Vital needs don’t always attract vital support

Excerpts of an opinion on the question “Are charities more effective than Government?”, by John Briscoe, professor of environmental engineering at Harvard University, and a former World Bank official:

The priorities of charities are appropriately set by those who finance and manage those charities. But it seldom stops there. [Apart from non-governmental organizations that focus on health and education,] governments typically and necessarily see things like jobs as overwhelming priorities and sectors like infrastructure as critical for creating jobs and reducing poverty. I know of not a single nongovernmental organization that focuses on job creation, the provision of electricity at scale, or transport.

As a senior official in the World Bank I saw this dynamic at work every day. NGOs would lobby their governments for more attention to health, education and the environment. Rich country governments would then use their position on the board of the World Bank to push for these priorities.

Over the last 20 years this has led to a profound distortion in the priorities of the bank, with the social sectors becoming dominant and, for a long time, infrastructure lending – the original mandate of the Bank – falling to less than 10 percent of total lending.

An interesting evolution over the last decade has been the rise of countries like China, India and Brazil that give high priority to things like infrastructure, and as their weight in the global system has increased, this has led to somewhat of a rebalancing of priorities at an institution like the World Bank, but, more important a rebalancing in options for developing countries.

These countries, having recently emerged from poverty, know that it is not by putting the social cart before the economic horse that development and poverty reduction happen. They have little patience for the pleas of philanthropists rich and poor to deny poor countries the option of following the only known road to poverty reduction.

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