books and resources. The school is really just another building.

Many development scholars and practitioners have a set criteria for assessing aid-driven programs and projects and Easterly affirms that an independent evaluator should be used. While important, is this enough? I believe Aid programs or projects should be assessed by asking:

Is it holistic? Addressing economy, society, poverty and other challenges of developing countries?

Will it have long-term positive outcomes?

Are the stakeholders on board? Has the human factor been considered?

Is it what is needed?

Are there measures in place to ensure continuity or continued benefits? If not, what measures can be implemented?

Does it equip the country and citizens with the tools or skills needed to do more for themselves and reduce the amount of aid needed (if not holistically then at least in a particular area or sector)?

I am not at all convinced the above criteria is one that is stuck to with regard to aid-driven projects and programs perhaps one or two of them among others not listed here but I do think this is one way of ensuring aid is effective and impactful. There’s no denying aid projects and programs have had successes however they have also pitfalls and shortcomings.


William Easterly (2006), The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, Chapters 3-5

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, Chapter 16

Christopher Blattman and Paul Niehaus (2014), “Show them the Money: Why Giving Cash Helps Alleviate Poverty,” Foreign Affairs, 93:3, pp. 117-26

Maintaining Political Power Through Economic Power

There is a level of dependency that exists between political power and economic power. Under any political rule, economic strategies are important if a leader wishes to either maintain power, maintain good standing with the citizenry or leave a good legacy. However, this interdependence between economic power and political power, or rather, the dependence of the latter on the former is heightened in authoritarian ruled states. Economic strategies economic power plays an integral role in the maintenance and continuity of political power.

In The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier points to several “traps” bottom billion countries get caught in. The natural resource trap and the bad governance trap aid in shedding some light on the various ways authoritarian governments and their leaders use economic power to maintain their political power. Reading Collier’s discussions bring to the fore two key questions for me:

  1. What threats exist for authoritarian governments and their leaders within their countries?
  2. What measures can they employ to mitigate or eradicate these threats?

Of course one ought not ignore that some leaders are merely corrupt or greedy and their exploitation of economic power has nothing to do with maintaining political power and everything to do with filling their pockets simply because of accessibility.

However, the threat of a coup d’etat or revolution is generally a major concern for authoritarian governments. As such, military spending remains high to keep the military at bay, which in turn can serve the purpose of keeping the citizenry at bay and avoiding revolutionary action. Authoritarian leaders are also faced with the issue of maintaining a great relationship with the elite in their countries. In this regard, bribes, cronyism, the awarding of controversial contracts and quite often serve as useful tools. The third threat is of course the fear of loss of power or control or rather the uncertainty of the length of rule. In this case, authoritarian leaders pocket as much as they can, while they still can.

In looking at examples, Lewis (1996), highlights how Nigerian leader General Ibrahim Babangida, used actions such as paying off elites, publicly denouncing the SAP to maintain good standing with the Nigerian people (albeit reforms were implemented), side payments inter alia to maintain and prolong his authoritarian rule and further his agenda. Conversely, Michael Ross clearly illustrated the “natural resource trap” and its  effects on Libya. Ross posits that high oil revenues results in a decline on dependency on taxes. This can prove quite beneficial for authoritarian leaders as lower taxes can equate to a more compliant and pleased citizenry.

Collier, Lewis and Ross help illustrate how authoritarian leaders have used economic power for their own political advancement and they have all discussed the adverse effects this had on economies, leadership and the citizenry in the long run. Authoritarian leaders throughout the global south have used economic power to gain, maintain and prolong their political power. This has been done through economic control, payoffs inter alia and there is no question that this works. However, it is worth noting is that using economic power in this way is not absolute  and exploring the reasons why.

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