Wednesday, September 12, 2012

International Aid Works.

People often complain there isn't enough good news, but mostly when there is, it gets ignored.  UNICEF has released a report showing the enormous progress that has been made in reducing childhood mortality:
Data released today by UNICEF and the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation show that the number of children under the age of 5 dying globally has dropped from nearly 12 million in 1990 to an estimated 6.9 million in 2011.
That's enormous, when you consider that the world population in 1990 was something like 5.2 billion versus the nearly 7 billion it would have been in 2011.  So even as the population has increased significantly, the absolute number of children dying has decreased markedly in absolute terms.

The obvious neoliberal explanation is that this is all due to magic market fairies, free trade, deregulation and so forth, but the report notes:
The report shows that all regions of the world have seen a marked decline in under-5 mortality since 1990. Neither a country’s regional affiliation nor economic status need be a barrier to reducing child deaths; low-, medium- and high- income countries all have made tremendous progress in lowering their under-5 mortality rates.
While the increases in income in many parts of the previously abjectly poor world, like China are no doubt helping reduce childhood mortality, the inclusion of still poor countries in these declines strongly suggests concerted aid by groups like UNICEF make a real difference. 

I once attended a debate on the subject of whether foreign aid did any good, and was struck by how similar the anti-aid position was to the usual right wing "tough-love" position on domestic welfare.  Instead of individual welfare recipients becoming dependent, you hear that Nation-States become those lounging in the aid hammock. 

Aside from the usual heartless libertarian take on aid, the glaring flaw I see in the anti-aid argument is that it assumes that cutting off aid is like adhering to some kind of Star Trek Prime Directive of non-interference in some foreign culture.  We stop our good intentioned "meddling" and the locals fix their self-inflicted problems on their own with gumption and boot straps.  But in the real world the "meddling" that governments and NGOs do to help afflicted areas is only part of the total meddling.  Pull that out, and you still have corporations plundering their resources by bribing corrupt officials, you still have warlords fighting over diamonds and rare earth metal mines, you still have druglords and international crime, and you still have plenty of ill-intentioned foreign meddling in these nations' affairs - knocking over "unfriendly" leaders, supporting rebel groups and arms peddling.  To the extent that people like Dambisa Moyo have a point that Africa (her focus, though her point obviously would generally extend to all aid everywhere) is still largely a mess after decades of aid, it's because aid isn't operating in a vacuum.  The patient may not be better despite being on an IV of antibiotics, but that's because he's also being repeatedly injected with raw sewage by psychopaths.  The aid may be all that keeps him alive.

There's plenty of aid-gone-wrong anecdotes, but yet we are making real progress.  If you pay any attention to news from poorer parts of the world, it can all seem like an endless slog of corruption, disease, drought, war, rape and ruin, but reports like this quantify the suffering in ways that allow us to know whether our efforts are futile.  They're not.  Aid works.  Even if you want to give credit to economics, the "market" is not on the verge of eradicating Polio, the World Health Organization is doing it, much like they did with Smallpox in the 70s.  Aid does things the market won't, and if market conditions are improving for a country, I expect that makes aid even more effective at resolving health problems even faster than they would be fixed organically.  These things matter and it's worth looking to the long horizon (both forwards and aft) once in awhile to see how things sit.

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