Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Zen and the Art of Foreign Aid

Charming article by Tina Rosenberg and David Bornstein at the New York Times: Health Care and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (both its title and the title of this post borrowed, of course, from Robert Pirsig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). The article illustrates the importance of infrastructure & transportation in development, noting how just providing health care professionals in developing countries with reliable transportation (motorcycles in this case) can dramatically multiply their effectiveness.

Also pointed out in the article (hence the title), is that infrastructure and means of transportation are no good without regular maintenance. This is an old complaint in the aid literature; most aid donors are more interested in big new projects than in maintaining older and existing initiatives. Interestingly, even in this case the motorcycles themselves and their maintenance are funded by two different aid organizations.

The article nicely illustrates two important points: 1) foreign aid really can have a major impact, for a relatively small investment; 2) the challenge in aid is not that we have no idea how to have an impact, but rather to convince aid donors to give less glamorous types of aid.

(Further relevance of this post's title and that of the NYT article: in Pirsig's book, there is a priceless moment where a motorcycle can be repaired by a shim cut from a beer can, but its owner refuses, not because it won't work, but because it is such a low-tech, unglamorous repair. Many aid donors are a little like that motorcycle owner)

P.S. Rosenberg also wrote the excellent The Haunted Land, on the very different issue of how the post-socialist societies of Central and Eastern Europe dealt with their past after the end of the Cold War.

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