Monday, May 23, 2011

R.I.P. Aid Watch

On May 19, Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi announced that their blog Aid Watch was ending, after running about two years. I was shocked, and (after checking my calendar to make sure it was not April 1), dismayed.

Who else, I thought to myself,was going to call B.S. on the foibles and failings (and sometimes nearly criminal negligence) of certain aid agencies?  Who else was going to relentlessly debunk the egomaniacal schemes of certain self-styled aid messiahs?  Who else was going to have the guts to speak truth to power?  Who else was going to remind us that so many new programs had been tried in the past, with disappointing if not disastrous results?

Who else, I asked myself, was going to demand each day that aid simply "benefit the poor?"  Who else was going to point us toward new ways of providing aid that actually take into account what the poor want?  Who else was going to contrast the failures of closed, top-down aid systems with the successes of open-access systems that provide fast, rich feedback systems?  Who else was going to redefine the debate about aid?

Aid Watch was controversial from the start.  Bill and Laura did not hesitate to take on sensitive issues, and they did not cloak their criticisms in vague bureaucratic language.  Typical evaluations of aid programs are dense and oblique, with shortcomings buried under mounds of data and jargon.  After a couple hundred pages of analysis touting the benefits of a program, official evaluations often tip their hat to failure with a paragraph beginning "But challenges remain..."  And then phase two of the same program begins with only a modest modification to a fundamentally failed design.

Aid Watch specialized in cutting through all of the obfuscation to say bluntly "This does not work.  We should stop it now and do something else if we really care about helping the poor."

In their valedictory post, Bill and Laura promise that the work of Aid Watch will continue, with longer and more in-depth pieces under the guise of Aid Watch's parent - the Development Research Institute (DRI), at New York University, where Bill is Professor of Economics.  I, for one, am very much looking forward to the next chapter of Aid Watch.