The universal cynics’ answer to why your aid project won’t work

Whenever anybody makes a suggestion for improving foreign assistance, there is a long queue of vested interests thoughtful people ready to pour scorn on it offer constructive criticism.  To save everyone effort in future, here is a cut-out-and-keep, one-size fits all template for criticising every possible aid proposal.  I hope you will find it useful for criticising any ideas that people suggest in the coming year.

  • This project may solve some problems but it won’t solve every problem.
    Your proposal may help some people but it will not solve the terrible plight of people in post conflict states / fragile states / small island states / good performing countries / Africa / Asia / middle income countries / people with AIDS / marginalised communities [delete as applicable].  The future of these people is essential to progress towards the MDGs.  Why are you proposing something that will not address their needs?
  • Your proposal does not focus on the real priority.
    It is shocking that you should be proposing to spend money on this when it is clear that any additional money should go to (select one):

    • agriculture, because 80% of the world’s poor live in rural areas
    • health, because without our health we cannot be productive and it is a basic human right
    • education, because nothing is more important than educating our young; look at Asia etc
    • infrastructure, because you need roads and electricity for economic growth
    • water, because without water there isn’t life; women have to walk for 4 hours a day, etc
    • climate change adaptation, because the sea is rising and we are all doomed
    • women, because they raise the family, do all the work, educate the family, etc
    • capacity building, because you can give a man a fish and feed him for a day or teach him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime
    • small businesses, because we like small business which is folksy but not big business which is sinister; women’s handicrafts are especially good;
    • microfinance, because Mohammed Yunus is very impressive and saintly and microfinance sounds like it is a form of self-help
    • population control, because the problem is that there are just too many of them;
    • donkey sanctuaries – have you seen how the donkeys are treated? It is so sad.
  • Your proposal is unsustainable. Your project may help people in the short term but aid cannot be permanent.
    Because aid cannot be permanent, poor people should be expected to pay for everything themselves after a few years, especially all the things that our governments provide for us like health, education, transport, research and development, infrastructure, security etc.  If we go on helping the poor they will become lazy and helpless and then they won’t be like us.  We must make them stand on their own two feet. The best way to do this is to make it clear that any help is only temporary.  Your idea won’t work when the outside funding stops so it is “unsustainable”.
  • It is a new idea, and that will mean a lot of work.
    Everything that should be done is already being done, which is why everything is going so well in developing countries (well, apart from the poverty, hunger etc).  Therefore no new ideas are needed.  I am too busy managing existing aid programmes to give serious consideration to whether yours will work.  If you really want to help people in developing countries you should support existing programmes such as mine.
  • Everybody in development is corrupt and lazy.This does not apply to anybody that I know personally but it is true of everyone else. So your aid project won’t work.
    It says in the Daily Mail is well known that all governments are corrupt and inefficient; all international organisations are run by self-enriching and lazy bureaucrats; all aid agencies are run for the benefit of the donor country; all NGOs are small and inefficient and often corrupt too. Therefore your aid project won’t work.  I know this wonderful NGO which is run be saintly people who do amazing things but there are no others like that.
  • Rich countries should open their markets to exports from developing countries. Therefore your aid project won’t work.
    Rich countries do things which are very bad for poor countries, like erecting trade barriers, buying oil and enforcing intellectual property rights. This is unassailable proof that aid does not work.
  • Jeff Sachs used to work on Bolivia and Dambisa Moyo is from Zambia. Therefore aid does not work.
    Jeff Sachs thinks that aid should be trebled and everybody knows this is a bad idea because he had something to do with free market reforms in Bolivia and then he changed his mind. So he is wrong.  Dambisa Moyo says aid causes great harm and although she hasn’t got any proof she is both a woman and from Zambia (and she is quite presentable on the TV).  These facts prove that aid does not work.

19 thoughts on “The universal cynics’ answer to why your aid project won’t work”

  1. A splendid post.

    Another reason why “your” aid project won’t work is because it doesn’t involve me or (especially) you in painful personal sacrifice…. Also known as Rich World Compulsory Guilt Syndrome (RWCGP).

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  3. Honestly, Owen, I think this is very rude of you. By providing a universal tool for aid criticism, you have deprived everyone else of the sense of moral superiority and cleverness that they could gain by finding their own ways to criticize aid and aid rhetoric.

  4. Don’t forget: “Your idea may or may not cause me to have to sacrifice [insert small fraction of one percent] of the living standard that is my birthright because I was born in a rich country, or barely diminish the day-to-day conveniences I enjoy while living out my 87 year life expectancy. Therefore your idea will not work.”

    Unsurprisingly, my favorite application of this one is to the idea of increasing low-skill immigration from developing countries.

  5. One that always bugs me is: ‘someone else tried this somewhere else and it didn’t seem to work’ – often playing complete disregard to differences in context, culture and more importantly the details of how it was done and why it didn’t work. For example: ‘oh I read about/saw/worked on a project in [developing country name] that was trying to set up [type of project] and it didn’t work. So there’s really no point trying that again!’

  6. This list needs to be made into an iPhone application for instant reference perhaps even random “magic 8 ball” functionality. If you can get me the right grant ($,000,000) and give me 2 years I’d be happy to get it done for you. For additional time & $ we can do a version in Esperanto as well. Kion vi opinias? 😀

  7. “Only when America proves that capitalism can cure social ills within its own borders should it start looking to prove so abroad” (Regina Tavani)

  8. Come on! Biting satire is no fun when it has to be scrubbed clean of anything that could be un-P.C. So Owen, alright now, let’s inhale and say it together, the unscrubbed version of your last point: “although she hasn’t got any proof she is both a woman — and Black African — and hot!” (but do correct me if the last bullet wouldn’t have worked if she were from Cameroon or Uganda instead of Zambia…)

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  11. One small variation on the same theme is “Yep, I’ve tried that in country XYZ some 10 years ago and then in WZX recently and it is not going to work, as there are deep cultural issues involved here, that we as foreigners cannot undertand”

  12. Pingback: From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green » Blog Archive » Aid Satire; Berlusconi’s horrible year; migration in the recession; Bono does climate change (but the US media doesn’t): links I liked

  13. Also, start every single comment/question you make at a speech/event/cocktail hour/etc. with ‘when I was in X country’…because it lends instant authority. I’ve only passed through Kigali airport, but I can still say ‘When I was in Rwanda,I realised that only by addressing governance can aid achieve any meaningful impact…’. If you’ve actually worked in the country, it’s best to go on and on about your own experience until a moderator – on in the case of the cocktail hour, an exasperated drinker – requests you either ask a question of finish the monologue.

  14. Interesting post – the complexities of aid…I’m not exactly sure how to respond, from reading around your blog, it seems that you are someone with some real down to earth experience in development and aid work. I find the issues you raise to be valid – aid helps people, but it also hurts people, it’s complicated and you can’t just ‘stop aid’ as Moyo suggests. Of course, she kinda does have a point, and so does William Easterly and others – we’ve been giving aid to countries for over 60 years (like Zambia) – they are still in poverty and are dependent on aid (think Ghana). Of course, aid has worked in some places (Botswana, India, and South Korea are the usual examples) but a study the CBO (i would assume you would agree that that’s a credible source – although it is from 97, a bit dated) notes that “Although foreign aid overall appears to have only a marginal effect, it may promote or hinder development, depending on the environment in which that aid is used and the conditions under which it is given.” I question whether or not aid can be given under ‘altruistic conditions’ and question whether more aid (as Bono so aptly thinks is a good thing) is a good thing…If you didn’t like the moyo book because the facts were bad, read Jonathan Glennie “The Trouble with Aid: Why less could mean more for Africa” – he gives a similar argument but from a different standpoint. It was a good read. Ok that’s about it, thanks for a few good laughs! 🙂

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