Saturday, October 23, 2010

Optimism and realism in development assistance

The New Republic has a fairly grumpy review by David Rieff of a new book on Ethiopia by Peter Gill: Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid. (The full review is available only to subscribers, including through LexisNexis and similar subscription services).

Rieff, author of the critique of humanitarian aid A Bed for the Night, is often grumpy about humanitarians and humanitarianism — usually with reason — but his grumpiness here is oddly inconsistent and somewhat unfair.

He opens the review by praising the late James P. Grant, former executive director if UNICEF for being "as unyieldingly optimistic about human possibility as he was clear-eyed about the extent of human suffering among the bottom half of the world's population." This seems a fair characterization of many of those who have dedicated their lives to reducing that human suffering, but for some reason some of those people appear to be insufficiently clear-eyed for Rieff.

In particular, he criticizes Bob Geldof, Bono, Tony Blair, and Jeffrey Sachs, each for some combination of wild over-optimism or refusal to consider the likelihood that aid might not help or even be counterproductive. However, he fails to make clear how one might distinguish "unyielding optimism" (good, according to Rieff) from "wild over-optimism" (very bad).

As to the insufficient clarity ("clear-eyed"ness?), Rieff is on firmer ground, at least where Geldof and Bono are concerned. But then again, both are musicians, not politicians or economists. It is not surprising that their portrayal of humanitarian issues is oversimplified, and that they are sometimes fooled or taken in by governments that are deeply flawed (as almost all Ethiopian governments have been). The real criticism ought to be leveled at those who look to Geldof or Bono for expert advice, rather than just for inspiration.

Rieff's review is nevertheless well worth reading, because he makes some important points about family planning, the political nature of famines in the modern world (drawing on Sen's seminal Poverty and Famines), and the tendency of actual Western experts and politicians (not just musicians) to support (and want to overlook the negative sides of) governments that are a) capable and b) far less likely than their predecessors to massively violate human rights. Meles, in Ethiopia is one example; Rieff also mentions Rwanda's Kagame and Uganda's Museveni.

Rather oddly, given his swipes at Sachs for being over-optimistic and insufficiently clear-eyed, Rieff closes his review by citing the man: faced with the population challenges of Ethiopia, Sachs replies that "it is absolutely unmanageable... beyond any of our [development] tools right now." To me, this suggests that, like James Grant, Jeffrey Sachs, too, is "as unyieldingly optimistic about human possibility as he [is] clear-eyed about the extent of human suffering among the bottom half of the world's population." To Rieff, it further illustrates Sachs' foolishness. Why?

In any case, Gill's book sounds like a valuable contribution to the literature on the promises and pitfalls of humanitarian intervention and development assistance, and I look forward to reading it.

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