Aid Watchers: Are celebrities good for development aid?

by Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte

The following is an excerpt from their post:

The Global Fund is now known as “celebrity backed,” and almost no news story of the recent corruption saga has been without reference to Irish rock star Bono and celebrity philanthropist Bill Gates. Celebrities draw attention and stir emotion. But now, the opportunity to link development aid mismanagement or lavish spending with global celebrities has led to negative publicity. People all over the world are interested in what is happening to “Bono’s Fund” or “Madonna’s Malawi.” Yet, as is often the case with celebrity-driven media, the stories actually provide little information on what is going on in The Global Fund or in the countries where it works, or in the education sector in Malawi.

We explore this phenomenon in Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World (just released by the University of Minnesota Press). In the book, we examine what happens when aid celebrities unite with branded products and a cause. The resulting combination—what we call “Brand Aid”—is aid to brands because it helps sell products and builds the ethical profile of a brand. It is also a re-branding of aid as efficient and innovative, based on “commerce, not philanthropy.”

In the case study of Product (RED), a co-branding initiative launched in 2006 by Bono, we show how celebrities are trusted to guarantee that products are “good.” Iconic brands such as Apple, Emporio Armani, Starbucks and Hallmark donate a proportion of profits from the sale of RED products to The Global Fund to finance HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa. In essence, aid celebrities are asking consumers to “do good” by buying iconic brands to help “distant others” —Africans affected by AIDS. This is very different from “helping Africa” by buying products actually made by Africans, in Africa, or by choosing products that claim to have been made under better social, labour and environmental conditions of production.

In Product (RED), celebrities are moving attention away from “conscious consumption” (based on product information) and towards “compassionate consumption” (based on emotional appeal). To us, this is even more problematic than the risk of negative media attention that celebrities bring to development aid.

Click to read entire article…

To quickly reiterate some of the arguments against SWEDOW (Stuff We DOn’t Want) aid:

It’s not needed. Seriously, neither the developing world as a whole nor the specific recipient countries named by World Vision suffer an undersupply of T-shirts.

It’s not cost effective. The cost of collecting, sorting, shipping and distributing bulky, low-value items like a bunch of T-shirts does not justify the (very questionable) benefit. And don’t forget to include the opportunity cost, the lost chance to allocate those same, considerable resources to provide something better, like clean water or medicine. (A World Vision PR rep told the New York times in 2007: “Where these items go, the people don’t have electricity or running water.”)

It can perpetuate local community’s dependence on free handouts and stifle home-grown economic initiatives, not to mention putting out of business local shirt sellers.

(via AidWatchers)

To quickly reiterate some of the arguments against SWEDOW (Stuff We DOn’t Want) aid:

It’s not needed. Seriously, neither the developing world as a whole nor the specific recipient countries named by World Vision suffer an undersupply of T-shirts.

It’s not cost effective. The cost of collecting, sorting, shipping and distributing bulky, low-value items like a bunch of T-shirts does not justify the (very questionable) benefit. And don’t forget to include the opportunity cost, the lost chance to allocate those same, considerable resources to provide something better, like clean water or medicine. (A World Vision PR rep told the New York times in 2007: “Where these items go, the people don’t have electricity or running water.”)

It can perpetuate local community’s dependence on free handouts and stifle home-grown economic initiatives, not to mention putting out of business local shirt sellers.

(via AidWatchers)

Local interpreters are unbelievably important absolutely everywhere in the world, from Afghanistan to Congo. The Western reporter gets the credit and the prizes, but the hardest work and greatest risk is typically undertaken by the local interpreter. And then we have some protection because we’re foreign, and in any case we bounce out, while the locals stay behind and must deal with disgruntled warlords and governments when documentaries/articles come out. Local interpreters truly are the heroes of international reporting, especially in more dangerous places like Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Ivory Coast. So I hope the upshot is not only a new kidney for Paster Marrion but also a greater appreciation for the courage and contribution of people like him.
What's Wrong With the Bill Gates & Bono Approach to Saving the World?

by Rachel Cernansky



The UN held a summit on the Millennium Development Goals at the end of September to review the progress on eradicating poverty and hunger, combatting HIV/AIDS, achieving universal education, environmental sustainability, and gender equity.

There’s certainly merit to these goals and to the many international relief efforts seeking to lift people out of poverty. But there are also a number of flaws: How the MDGs are prioritized, publicized and funded, how aid is funded and distributed, and the overriding issue of transparency and accountability.

Where’s the Accountability?
 As Bill Easterly, economist and one of the most outspoken critics of aid, has pointed out time and again, aid money is doled out with little to no accountability for how well it works. Organizations frequently tout how much money they raised more than quantify how they were able to improve lives.

A common response to this lack of accountability is that some help is better than no help, while many argue that is not true—for many reasons, the most basic being that it encourages a culture of dependency. In her book, “Dead Aid,” former World Bank economist Dambisa Moyo calls aid “an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster.” A Washington Times review of Moyo’s book sums up her point: “The open aid spigot encourages the worst governmental irresponsibility.”

The Center for Global Development frames another criticism this way: “Unpredictable aid further complicates management and coordination of fiscal and monetary policy, and reduces whatever fragile confidence of small private investors in future relative prices responsible governments are trying to achieve.” Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda has said, “foreign aid is an ineffective instrument that distorts recipients’ incentives for the worse.”

Distributed through a frequently top-down approach, people’s well-intentioned dollars are often spent on ineffective programs or efforts that are never even accepted or welcome at the local level. In a debate about aid for Africa a few years ago, economist and president of the Free Africa Foundation George Ayittey, pleaded for a change in this pattern: "if you want to help Africa, folks, please, for Pete’s sake, ask the Africans what they want. Don’t assume that you know better than the Africans."

The top-down approach to mobilization and development, according to the World Resources Institute, “rests on the assumption that people need to be told how to “participate” in centrally planned development activities.” There is little room to ask for, or integrate, feedback from the populations who will be affected by aid programs.

Easterly wrote in a Council on Foreign Relations debate, “Top-down planning by experts remains a favorite approach, as embodied in the World Bank/International Monetary Fund Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers… despite years of experience that shows planners at the top don’t have enough feedback from the poor, incentives for implementation, or accountability for results to make the plans work.

Cultural sensitivity is not a priority for many international aid groups—but ignoring the needs, desires, and know-how of local populations is not only inefficient, it is often counterproductive to both the group’s mission and to the community’s well-being.

Local skills, industries, and infrastructure are also, in many cases, undermined—secondhand clothes donations to Africa have wiped out local textile industries. And by sending millions of dollars to foreign governments with no check on how well it funnels through government officials to the people it is intended for, economic disparity often increases.

Continue reading…

Could it be that Africa is not static after all? *gasp*

African export success: finding the needle when you’re not sure which haystack

by William Easterly

Export success in Africa is a matter of finding a rare Big Hit, with the added complication that it won’t stay a hit, and that in a few years you will need a new Big Hit.



This from a new NBER working paper by Ariell Reshef (U. Va.) and myself. We also tell some stories of the individual successes, some of which involve the local government.

The news is not that Africa is different from the rest of the world in this, but that it’s the same.

This unstable uncertainty holds regardless of whether you include or exclude oil, minerals, and other export commodities. And so does the concentration of success — the top-ranked non-commodity export is 23 times larger than the 10th ranked export.

The stereotype of African countries as unchanging mono-exporters based on some unchanging natural endowment just turns out to be…wrong.

Coping with such remarkably high and unstable uncertainty (the “unknown unknowns”) as to what will be a hit seems like an a priori case for a lot of decentralized, highly motivated seekers and experimenters. We don’t exclude ANY possible government involvement — at the very least, governments need to be nimble to adjust regulations and infrastructure to support any new success that comes along from private entrepreneurs.

In sum, we think there is just as much a role for entrepreneurs in Africa, and just as little role for centralized and systematic government industrial policy, as in the rest of the world.

AidWatchers: Lennon vs. Bono

by William Easterly

I watched last night a remarkable documentary on the life of John Lennon called “Imagine.” For my generation, it’s pretty much automatic that Lennon is our hero, and I am no different.

But then I thought, do I have a double standard? I criticize celebrity musicians today like Bono for taking on a role like “Africa expert,” because we would never put rock stars in charge of say, Federal Reserve Policy. Yet Lennon was also a politically active celebrity rock star – why shouldn’t I make the same criticism of his career?

Well, I still think there is a big difference between Lennon and Bono. Lennon’s anti-war activities courageously challenged the power of the status quo, so much so that he was frequently harassed by the police and FBI.  Bono’s support of aid to Africa and the MDGs is more like a feel-good consensus that does NOT challenge Power. Celebrity counter-weight to established power seems much more constructive than celebrity expert.

Bono did photo ops with George W. Bush; Lennon doing a photo op with Richard Nixon would have been inconceivable.

Lennon had a real impact protesting the Viet Nam war. Where are Bono and today’s other celebrity activists on the injustices and human rights violations of the War on Terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay?

AidWatchers: Lennon vs. Bono

by William Easterly

I watched last night a remarkable documentary on the life of John Lennon called “Imagine.” For my generation, it’s pretty much automatic that Lennon is our hero, and I am no different.

But then I thought, do I have a double standard? I criticize celebrity musicians today like Bono for taking on a role like “Africa expert,” because we would never put rock stars in charge of say, Federal Reserve Policy. Yet Lennon was also a politically active celebrity rock star – why shouldn’t I make the same criticism of his career?

Well, I still think there is a big difference between Lennon and Bono. Lennon’s anti-war activities courageously challenged the power of the status quo, so much so that he was frequently harassed by the police and FBI. Bono’s support of aid to Africa and the MDGs is more like a feel-good consensus that does NOT challenge Power. Celebrity counter-weight to established power seems much more constructive than celebrity expert.

Bono did photo ops with George W. Bush; Lennon doing a photo op with Richard Nixon would have been inconceivable.

Lennon had a real impact protesting the Viet Nam war. Where are Bono and today’s other celebrity activists on the injustices and human rights violations of the War on Terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay?

The starving children of Ethiopia were not the victims of drought, as most people believed at the time. They were the victims of politics. The government of the time was using famine as an instrument of war, and the rebels were more interested in defeating the government than in feeding famine victims. As William Easterly, a leading aid skeptic, puts it, “It’s not the rains, it’s the rulers.” Political famines attract the food aid industry, with the consequence that governments or rebel groups are able to feed their own armies and divert resources to buy more weapons. Humanitarian aid in conflict zones is always problematic. It helps the bad guys as well as the innocent.
Maybe this is why accountability for Millennium Development Goals did not work out that well…..

Maybe this is why accountability for Millennium Development Goals did not work out that well…..

Poverty Porn - any type of media which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause.
You will find none of that here :)

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