Monthly Archives: January 2014

Bill and Melinda’s Statement on Development by the Numbers: Hubris

Last week Bill and Melinda Gate’s annual letter on poverty and aid came out and not only is it a good short read, but it’s increasingly becoming more important.  In my hubris I have decided to give an analysis of the letter blow-by-blow.

By 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world. Yes, a few unhappy countries will be held back by war, political realities (such as North Korea) or geography (such as landlocked states in central Africa). But every country in South America, Asia and Central America (except perhaps Haiti) and most in coastal Africa will have become middle-income nations. More than 70% of countries will have a higher per-person income than China does today.

True, most countries are growing and this is cause for celebration.  Too often however the development field falls victim to either exuberant optimism or too much doom and gloom so perhaps a more balanced view is in order.  Since there will always be unforeseen disasters either political or environmental I would place estimates at 40 years and not 20.

This is especially true when using China as a benchmark.  To reach the same levels as China, Kenya for example, would have to grow at 8% per capita income  each year.  Put simply Kenya would have to grow as fast as the fastest growing nations in human history…and not stop…for 20 years.  Not impossible by not likely either.

Furthering the problem with using China as a benchmark in the development field is its political structure. While its economic growth has been outstanding, certainly the envy of the many developing nations, leaders are also looking at the political structure of China. Whether rapid economic growth at the expense of political freedoms is desirable, is not a question I can answer…nor should any NGO or development agency  attempt answer to answer this for anyone but it will prove challenging for the development and aid field in years to come.

    Saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation. Just the opposite. Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality and access to contraceptives is the only way to a sustainable world.

True and worth stating as climate change,  and overpopulation are increasingly part of the Western debate.  It also has a subtext of, “growth is not a zero sum game.” With this in mind the prosperity of one nation can be to the benefit of those surrounding it. This is not true only in a political sense i.e. Rwanda does well because the war in DRC has ended but also in opportunity cost. Less inequality and more general well-being can maximize human potential and lead to even greater gain.

There is much more to letter that I don’t address here and as I said it’s a quick read.  All in all its a good analysis and worth your time.


State Building and Neotrusteeship: South Sudan

imagesChris Blattman recently asked if the West should have governed South Sudan in light of the ongoing civil war. While my simple response is ‘no’  the controversy has many angles as  Fearson and Laitin stated:

In sharp contrast to classical imperialists, neotrustess want to withdraw as fast as possible. References to “exit strategy” have led the policy discourse and debate surrounding international and U.S. operations in the Balkans, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and now Iraq.”

It is true that the foreign governing body does have an interest in leaving, however it still applies the same logic as old world colonialism just with a shorter time line.  Whatever or whomever is put in charge of South Sudan will have a fixed timeline and an exit strategy in mind (hopefully). How long would this timeline be? How long would it take to build institutions that would reflect and balance structural inequality, if that is even possible?

More than likely the elites in South Sudan would play along and bid their time until the governing body left and then they could settle their grievances. Unlike learning a skill, state craft is not something you can simply master and be left to your own devices.  It must happen organically and institutions must be able to counter the power inequality within a society, something neotrusteeship may not be able to provide.

The exit strategy would most likely center around elections.  These would likely favor those that played the game well under neotrusteeship, and possibly those that could eventually pay back Western tax dollars.  Failure to achieve fair and open elections could lead to armed conflict by groups who feel disenfranchised, leading us back to square one.

This system also assumes the Western-run neotrusteeship is benevolent.  This again speaks to the logic of colonization where the where the Western states viewed themselves as the ” civilizer.” The idea that the Western states have no interest outside of altruism is a myth that needs to be put to rest.

colonialism, German colony, Africa, caricature about the colonization of Africa "Sunday Dispatch", London, circa 1900, historic,

Neotrusteeship can be used to prevent mass atrocities or to uproot safe havens for terror networks and to foster a less violent environment from which institutions may grow but it itself cannot grow the institutions.

I do however see the need for foreign assistance in building stronger institutions in younger states.  In regards to long-term state building I agree with Jeremy Weinstein’s idea that we should focus on identity and understanding:

Internal processes of change that give rise to successful state-building, the conditions under which these internal mechanisms are likely to work, and the lessons international actors can draw from autonomous recovery for efforts to bring conflict to an end. Although it may be difficult to accept, one of the key lessons is that sometimes it makes sense not to intervene, or to intervene actively on behalf of one side.”

Fragile States & Good Governance: What Urbanization Can Teach Us

images-1Cities are where state building projects fall apart rather than come together as Tom Goodfellow, Dennis Rodgers and Jo Beall point out in a new study.  Typically this is because of violent conflict is related to the states failure to provide growth, welfare and security in urban areas.  Furthermore, civil conflicts tend to drive urbanization and then greater civic conflict is a common response to that rapid urbanization.

Groups competing for control of natural resources and political power marks the landscape of most fragile states taking the form of gangs in Central America, criminal activity in West Africa and riots in the Arab World.  Often these clashes are the result of the state failing to manifest institutions that build political inclusion.


Half of the developing world’s population now lives in cities and this is projected to grow to two-thirds within a few decades.  As the population of cities in fragile states continues to rise, the best way to improve these people’s lives is to improve the metropolises in which they live.

CIR907* The Economist

Despite having many obstacles cities are much easier to fix than states for a number of reasons:

1. Elections work differently and more effectively.  National elections can pit ethnic/religious groups against each other in competition for natural resources or political power.  However these identities can be blurred in the more compact city.  Also there are more ways to hold official accountable in a city than in a large and non-cohesive city.

2. Powerful and wealthy individuals who may influence government are more likely to live in urban areas.  Since they have a vested interest in the outcome of good governance and development projects where they live a focus on cities also means a pragmatic approach concerned with the interest of  elites.

3. Taxes are necessary for development and increasing the accountability of officials.  National governments may rely heavily on natural resources and foreign aid municipalities get the majority of their income from local taxes.  The more they depend on taxes from their citizens the more than can be accountable for the delivery of goods and services.  Too illustrate, oil rich Nigeria earns one-fifth of its revenue from taxes, however if this were to increase the accountability of its government officials would increase as well.

4. Lastly, improving public services in a city is easier than it is in a large country. Building  development  projects in rural areas where there are no roads can siphon funds away from projects that could vastly improve the lives of citizens in easy to reach areas.

This is not to say that development should only focus on cities. Only that by following trends of urbanization and looking at ways to best help the most people moving forward development and good governance should shift its focus towards the metropolis.