Doing good is harder than it looks

It’s clear that doing good is harder than it looks. For example, abundant evidence suggests that education can be transformative in a poor country, so donors often pay for schools. But building a school is expensive and can line the pockets of corrupt officials. And in my reporting I’ve found that the big truancy problem in poor countries typically involves not students but teachers: I remember one rural Indian school where the teachers appeared only once or twice a year to administer standardized tests. To make sure that the students didn’t do embarrassingly badly on those exams, the teachers wrote all the answers on the blackboard. The critics can cite similar unexpected difficulties in almost every nook of the aid universe.

An emerging synthesis … would acknowledge the shortcomings of aid, but also note some grand successes. For example, the number of children dying each year before the age of 5 has dropped by three million worldwide since 1990, largely because of foreign aid. Yes, aid often fails — but more than balancing the failures is quite a triumph: one child’s life saved every 11 seconds (according to calculations from United Nations statistics).

Moreover, pragmatic donors are figuring out creative ways to overcome the obstacles. Take education. Given the problems with school-building programs, donors have turned to other strategies to increase the number of students, and these are often much more cost-effective: (1) Deworm children. This costs about 50 cents per child per year and reduces absenteeism from anemia, sickness and malnutrition. A Kenya study found, in effect, that it is only one twenty-fifth as expensive to increase school attendance by deworming students as by constructing schools. (2) Bribe parents. One of the most successful antipoverty initiatives is Oportunidades in Mexico, which pays impoverished mothers a monthly stipend if their kids attend school regularly. Oportunidades has raised high school enrollment in some rural areas by 85 percent.

The upshot is that we can now see that there are many aid programs that work very well. We don’t need to distract ourselves with theoretical questions about aid, so long as we can focus on deworming children and bribing parents. The new synthesis should embrace specific interventions that all sides agree have merit, while also borrowing from an important insight of the aid critics: trade is usually preferable to aid.

[Excerpts from Nicholas D. Kristof, author, with Sheryl WuDunn, of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”]

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