The world of foreign aid has changed dramatically over the past few years, with new actors, new forms of assistance, and new goals being negotiated. A great overview of the shifting geopolitical realities and implications for aid and development, Emma Mawdsley's From Recipients to Donors analyses the emergence (or re-emergence) of countries such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Poland and China as providers of development assistance.
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, by Adam Minter, is an entertaining and sometimes troubling account of the global recycling trade. Full of powerful statistics and compelling personal stories, this book complicates the picture of the effect our junk has on employment, the environment, trade, and consumption.
China’s Superbank: Debt, Oil and Influence – How China Development Bank is Rewriting the Rules of Finance, by Henry Sanderson and Michael Forsythe, is an important read for anyone wanting to understand China’s rise as an economic superpower. Rigorously researched and well written, this book charts the China Development Bank’s transformation into one of the world’s most powerful financing institutions.
Emerging Democracies: Rising to the Challenge (ODI Briefing 4, November 2013): In this policy briefing, ODI Research Fellow Alina Rocha Menocal tackles a question that has interested me for some years: ‘are wealthy countries wealthy because they are developed or because they are democratic?’
She suggests that engaging with emerging democracies more effectively so that they can improve living standards is the new development frontier. Although a number of authoritarian regimes have recorded good development outcomes (East Asian tigers), there are as many cases where the reverse is true.
The author argues that too much is expected of emerging democracies too soon. Both democracy and development need to be underpinned by a functioning state, but many emerging democracies suffer from a fundamental lack of state effectiveness. While it is tempting to define democracies by elections, there is evidence from some countries that electoral competition generates incentives that ‘foment fragmentation and undermine coherent policy-making based on long-term priorities’.
The paper’s most interesting conclusions are that there should be a higher tolerance for risks and setbacks and that coordination between development and democracy-support programs should be improved. Donors need to be willing to work outside their comfort zone and deal with political actors rather than civil service and civil society players.
The Final Countdown: Prospects for Ending Extreme Poverty by 2030 (Policy Paper 2013-4, Global Economy and Development at Brookings, April 2013): The share of the population of the developing world living in extreme poverty halved between 1990 and 2010. This important paper by Laurence Chandy, Natasha Ledlie and Veronikia Pencikkova from Brookings looks at whether it is possible for extreme poverty to be eliminated by 2030.
The research shows the drivers of progress on poverty reduction are changing. The paper uses the analogy of a relay race to show that the baton for leading the charge on global poverty reduction between 1990 and 2030 started with China, is being passed to India and will end up with sub-Saharan Africa. The latter will struggle to bring home victory as poverty is less responsive to growth and distribution changes in sub-Saharan Africa than in India or China.
The authors find that poverty is likely to be spread more thinly across countries in the future rather than be aggregated in China and India. They conclude optimistically, suggesting the international community is learning more about how to eliminate poverty and can employ various policies to achieve that aim.
If you’re a foreign aid cynic with a limited understanding of the dynamics of development, Angus Deaton's The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality will reinforce your bias. That’s unfortunate on two counts.
Firstly, the bulk of Deaton’s book focuses less on the rights and wrongs of foreign aid and more on documenting the progress made by humans since Cave Time in overcoming the various health challenges which have killed or maimed us over the millennia. That’s a positive which appeals to my bias – that as humans we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the progress we’ve made in improving our quality of life.
So it’s a shame Deaton dedicates the last part of the book to arguing the ineffectiveness of foreign aid in addressing poverty and inequality. The nub of his argument is that foreign aid can make poverty worse because.foreign aid makes governments less responsive to the needs of the poor and thus does them harm.
It’s a broad swipe against foreign aid yet is restricted in the geographic focus (principally Sub-Saharan Africa) and forms of development assistance it cites to make the case. But in considering what should be done in future, Deaton proposes a range of initiatives which are already underway and already included in the range of tools and modalities employed by development practitioners.
Verdict? It’s still worth the read as a balance to those who would spin the benefits of development assistance beyond the reality that geo-strategic politics and rent seekers impose on all forms of international relations.