The Optimist

Sharing the Burden

Why Africa doesn't need your white guilt anymore.

It's 113 years since Rudyard Kipling -- poet propagandist for empire -- exhorted Americans, newly ensconced as the colonial power in the Philippines, to "Take up the White Man's burden/The savage wars of peace/Fill full the mouth of Famine/And bid the sickness cease." A century and change later, a new survey suggests people in the rich world have attitudes towards developing countries that would make Kipling proud. And not only are their views completely out of touch with what is going on in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but they are positively harmful to continued progress in the developing and rich worlds alike.

The survey, by Intermedia, looks at popular attitudes towards international development in countries including Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. The good news for harried aid-agency staff fearful of swinging budget cuts is that there are a lot of people in Europe and America who care about global development. Between 31 percent (U.S.) and 50 percent (Britain) of the four rich-country populations surveyed are interested in international development or global health issues and have "participated in social or political engagement" (from donating to volunteering to blogging to tweeting) in the past six months. The report calls them "interested citizens."

But here's the bad news: asked who was primarily responsible for addressing the challenges of developing countries, interested citizens in rich countries suggested outsiders -- as much or more than they did governments in poorer countries. In France, 52 percent felt the primary responsibility fell to rich world governments and international organizations compared to only 26 percent for governments in the developing world. In Britain, the same shares were 27 percent and 50 percent. In the United States, each view had an equal 39 percent support.

At first sight, the fact that a considerable proportion of the citizens of the rich world believe rich governments have to do all of the heavy lifting to get poor countries to develop might seem like a good thing for aid agencies and charities. But before popping the champagne bottles, those agencies might want to look at what underlies that belief -- a sense that people and governments in the developing world are completely useless at helping themselves.

A recent study in Britain suggested that the dominant image of developing countries remains "malnutrition and pot-bellied young children desperate for help with flies on their faces." Perhaps that's not surprising when a survey by journalist Marlon Miller looking at ten years of Africa coverage by major U.S. print media found the most common topic of articles was conflict, corruption, and crime. Or when well-intentioned efforts to mobilize support for famine relief or bringing war criminals to justice in Africa tend to emphasize the worst of the continent and play up the role of outsiders.

But the stereotype of Africa's helplessness at the hands of its violent and kleptocratic governments is a real problem -- not least for those trying to help. To be somewhat simplistic, it suggests that the continent is locked in a dark-age hell-hole. There's close to "a universal feeling that efforts have long been made to combat poverty in places like Africa and yet little has changed" suggests a British study. And there's a common explanation for why that's the case, according to Intermedia. Only between 16 percent (in France) and 29 percent (in Britain) of interested citizens in rich countries disagreed with the statement that "most financial aid to developing countries [is] wasted." Between 44 percent (in the United States) and 66 percent (France) agreed.

Other surveys point in the same direction -- and suggest that this cynicism has an impact on support for foreign aid. Between September 2008 and February 2010, while the percentage of people in the United Kingdom suggesting that corruption in poor country governments makes it pointless to give money climbed from 44 percent to 57 percent, support for increased government action to reduce global poverty slipped from 49 percent to 35 percent. In the United States, meanwhile, the median respondent suggests that 60 percent of U.S. aid money ends up in the hands of corrupt government officials -- which might help to explain why so few Americans support increasing budgets for foreign aid.

Even people of goodwill in the West are stuck with a bad case of the white man's burden complex, then: We must help, because they are so helpless. That attitude leads to bad aid -- the type run out of donor-country capitals with little involvement of beneficiary governments or citizens on the ground -- with the irony that reams-worth of evaluation studies suggest it is exactly this aid that is some of the most likely to fail. It also leads to aid fatigue: "What? They're still helpless after all our help?" Worse, it surely depresses other powerful forms of engagement between North and South -- like private investment, trade, and travel. Who would think of setting up a factory or going on holiday to a region supposedly engulfed in war, run by crooks and psychopaths, and starving to the last man?

As it happens, the white man's burden complex is also a completely inaccurate view of the world. The quality of life across the planet is higher than it has ever been. Incomes are rising -- the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day worldwide has been more than but in half since 1990. Mortality is falling -- about two million children born this year will live to their fifth birthday who would have died were mortality rates unchanged from 10 years ago. And education rates are climbing across every developing region -- with more than three quarters of primary school children actually in school in the "basket case" of sub-Saharan Africa, for example. And on the subject of Africa, eight economies in the region ended the last decade twice the size they'd started it.

Furthermore, the overwhelming reason for all of this change isn't charitable giving by the people and governments of rich countries, it's the efforts of the people and governments of the developing world themselves. Compared to how small aid flows are in relation to the size of most recipient economies, development assistance has had an outsized role -- successes such as the eradication of smallpox and rinderpest depended crucially on aid, for example. Nonetheless, such assistance accounts for an average of about 1 percent of the GDP of recipient countries. Assume for the sake of argument (and not based on any evidence) that aid is a tenfold more powerful tool for development than local incomes, that still means the development story is 90 percent about the domestic activities of the developing world and only 10 percent about outsiders.

That's a message charities and aid agencies themselves should be hammering home at every opportunity, not just because it is right, but out of self interest. Because it is the immense progress that we've seen in the developing world that provides the best evidence that aid can play a role in support of change. After all, if there hadn't been any change, there wouldn't be anything to take credit for. As it is, there's enough good news around that aid agencies taking only partial credit can still claim spectacular returns to their investments.

Focus groups among interested citizens in the West carried out by Intermedia suggest that important "triggers to engagement" when it came to activities like donating or volunteering were an emotional response to something they saw or heard, evidence that development efforts could have positive outcomes and a sense of empowerment -- that they could make a difference. But the trick for aid organizations that want to sustain commitment and work effectively with the developing world is to ensure that the sense of empowerment among their supporters doesn't involve a feeling that aid recipients are powerless. The message -- and the truth -- is that aid works when it supports people in the developing world in their immense, ongoing, and incredibly successful efforts to make their own lives better.

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The Optimist

A Better Bank

Why President Obama's curious nomination for the new chief of the World Bank could turn out to be a smart pick -- and an interesting indication of how aid lending is changing for good.

Barack Obama's administration announced Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth College, as its nominee for the next president of the World Bank on Friday, March 23. With that nomination, the White House has stuck to the archaic principle that the leadership of the World Bank should be reserved for a U.S. citizen -- Kim was born in South Korea, but he has been in the United States since he was five. On the plus side, however, the White House's selection suggests an interest in moving the World Bank further toward a new operating model, something that is sorely needed in a rapidly changing world.

If common sense prevailed, Kim's nomination would be judged equally against the candidate nominated by Nigeria and South Africa -- the corruption-fighting, fuel-subsidy-slashing Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Beyond her experience in government, she previously held a No. 2 role at the World Bank as managing director, and before that, as a teenager during Nigeria's civil war, she carried her sister on her back for 6 miles to get her lifesaving treatment against malaria. But thanks to the traditional carve-up that gives the International Monetary Fund's leadership to Europe and the World Bank's to the United States (recently cemented by the appointment of Christine Lagarde as managing director of the IMF), Kim is almost certain to get the job in the end.

Still, Friday's announcement did at least (mostly) turn around a conventional wisdom in the United States that the White House was completely bungling the nomination process, stuck between candidates who didn't want the job and candidates likely to stir up controversy. Immediate plaudits were forthcoming even from a competitor for the post -- Jeffrey Sachs.

Perhaps most interesting is what the pick suggests about changing Washington perceptions regarding what the World Bank is actually for these days. Look at the list of former World Bank presidents: a couple of politicians, a CEO turned defense secretary, and the rest bankers. That reflects the traditional role of the World Bank -- borrowing money on international markets to finance investment projects.

Kim, by contrast, is a medical doctor and holds a Ph.D. in anthropology. With Paul Farmer, he founded Partners in Health -- an NGO committed to grassroots health care and the force behind advances in treating drug-resistant tuberculosis. Before running Dartmouth, he was director of the HIV/AIDS department at the World Health Organization. Doubtless Kim has walked down Wall Street, but he has never had a corner office in one of the buildings there. Instead, he has spent his life thinking about global challenges like AIDS and innovative responses like new TB treatment regimes. Given the changing nature of the world's development challenges, the White House is right that understanding innovation and issues like global disease is of far more use to a World Bank president than an intimate knowledge of the Eurobond market.

It used to be that the primary role for development organizations was seen as providing hard currency (dollars, pounds, euros) to support country investment programs central to economic growth. That's the model that World Bank assistance is based on, but beyond being distinctly out of favor with economists, it's a model that's growing irrelevant to an increasing number of the world's developing countries.

Consider this: The average aid-recipient country gets donor funding worth less than 1 percent of its income. Additionally, data from the World Development Indicators for 2008 suggest that only 31 percent of total aid flows went to countries where aid accounted for a third or more of investment (excluding Afghanistan, this number drops to 23 percent). This suggests that for most recipient countries, as well as most aid flows, aid accounts for a very small proportion of investment. In part that's because of the phenomenal economic performance of the developing world over the past decade. As a result, there are a declining number of low-income countries where aid is still a significant source of financing. The number of countries where average incomes are below $1,005 per person per year dropped from 63 to 35 over the last 10 years.

For those 35 low-income countries that remain, it is important to note that aid is still a major source of finance -- accounting for an average of about 10 percent of gross national income. And countries just above the low-income cutoff, where the average income per person is still below $3 a day -- about one-quarter of the poverty line in the United States -- are still very poor. So there is still a considerable general financing role for the World Bank to play, particularly through the International Development Association, the arm of the World Bank that gives very low-income loans to poorer countries.

But most of the developing world has different needs from those of that dwindling number of very poor countries. For the majority of recipients, the traditional model of development assistance and World Bank support makes increasingly little sense. Instead, what the World Bank can still offer to countries with international reserves that dwarf any potential lending flows is ideas -- new approaches to old problems and leverage to address global challenges like disease and climate change.

The institution's leadership has long recognized the need for a shift toward new approaches. James Wolfensohn called for the World Bank to evolve into a "knowledge bank" a decade and a half ago. While progress has been halting, the Bank does have increasingly interesting things to say about what works in development, for example, thanks to a stronger focus on evaluating projects and initiatives.

When it comes to cross-border challenges such as climate change, the World Bank Group as a whole financed over $3.5 billion in low-carbon energy projects in the 2010 fiscal year. At the nexus of innovation and support for global sustainability, the World Bank developed a prototype global fund designed to trade credits to emit carbon. It followed the model set in the United States where power plants trade permits that give the right to emit a certain quantity of sulfur dioxide -- though admittedly the experiment has stalled thanks to the failure of global climate talks.

Jim Yong Kim may not be the best nominee. There are questions about his experience outside the health sector. He co-authored a book that slams World Bank lending and reform programs as responsible for worsening health in developing countries. (That might lead to a few awkward moments when he meets staff at the institution.) There are concerns over the outcomes of some initiatives he championed at the World Health Organization. Finally, there is the righteous fury over a process skewed so completely toward the consideration of nationality over qualifications.

Nonetheless, Friday's nomination could still be a hopeful sign. It would be great news if the White House's choice of candidate signals that the World Bank Group will move further in the direction of innovating, discovering, and cataloging what works in development, as well as protecting the global commons from the climate to cod stocks -- alongside its more traditional role in financing investment in the world's poorest countries. All that, and Kim can sort of dance too.

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