Why shall we do something?

angus-deaton-quotesIndeed, we shall not do anything. We shall let them doing it. I am not claiming to have that idea, it simply comes from Angus Deaton, Economy Nobel prize 2015. In his recent book « The great Escape », in the chapter 7 (“How to help those left behind”) he points out the deep error underlying this sentence. Citation: “We often have such a poor understanding of what they need, and how their society is organised, that our clumsy attempts to help on our terms do more harm than good. […] And when we fail, we continue, because our interests are now at stake – it is our aid industry, staffed largely by our professionals, and generating kudos and votes for our politicians – and because, after all, we must do something.”

Indeed, it is extremely difficult to acknowledge that we shall let them do something. Will they really know what they need, even for the long term? Will they know how? Will they be able produce suitable reports to the funders? Are they reliable (or even “aren’t they corrupted”?). To all these questions (except the very last, between quotes), one answer: YES. And yes, they know what they need, they know how their society is organised, and they are able to design their own solutions, even for the long term. And also, if these solutions prove to be failures, they are able to stop and try something else. If you want to be convinced, just look at all the local initiatives.

And yes, it may seem weird to acknowledge that, the more we try to help, the worse it will be. After all, for centuries, we haven’t helped at all, and their society hasn’t changed. So, why will it change on its own now if we stop helping? But situation is very different. Technology has made knowledge widely available, so it will change, whether we want it or not. Except if we keep pouring money to corrupted governments, which precisely do not want any change, since this will threat their own situation. In this, Angus Deaton joins Dambisa Moyo point of view in her tremendous book “Dead Aid” (self-speaking title).

And so, what shall we do with all this money flowing from our countries? Make some savings? Pay less? Or more realistically divert it from local governments to locally initiated projects, based on collaborative approaches. But needed amounts will probably be cut by ten. That may allow spending money in our countries on new approaches, like research on malaria, or other non-profitable researches.

However, it is certainly relevant to point out that both Angus Deaton and Dambisa Moyo are both making some exception for the health sector; Angus Deaton, going into more details than Dambisa Moyo, makes a difference between “vertical” programs, useful and efficient, and primary health, where traditional aid has been proven inefficient; for primary health, Angus Deaton recommends to adopt local approaches (see my post on this topic – to be published soon).

So, to make it short, according to these two famous authors, the future of aid relies on local self-initiated, self-governed, collaborative and innovative projects. And this will be the future of humanitarian and development action.

Author: Olivier Lebel

Olivier Lebel's main interest is about collaborative approaches and humanitarian. OL is a specialist of non profit organisations, having spent 15 years serving them, for the French Red Cross (as deputy ED and ED), for the Catholic Church (as USG for the French Bishops Conference), and for Doctors of the World (as ED). He has also spent 15 years as manager in various private corporations, in building and security, water supply, or medical imaging. Olivier Lebel holds an MBA from INSEAD, and is engineer of Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole des Télécommunications.

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