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Soup kitchens are for the soul, not the needy

April 8 2013 2 comments
Happy Valley racecourse: A former malarial swamp

The cure for malaria is economic development, as this one-time malarial swamp demonstrates

Scott Alexander has an interesting post describing Robin Hanson’s controversial views on efficient charitable donation. Put simply, he says that donors could maximise the benefit of their charity by investing during their lifetime and donating the accumulated proceeds in a lump sum at the end of their life — because investment returns outstrip economic growth.

People don’t do this, says Hanson, because it would mean forgoing the immediate sense of satisfaction that is the real motivation for most charitable giving. Ouch. The post has generated lots of comments about the maths (and ethics) of investing for tomorrow rather than donating today, and a good deal of contemplation on the most efficient way to give money.

But the problem as I see it is much more fundamental: is charity, in itself, an efficient way to effect meaningful change?

Many of the problems that charities try to address are symptoms of poverty, rather than causes of it. Malaria is a good example. One of Hong Kong’s swankiest districts used to be a malarial swamp. It wasn’t charity that got rid of the disease; it was economic development — the British colonists cleared the paddy fields and re-directed the waterway to build the now-famous Happy Valley racecourse, inadvertently solving the malaria problem.

(The valley got its name, by the way, as a superstitious protection against the mysterious deaths that occurred there, which turned out to be serendipitous for the property developers who later built on the site. Death Valley might not have taken off in quite the same way.)

Malaria was also widespread in the southern US as recently as the 1940s. It was eradicated as a result of economic development (when the knowhow and resources became available), as it was in Greece and Italy and other parts of southern Europe.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to eradicate malaria from poor countries, at least in theory. After all, we know perfectly well how to do it. But the reality is that controlling malaria depends on effective government action and cross-border cooperation, which is beyond the scope of most private charities — and typically beyond the ability of the poorest countries. Crappy governance is why they’re poor in the first place.

And that’s precisely the point. Africa’s problem is not Aids or dirty water or a lack of schools or hospitals (though it suffers from all of those things). The problem is poor governance, weak institutions and the ravages of war.

Where do I donate to fix that?

Well, I don’t. The reality is that charities actively avoid giving money directly to governments in the poorest countries because their donors are paranoid about corruption (and accountability). They want to see where their money is going, so they know how good to feel about it.

Indeed, in the US they even host conferences on “efficient giving” so people can make absolutely certain that not one penny of their charity is wasted.

But it’s hard to see how any of this bottom-up stuff helps to improve governance, which is the actual source of the problems.

It’s not even clear that people in the rich world really want to solve these problems. China’s growth since 1979 has lifted more people out of poverty than the total combined efforts of all the world’s charities, yet most Americans seem to think that China is “stealing” jobs and should be penalised rather than held aloft as a model for fixing global poverty. (Though they will donate money for China’s pandas, who, unlike China’s humans, are not considered guilty by association.)

It is therefore doubly ironic that Chinese investment in Africa will probably do more to alleviate poverty than the charities have achieved during the past 40 years.

If people were serious about making the world a better place, it would be a much better place already. Let’s face it, charity is all about the donors, not the recipients.

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Educating China

December 4 2012 Leave a comment

Quick thought on a passage from this otherwise interesting Quartz article by James McGregor:

It is a pity that his Party’s censorship strictures will make it difficult for Xi to get his hands on the new book “Restless Empire” by historian Odd Arne Westad.

In a Washington Post review this weekend, veteran China watcher John Pomfret says the book “tells the story of the foreigners who helped China become what it is today, from China’s first interactions with the West to the current era. In doing so, Westad upends, but ever so politely, a slew of misconceptions about China that have been concocted by his academic predecessors both in the West and in Asia.”

…despite claims by communist historians, foreigners were key to China’s modernization. British, Americans, Japanese, Germans and Russians played enormously important roles as advisers, models, teachers, guides and enlighteners of the Chinese. While Westad does not underplay the depredations meted out by the imperialist powers, he also tells the other side of that story — that American missionaries brought education, science and modern medicine to China, that the British imported modern administrative techniques, that the Germans taught the Chinese a significant amount about warfare. Heck, the French even created China’s postal service.

I haven’t read the book, but it’s interesting that Westad attributes American missionaries with educating China. I see the influence of western missionaries in many of the world’s most isolated communities, but not in China. Thankfully.

Missionaries do not educate. They destroy indigenous belief systems and replace them with their own primitive beliefs. And they do so by using the magic of western science and technology as a lure. “You wanna know how to make stuff like this? Come, hear the word of God.”

If the Communists achieved one good thing in China, it was keeping the missionaries out. There are very few places in the world where remote, traditional communities still go about their lives in the way they always have. China is full of them, and I’m grateful to have been able to see them.

Britain’s role in bringing administration is also dubious. Senior civil servants in the UK are still called mandarins, and the word bureaucracy is French. I’d argue that those two nations taught the British a thing or two about administration, rather than the other way round.

And aspiring military officers at Sandhurst and West Point are still taught about Sun Tzu’s theories on warfare, so I wonder how much the Germans really “taught” the Chinese…?

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Indonesia deteriorating

November 15 2012 Leave a comment

Having only recently won back favour from international rating agencies, Indonesia now seems to be going backwards.

For once, the problem is not economic mismanagement. As Michael Vatikiotis has reported recently, Indonesia’s latest problem is a surprising bout of social disorder:

Violence is increasing at an alarming rate in Indonesia. In the first four months of this year, a World Bank-sponsored monitoring system in Jakarta recorded more than 2,400 incidents that resulted in more than 300 deaths. Much of the violence is occurring in communities where local conflicts break out, often over petty issues.

Vatikiotis, who is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, points to the rise of vocal extremist Islamic groups in particular and bemoans the government’s failure to enforce order and uphold the country’s existing laws.

Poorly developed legal norms and ethics are also to blame. Indonesia was in such a hurry to lift the yoke of paternalistic, heavy-handed central rule that it didn’t invest time and resources in building institutions. Without a strong foundation for regulating local democracy, provincial and district politicians consider the election process a free for all.

If this wasn’t worrying enough, there are also reports in The Jakarta Post of international companies backing out of Indonesia in response to the violence:

Indonesian Employers’ Association (Apindo) chairman Sofjan Wanandi said that one locally owned and five foreign owned companies had permanently shut down operations due to prolonged labor disputes. Four other multinational companies are expected to follow suit, Sofjan said, declining to name the firms on concerns for their bank financing.

“The estimated investment loss may just reach more than US$100 million,” he said.

The examples are sobering:

The Japanese connectivity component maker PT Japan Solderless Terminal Indonesia said it lost US$6 million between January and October after external union organizers “attacked” their factory in Cibitung, Bekasi, West Java.

Sad.

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