by Einar Du Rietz
The heroic boy scouts collected money, went to a village in deepest Africa and helped develop a well. A few month later, excessive use had dried it up and the final result was an extension of the desert.
Examples of unintended consequences (and sometimes plain stupidity) in development aid are numerous, some probably myths by now. Distributing loads of pork to Muslim countries. Rushing factory building until the installation collapse on top of people. The literature is also quite extensive. A useful introduction, or summary may be this.
Important to remember is that humanitarian catastrophes are seldom, if ever, caused by real villains in these cases, hence the words unintended and aid. Wars, planned famine and genocides are indeed orchestrated by evil, but they are never intended by the do-gooders.
The problems occur both with voluntary help and government programs, though the latter, for natural reason, tend to be more dangerous. As a matter of fact, lot’s of people working with government aid are smart, caring people, but often trapped in the system. One such hazard is the idea, launched some decades ago, and implemented in some countries, to legislate allocation of a minimum level of GDP to the foreign aid budget. Both the government, and the associated authorities are then forced to spend the annual funds.
Some countries try to make the best of the situation, for example by allocating funds to emergency help rather than budget support. Pouring money into a corrupt countries state budget most often leads to, in the less evil scenario, the money going straight into a Swiss bank account, or, which is worse, into buying weaponry used against neighbours or the country’s own population. On the other hand, budget support can also be the only way to boost investments in infrastructure. An alternative to building governmental roads and airports is of course to let private companies both develop, build and own. Such investments tend, if they are even allowed, however to be quite risky for the entrepreneur, facing the constant threat of both war and plain nationalization. The only simple solution, if not sufficient, seems to be to, to the extent possible, minimize governmental aid and let the not so small private, international networks do the job.
At the COP 15 in Copenhagen, remember, when the whole world was in hysteria over global warming and the last chance to halt it, one of the things that came out of the – otherwise generally considered catastrophic – meeting, was a pledge by developed countries to help third world countries, that somehow would be hurt the worst by weather changes. And not aloud to burn fossil fuels to develop, you might add. The discussion then moved to a hassle over if this, quite substantial sum, could be included in the budgets for foreign aid, or if it should be earmarked on top of these.
I spent most of the time in on of the cafeterias in the middle f it all. A great place both to write, go through collected material and listen in on the neighbours. Working was out of the question when a quite substantial African delegation nicked most of our chairs (luckily not the one I was sitting in) and started a loud meeting. It was in French, but I can tell you that it was not about global warming, or about the environment at all. It was about how to get as much money as possible from the naive tax payers up North.