282 Comments

I think that this sort of thing actually validates the fine grained, very numerical and technocratic approach of things like EA. Handing out malaria nets does not need a narrative, while boilerplate critiques of EA usually heavily rely on very unreasonable assumptions typical of left wing academia. Whenever people invoke “politics” as an unalloyed good, they mean a very particular type of it, and that type has done the developing world no favours.

In other words, EA should it keep it simple and recognize its limits, because getting anthropologists involved is a pretty risky bet.

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Your comment is very nice because it is the only one in a long thread that has a fundamentally infantile, dismissive, and frankly aggressive tone, yet supposedly is meant to call me out for being off-putting.

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Fruitful critiques are possible, as this book shows, but I think the average one is going to be made by people like Anand Giridharadas. That is concerning.

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What do you mean when you say "handing out malaria nets does not need a narrative"? I should think that we wouldn't do it, absent some justifying narrative. And I would think that that narrative might overlook unexpected side effects.

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Indeed, in the recent interview of James Tibenderana on the 80,000 hours, at some point it was brought up that some people had been using malaria nets as fishing nets, rather than for their intended purpose. Of course, the fact that they are aware of this is a good sign, and it seems they don't think it's a particularly big problem, but it seems like exactly the sort of thing you might want to hire a qualitative researcher to discover.

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In GiveWell's 2021 cost-effectiveness analysis of AMF [1] they look at 8 "downside adjustments", from risk of bednet wastage due to ineffective goods to confidence in funds being used by AMF to buy bednets (vs spent on other programs), but I was surprised to see "bednets not being used" not listed.

[1] https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1B1fODKVbnGP4fejsZCVNvBm5zvI1jC7DhkaJpFk6zfo/edit#gid=1364064522

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It's captured in 'Net use adjustment', row 51 column A. To repost the comment here:

This adjustment is used to account for reduced net efficacy due to poor net usage (i.e. people who receive nets not sleeping under them).

Net use was imperfect in trial contexts, but we guess that net use following AMF's distributions may still be lower than it was in trial contexts.

Some information about net use in bed net trials and AMF programs can be viewed at https://docs.google.com/a/givewell.org/document/d/1-wcSC2wz6Jn8uKALZvyAo9Um1ukhIB5GMaie8lQDmhU/edit?usp=sharing. Methods for collecting usage data vary, and we don't believe we can make a simple apples-to-apples comparison between AMF use data and use data from bed net trials. We have substantial uncertainty, but our best guess is that a value of 90% is appropriate for this parameter.

An excerpt from Lengeler 2004 (pgs. 10-11) details why net use may be a concern in large-scale distributions:

"The bulk of data in this review describe impact under ideal trial conditions (efficacy) rather than impact under large-scale programme conditions (effectiveness). While the difference between efficacy and effectiveness is likely to be small for certain medical interventions (such as vaccination or surgery), it can potentially be large for preventive interventions such as ITNs.

Some of the consequences of moving from a scientific trial towards a large-scale programme is illustrated by the results of the two mortality trials carried out in The Gambia. The first trial was carried out under well-controlled implementation conditions, with a high coverage rate in the target population (Gambia (Alonso)). Unfortunately it was not randomized and hence not included in the present analysis. The second one was the evaluation of a national impregnation programme carried out by primary health care personnel and which faced some operational problems...and a lower coverage rate (around 60%) of the target population (Gambia (D’Alessandro)).The difference of impact between the two studies is important: the first trial achieved a total reduction in mortality of 42%, while the protective efficacy in the second trial was 23%."

(Link to Lengeler 2004: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15106149)

Additional discussion about net ownership and use is available at https://www.givewell.org/international/technical/programs/insecticide-treated-nets#How_have_larger-scale_distributions_compared_to_the_programs_addressed_in_these_studies.

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AFAIK the fishing net thing is negligible - it happened enough to create a neat story, but not enough to really cause any damage. I think they even tested for this in one of the RCTs.

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That it is an extremely straightforward intervention that requires little to no theorical justification for itself.

Mosquitoes transmit malaria ~> Malaria causes suffering and death ~> let’s give people the tools to avoid mosquitoes. There is no anthropological theory involved, there are no neoclassical economics, no cultural knowledge; nothing. And it works well.

Organizations should stick to that.

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May 28, 2022·edited May 28, 2022

It does seem like there is cultural knowledge involved? You need to make sure people know how to use the nets properly. You need to convince them that they should use the nets. You need to make sure that people sleep in structures that are compatible with the nets. For example, the UK's National Audit Office found that nets being distributed by NGOs were often not used because they "trap heat, can cause rashes, often come in international sizes unsuited to local preferences and can be difficult to hang in many homes."

https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/10181-001-Malaria-Book.pdf

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Fucking up on net design seems like a strictly technical failure to me.

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But that 'the size of a bed in community X is very different than international size which makes the nets hard to use' seems like the exact kind of cultural knowledge you just said wasn't necessary.

I don't know if it's true and had never thought that would be possible, but that seems like a decent example for 'might be a good idea to sometimes check in'.

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I don’t think checking in is a bad thing per se. I just think that pulling it off is usually hard and thus organizations should stick to “easy” problems that don’t need to fact-checked by anthropologists.

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May 28, 2022·edited May 28, 2022

I think you are right. The local knowledge is essential. You don't need to be an expert or anthropologist but for every small thing you need to know well the local conditions. I have been a pharmacist in 2 European countries and know that the local norms can be so different that it is practically impossible to donate medicines from one country to another. For example, in the UK when we dispense liquid antibiotics, we dilute the powder in the pharmacy. In Latvia people are supposed to do it themselves at home. If you send medicine without updated instructions, it won't be used properly. Maybe even tap water is luxury in some areas – what do you do then?

In Eastern Europe people believe that they need to take probiotics together with antibiotics to protect the gut flora. In the UK we don't recommend probiotics based on evidence that they are not effective. But in Latvia due to this belief people would not take antibiotics if probiotics were not available.

I have no idea what traditions and beliefs people have in Africa but if they can be so diverse in Europe then surely they will be even more diverse in Africa. Local norms there might not even be at the level of country but on the level of region and even village.

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May 28, 2022·edited May 28, 2022

"People are starving -> Let's give people food so they don't starve" seems to be an equally simple chain of logic, but there are all sorts of ways it can be screwed up, like "We accidentally drove farmers out of business since they can't compete with free food" or "The local warlord seized the food aid and distributed it only to his supporters." So I wouldn't assume that distributing bed nets in Africa is as simple as it sounds.

Heck, the OP says even unconditional cash transfers can cause unintended problems, and I would have thought that "Problems can be solved by spending money on them -> let's give people money and they can solve whatever problem they think is important" is the most minimal theory possible for a charity.

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There is a saying that NGO workers in western Africa use when this sort of thing happens: "WAWA", meaning West Africa Wins Again.

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There's actually some good reading on that, in Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo describe a rct in rural china which offered good vouchers for rice and noodles. The recipents actually ended up consuming less calories than before because they saved money instead to buy meat rather than more rice. They rather eat the better tasting food than optimize for more nutrition

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In the light of Ferguson's points (as summarized by the anonymous reviewer), the principal question one should be,

(1) if malaria nets are super effective preventing suffering and death

then why

(2) then why the people affected (and their forms of organized society) do not acquire the nets by themselves?

The answer to (2) is very important as it should inform the most effective way to reach outcome "malaria nets used to stop malaria".

The second most important question in light of the review is, "what unmeasured side effects distribution of malaria nets have": it sounds a good idea to figure what is currently not measured, and then measure or estimate the size of effect. For example, are the malaria net programs subsidizing a local ill-intentioned or incompetent government who won't do the reasonable thing (distribute malaria nets) by themselves and in functional democratic society should be voted out? If you don't know, you don't know. But if you have thought about it and measured it, you can make a cost-benefit analysis.

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While I do agree with the call for intellectual humility here, I would also note that the whole point of the book under review here is that from the context of Western development economists, their interventions appeared extremely straightforward, and you could produce a similarly simple causal chain as the one you put forth about malaria. Their error (and I fear where the approach you put forth here falls down) was not recognizing that their causal chain actually did require cultural knowledge.

Even with steps like "let’s give people the tools to avoid mosquitoes" it's easy to come up with some hypothetical ways in which the local context would turn a theoretically-impactful intervention into an actually-useless one.

So I think the general approach of actually attempting to measure the downstream impact of an intervention is a good one, in all cases; recognizing that there is no such thing as a "side-effect-free" intervention when it comes to one culture taking an action in the context of another culture.

I get that you're skeptical of anthropologists as being a source of subjective/un-empirical input, and I do agree that a more empirical feedback loop is desirable, but I do also think that we need to be very careful about measuring the wrong thing, or just about the power of measurements in any case; this is one of the core arguments in Scott's "Seeing Like A State", that the actual facts on the ground are fundamentally illegible to external observers, and so you simply cannot make measurements from afar that will accurately quantify the system you're trying to measure. Addressing this uncertainty could involve a mix of _both_ top-down metrics like mortality rates, as well as bottom-up qualitative analysis talking to aid recipients and trying to quantify that subjective experience. I'm probably agreed with you that in the case of malarial nets _most_ of the analysis should be quantitative, but I suspect I disagree with you in thinking that there should be _some_ qualitative analysis to try to understand the gestalt impact of the intervention. (This bit is much harder!)

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I don't see how getting anthropologists involved is risky? Rather than applying statistical techniques to variables selected by the hunches of Westerners in a vacuum, asking anthropologists to validate basic assumptions about how foreign cultures work encoded into our statistical models, and to identify externalities that we haven't thought of so we can quantify the right things is crucial! Otherwise, you end up with convincing interventions based on false premises, lots of wasted money, and no explanation for why the interventions failed.

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Nice book review! As a recovering Development Economist, I have my own thoughts on the problem with the discipline. My main gripe is the over-reliance on game theory. In grad school it was made painfully clear that to be taken seriously, your paper had to have a model. I just never understood why applied mathematicians noodling around in their offices in Europe and America would have all that much of value about what was actually happening in any given development context. I would much rather have Anthropologists and Sociologists coming up with theories to test via qualitative research. My gripe with some qualitative researchers is the belief that qualitative results are evidence, when in fact they're theory. Why can't we marry the two? Qualitative research for theory, statistics for evidence.

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May 27, 2022·edited May 27, 2022

Totally agree: quali to generate an hypothesis, quantitative data to test it, rinse and repeat!

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I wasn't aware game theory was common in development. It would seem to be most relevant with very small numbers of actors.

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To be fair, why would the very basics of economic theory (which were also developed by ppl basically doing applied mathematics) have much relevance to helping people either? Yet, understanding the basic ideas of supply and demand and ideas like opportunity cost and the insights about the likely effects of things like price controls absolutely are beneficial.

At the end of the day we need a theoretical framework to make any experiment useful. I tend to agree regarding the specific practice you are talking about. This isn't the kind of basic framework that's helpful but mostly mucking around with slightly mathematically interesting problems (but not interesting enough for actual mathematicians to solve).

But that's just general academic rot. Once a discipline exists it propogates itself and it has to do so based on standards it can evaluate fast enough to use to hire and tenure. The things you need to do to actually work out what will help just can't be evaluated easily and quickly enough to evaluate grad students for jobs.

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This nods to my prejudices so much that I'm not sure I can be fair in my assessment of it. Having said that, it does seem very well-written. It is also extremely restrained, which I particularly admire as if I'd written something similar I would be seething with anger.

My general reaction to seeing the same things that Ferguson writes about is also the same as his - antipathy to developmental NGO's, charities and EA's who mostly seem to be motivated by self-calming and the amelioration of guilt.

But... a really good review with a great deal of substance.

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I had the same reaction.

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But this is n=1. Yes the example is horrible, but is it representative or not?

I would not expect that most programs have a negative effect…

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I completely would expect most programs have negative effect. For exactly the same driving reasons that "Most scientific papers are false" and "Most goverment programs fail in their stated mission"

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Papers being false and government programs failing are both the "neutral" outcome. That comparison might imply that charities tend to have *no* effect, but I have a hard time getting to *negative* effect.

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Me too!

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May 30, 2022·edited May 30, 2022

They disrupt a status quo.

If the status quo is random, then a nudge in a random direction would likely be neutral.

But if local actors are able to optimize or partially-optimize on some axes, then a random nudge by outside actors will on average make things worse.

(Not necessarily the case, but that's the theory. You'd want to demonstrate that the interventions do at least as well as the local systems they disrupt to get neutrality)

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Jun 6, 2022·edited Jun 6, 2022

Any time one even attempts to change the status quo, one expends social capital and trust. Even neutral outcomes make it less likely that a given population would be willing to participate in the next intervention - making subsequent interventions more costly. It reinforces the "why bother, nothing will change" prior that people have.

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Why would this lead us to expect most programs to have a negative effect?

I would imagine that, even if the same dynamics that lead most scientific papers to be false also lead most development programs to not work, that would mean most programs have no effect (or small effects that average out to nothing). It seems to me that in order to predict negative effects on average, you need to have an argument for why the "null hypothesis" for a development program should be harm, rather than just nothing.

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The development project has costs, big or small, that would have been spent better without interference?

Like, most government programs cost far more in opportunity costs than what they put out in benefits, and are thus negative; but easy to lie about and get elected on.

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From an omniscient point of view, most collective actions and most individual actions have opportunity costs...but noticing that doesn't make it easy to calculate the most valuable thing to do.

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Correction, ALL actions have opportunity costs. When it comes to programs and projects that have big costs and produce nothing apparently, the bar for finding anything better to do with the money is really low. Like “spend it all in locally owned restaurants and stores in poor neighborhoods” low.

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For the same reason that most mutations are harmful? The old order was locally optimized.

Should be reasonably easy to avoid this by structuring the programs for individual informed opt-in, but that isn't how they're often done.

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May 27, 2022·edited May 27, 2022

I do not find that a convincing argument : programs specifically target things that do not seem to be working so well, like many people dying from very preventible diseases. This really does not seem to be optimized.

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Or they target things like "this horrible dictator is a regional ally, so we'll send him tanks to supress the rebels fighting for human rights". A lot of "foreign aid" spending is military....

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The comparison does not seem relevant to me. A general statement that charities usually have a negative impact really can not be deduced from the (false in many scientific (sub) fields) that "most scientific papers are false". And I know little about the subject, I would expect that many gouvernement programs fail (no impact) or do not achieve as much as expected but a negative impact does not seem to be the ususal case to me.

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But do most meals make you hungrier? Do most taxis leave you further from your destination?

Some problems (like being hungry, or wanting to go to a destination) are relatively easy, and just about any intuitively-reasonable plan will help you achieve it. Some problems are ridiculously hard, and most reasonable-sounding interventions probably won't work. The fact that economic development in poor countries is in the latter rather than the former category isn't intuitively obvious.

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The key difference is the Principal-Agent problem. The hungry person chooses what to eat, the passenger chooses where to go. But the government or NGO chooses how to intervene in somebody else's life.

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I know a development economist with significant experience in Africa who's historically been very critical of "development" programs. That case study, while extreme, is not that unrepresentative, though things have apparently been getting better, even orgs like the World Bank learning lessons from their past mistakes (in part through people like said economist beating them over the head with it or replacing the older generation as they retire).

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I worked for the World Bank in 2010-2011 building a taxonomy for some auto-categorization software. Around that time was when NLP tools started getting good enough that we could go back and mine millions of pages of research and project documentation. This allowed us to do things like examine outcomes beyond the end date of a project, study aspects of a project that weren’t the focus at the time, or cross-reference similar projects before embarking on anything new. We were also building a directory for domain expertise. The World Bank has something like 20K employees internationally and at that point had about 7 million documents in its databases. Until about 10 years ago you might have had someone on staff who knew all about the cultural and political situation in Lesotho, but no way to know they existed. I have no idea if the stuff I worked on became the expertise search we envisioned, but now you could probably find half of what we were going for on LinkedIn.

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May 28, 2022·edited May 28, 2022

Most development aid programs have had negative effects, see William Easterly's work and Lant Pritchett's writing for critiques that are solidly grounded in better models of the world and more data points.

Importantly, these are not so much because of failures of development economics,(though those also matter), but of Western and multi lateral institutional and political constraints.

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I've read Poor Economics ages ago. I'm far more partial to the view that the actual development 'aid' that works is global trade. Banerjee and Duflo haven't contributed squat to poverty alleviation (as they would likely admit themselves) especially when compared to growth.

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Do you mean that most programs have some negative effects, like most drugs have unwanted side-effect, or that most programs have net negative effects, ie the negative effects are usually stronger than the benefits?

Do you have an article from the authors that you cited?

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May 28, 2022·edited May 28, 2022

Allow me to weaken my statement and say that there are several development assistance programs (instead of most - I have not studied enough DAPs to be able to say 'most' confidently) that have had net negative effects in the past, and continue to today.

The central insight behind the model that explains this is that evolution of 'rules of the game' that permit/encourage markets (and thereby efficient allocation of resources), and political cultures that enforce these rules in largely effective ways are critical to economic development. The development economics discourse has largely started using the phrase 'good institutions' as short hand for such 'rules of the game'. Cultural and political leadership that fails to develop good institutions will in turn fail, allowing other cultural/social leadership to take their place, in an evolutionary process.

The thing with development assistance however, is that it subverts the evolutionary process, allowing a different sort of evolutionary fitness for the cultural/political leadership, i.e, making money off donors, and extending the cycle time needed for reaching good institutions, ultimately hurting more than helping.

Here's a paper by Bill Easterly that talks about this - https://www.academia.edu/download/26522293/easterley_aea_2007.pdf

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Thank you for the explanation and for the link.

This « evolutionary view » that political institutions will fail when they do not provide « good institutions «  seems extremely optimistic to me.

The evolutionary process maximize the reproduction and survival of the agents. For me, political institutions fail when they are not able to retain power, not because they are inefficient at providing good institutions for their people.

It also seems possible to me that the « natural » transitions towards better institutions is less possible today than it was last century, due to access of the governing bodies to better technology, and thus better control of their population.

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North Korea seems like an existence proof that this at least sometimes true.

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Should I be seeing footnotes in the text, or did substack eat them?

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This is the best review I've read this year.

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Yes

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Very cool, thanks.

I'm interested in your claim that "unconditional cash transfers can hurt neighbors who didn’t receive the cash." You give a link to a rather dense seventy page academic paper. Where in this paper is there support for your claim?

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It makes some sense, but depends on how the cash gets used. If the influx of cash goes entirely for importing goods from outside the local context, it may cause envy, of which we may disapprove but still might not want to encourage. If it all goes into competing for local resources without increasing the supply, then those who did not get cash clearly lose out. Prices will just go up. Ideally, it would cause local supply to increase. In practice, it is likely to be a mix of the three.

Actually, that seems too pessimistic. The unconditional cash assumes that people will invest in themselves if they have more than subsistence. That will affect local supply, though not envy.

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I have the same question.

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Me too. It seems extremely unintuitive, so if true there must be a good story behind it!

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May 27, 2022·edited May 27, 2022

I think the author might have cited the wrong paper. I looked in the conclusion of it, and found nothing about it. Eventually I found the "spillover" section, which cites this paper,

https://files.givewell.org/files/DWDA%202009/Interventions/Cash%20Transfers/Haushofer_Reisinger_and_Shapiro_2015.pdf

which seems to line up more with what they meant.

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The open-acceess version of the cited paper is here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7575201/. The paper does note that when controlling for some differences between the control and treatment group: "The results are broadly similar to those obtained without controls, with somewhat larger negative point estimates for the asset and expenditure spillovers, and the point estimate on expenditure significant at the 10% level. Again, the most salient spillover effect is that on domestic violence, which remains at 0.21 std. dev."

So there were both some positive and some negative spillovers from the treatment to the control group observed in the paper the OP cited.

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At least in Afghanistan a similar thing happened multiple times where US soldiers tried to find out what was needed and talked to some people in villages about possible projects, not knowing that in most villages there have been age old family dynamics and suddenly Hassan has a new well and road while Mustafa gets nothing because the Americans only talked to Hassan. It's mentioned in the New Yorker piece 'The Other Afghan Women' I think (not entirely sure might be a dutch newspaper podcast which I'll relisten right now).

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May 28, 2022·edited May 28, 2022

The obvious effect is that it devalues the savings (and earnings) of the neighbors. Money is supposed to represent stored-up labor, right? If you infuse some region with cash, you necessarily reduce the amount of labor represented by each $1, which means you have stolen some of the value in everyone's savings, or in their immediate earnings (until the infusion is gone). It's just a local form of money-supply inflation.

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What makes you think “Money is supposed to represent stored-up labor”? Who gets punished when it doesn’t?

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Er...how do you acquire money, hmm? That's your starting point.

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That might be what you exchange it for, or might not. Even if we assume it is, does that mean money represents stored-up labor? If it was stored up labor, we could remove the labor from storage.

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Rentseeking on inherited wealth, no labor here baby

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I don't think anyone has shown that those cash transfers cause inflation, and in the absence of evidence I find the assertion unconvincing. Money is just a medium of exchange. Someone else making more money, for whatever reason, isn't stealing from you. So no, I don't think this is obvious, which is why I asked.

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Has anyone shown that those cash transfers don’t cause local inflation with a particular village? If arbitrage between the local economy and the national economy works well, prices should remain fairly stable. Otherwise, supply of some local goods might change, and cause the price to change if substitutes from outside don’t take up the slack.

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These transfers are done in remote, under invested failling states where regional disparities can be huge. Arbitrage between the local and national/global economy is probably dysfunctional.

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May 28, 2022·edited May 28, 2022

Well, you could take as evidence the result of the massive infusion of cash into the American economy during the pandemic, and the resulting 5-8% inflation you're seeing today. Or you could look into the history of money-printing and inflation. The idea that injecting cash into an economy drives up prices (or equivalently devalues savings) is hardly a novel proposition in economics.

Or you could just use your imagination and ask yourself what would happen to the prices at a farmer's market or wholesale auction if Jeff Bezos strolled by and randomly gave half the customers $5000 in cash. And wouldn't those who *didn't* get the cash be kinda annoyed?

Edit: you're correct that someone *making* more money doesn't steal value from anyone else's money, because that person is (presumably) supplying an amount of labor equal in value to the amount of extra money, so the amount of labor represented by each dollar doesn't change. But that's not what we're talking about here, we're talking about someone getting money *without* putting into the economy any extra labor. That's why the value of money is diluted.

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“ The idea that injecting cash into an economy drives up prices (or equivalently devalues savings) is hardly a novel proposition in economics.”

This describes an increase in the money supply. Is the central bank providing the money out of newly created credit, or are the effective altruists spending donations made from existing currency?

Are we concerned about inflation or envy?

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May 29, 2022·edited May 29, 2022

Whether the unearned money is dropped from a helicopter by a central bank or by donors in a faraway country is irrelevant.

Let's see if we can penetrate the ideological resistance with one more obvious example: what happens to local prices when some out of the way town becomes a fashionable vacation spot for the wealthy? Ever gone shopping in Vail or Jackson's Hole? And how do you suppose the locals feel about that?

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You are conflating price inflation and a price increase due to increased demand.

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Hehe. Imagination and ideas are not evidence. I was asking about evidence.

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That's why I gave you one piece of evidence you are probably experiencing for yourself, the recent run up in US inflation, plus a concept to go google and study the well-known empirical relationship between money supply and inflation. Now that I think of it, you might also have observed the anti-correlation between mortgage rates and the sales prices of houses, which should also be educational.

And if you're not willing to trust your intuition and existing experience about what happens when some subgroup of consumers suddenly comes into cash by some means other than working for it, I'm not sure what to say. You would appear more attached to theories than to common sense.

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Apples and oranges.

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Speaking of common sense, inflation in the US is not evidence of inflation in another country. Evidence of water on Mars is not evidence of water on Pluto. There may well be water on Pluto, but we would want to see evidence on Pluto. Intuition is not evidence either. You know, these words actually have well established definitions.

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Not the author (they're supposed to be anonymous anyway, so I doubt they'd reveal themselves), but I came across the same claim from the Happier Lives Institute (ctrl + F 'negative spillover'): https://www.happierlivesinstitute.org/report/cash-transfers-cost-effectiveness-analysis/ I think they found no evidence of negative spillover, but I might have misread it.

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GiveDirectly did some experiments here, and I believe they ended up giving unconditionally to everybody in a village rather than means-testing and giving only to some within the village. This was discussed in detail in the (very interesting) Rationally Speaking interview with Michael Faye: http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/263-is-cash-the-best-way-to-help-the-poor-michael-faye/ (specifically talking about "fairness" around 28 mins, although the whole episode is worth a listen).

And, I believe the author would approve of their methodology; they actually talked to recipients and asked them what they considered more fair, and tried to understand the benefits of different strategies; for example giving to everybody de-stigmatizes the receipt of aid, and makes it more acceptable for folks to discuss what they should do with the money, rather than being something that is stigmatized as "a gift for the poor people in the village".

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May 27, 2022·edited May 27, 2022

> I think one of the highest impact investments an Effective Altruist fund could make right now would be to hire a handful of trained anthropologists [...] to really study how effective altruism works as a system. [...] What more are we missing?

EA is not actually interested in criticism. They say they are but I've repeatedly been attacked for offering it. I've proposed (not here) various projects to look at things from a structural perspective and I've never gotten funding. Nor have at least two other people I know. I suppose it might partly be my fault because I expect to be paid to do so. But the reality is that if you're not going to pay researchers you're going to end up with outside researchers producing product for whoever pays them (see the NYT article) or from their own point of view.

People are telling you what you're missing. They're even offering to write thorough reports on it. They're just not getting funding. And the truth is the community values where it's willing to put its dollars. I've seen a bunch of EA stuff say they want criticism. I've never seen them fund it though.

I get it's hard, as a movement, to seriously take criticism onboard or actually accept challenges to your assumptions. And I get that most movements have myths they tell about themselves. But if you don't have a clear view of yourself you can't actually be effective. But as I've said a few times the EA movement is not actually about being effective. That's just its mythology, what the movement tells itself.

> For any sort of context-specific intervention to work, an intimate knowledge of the specific history, needs, and geography of individual villages and regions is necessary.

I wouldn't say this. I'd say the level of confidence needs to match the level of force. If you want to go to a country and offer voluntary transactions your level of knowledge can be pretty low because the other side's consent acts as a safeguard. They might say no. But that's a relatively low cost way to take rejection and you can then move on.

If you're using government force or if you're doing something against the villager's will you need to be absolutely, positively sure that it's in their interest. And you can imagine a world where it is. For example, if a village doesn't understand modern medicine but suffers from guinea worm. But you have to be that level of sure. (And even there you can meet things like local doctors who make their income curing guinea worm and don't want it cured permanently.) But most of the time people know their default interests.

By the way, there's been some successful work in Lesotho in setting up manufacturing. It works because they already have a culture of leaving home for employment and they prefer factories to more dangerous mines. But of course force wasn't used and the companies are turning a profit. Still, I'd say they did more good for Lesotho than this project. (Which gets back to my EA vs SE synthesis.)

> Ferguson’s work exposes a possibility I hadn’t thought of before, in which “technical” and “apolitical” projects can expand the power of the state in unforeseen and potentially dangerous ways.

This is a bog standard anarchist critique. I really want to be kinder than this but it seems like Rationalism/EA devalues things like philosophy and political theory and then discovers, oops, there's actual value in these fields! This is why I've warned multiple people off doing exactly this kind of work. I've said something like, "Yeah, they say they want that, but they don't. You won't get funded." And the ones who ignore my advice and applied anyway haven't gotten funded. EA/Rationalism just don't value that kind of thing.

So it goes. It's your movement. I'm not even sure it's a good idea to be open to criticism. The most successful movements often aren't. And you'd definitely need some kind of immune system to keep out the hacks. (And perhaps, even in the best case, I'd be kept out by it.) But regardless it's just not where things are now.

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"Ferguson’s work exposes a possibility I hadn’t thought of before, in which “technical” and “apolitical” projects can expand the power of the state in unforeseen and potentially dangerous ways."

How can anyone who's a reader here, who has even just read a book review of "Seeing Like A State" be at all surprised by that?

Other than willful blindness, or some sense of "I can't acknowledge that, because it would be terrible".

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Well, you see, that's the kind of stuff that happens to other people, and not to us.

Which is, I suppose, the value of works like this.

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May 28, 2022·edited May 29, 2022

"We ~~can't~~ won't get caught in bad incentives, our entire existence is about how we avoid bad incentives."

I'm not saying the EA community does this. But it is *SUPER EASY* to get caught in the trap and it needs constant effort to not get caught and merely knowing about the trap is insufficient.

Zvi was on a grant review board and many of the grants were of the form

1. increase status of EA

2. ???

3. good things happen

He shot all those down but it takes constant Zvi-level skill and effort.

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I think it's just a blind trust in government power; with a bit of the "I can't acknowledge" operating subconsciously and sort of backstopping any thoughts that get too close to seriously thinking "The government is terrible, it's wasting my money, making my life worse and there's not a thing I can do about it because they are infinitely more powerful than me and are crushing me without even thinking or noticing because I don't line up with the current agenda."

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Because when you come from a Western democracy, much as you may complain about it, you still unconsciously believe that government is the servant of the people and is there to do them good. That it's about "getting my gang into power so we can spy on our rivals, infiltrate opposition support lands, put an army battalion in every village and soak the do-gooder bleeding heart Westerners to pay for all this" is not in your mind, especially if you're the kind of person who works in development/NGOs/large scale charitable work and have an image of yourself as helping the less fortunate and working to make things better.

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I wonder how many people who get a chance to meddle in a third-world are just taking out their local culture war grudges.

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That's the only thing I can think about that review. Did they really, really not think about this? A huge part of criticism against foreign aid/development aid/reparations/whatever is the new hot word is that it helps cement the hierarchies in power at that time. I don't want to be too harsh on the EA movement (that I do not really care about much to be honest), but come on...

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Long term (~eight years) reader here – I was surprised by that :)

The idea that well meaning technocratic interventions can fail or have unexpected negative externalities isn't at all surprising, but I'd never considered that those externalities could be political.

So I learnt something new here, and others might have too. I'm probably in the bottom half of readers for political savvy and seeing-the-wood-for-the-trees, so I'm also not surprised that this was obvious to others.

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I thought the same thing. I think "Seeing Like A State" is probably at the top of my list for required reading for EA or really any "Technocrat" (even those that wouldn't necessarily call themselves such) trying to have a positive impact in the world.

> Other than willful blindness, or some sense of "I can't acknowledge that, because it would be terrible".

I think the concept of illegibility and local expertise are probably quite strong anti-memes for Rationalists (and I include myself in that grouping), given the focus on empirical understanding and building models of the world. Also they may if anything be stronger anti-memes for Westerners more generally, for different reasons - the legacy colonial mindset being the most obvious foundational set of beliefs that prevent people from admitting that the "developing countries" know anything about how best to allocate their resources.

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I was thinking something similar: this should all have been obvious from public choice theory and/or the knowledge that power corrupts. But even that might be tainted by my desire to understand from outside rather than inside.

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Jun 6, 2022·edited Jun 6, 2022

Why is the third takeaway the one you pegged as being obvious from "Seeing Like A State" and not the first takeaway about legibility of outcomes or ignorance of individual preferences.

"Seeing Like A State" covered those things in the first takeaway, I don't recall anything significant being said on the third takeaway.

The third takeawy is more something you'd get from studying public choice theory not "Seeing Like A State"

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What does "SE" stand for?

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Sorry, social enterprise (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_enterprise).

A (very simplistic) version of my theory is something like: "Markets are the most powerful tools for organizing resources we have. Material problems should, if at all possible, be solved through purposeful market solutions as advocated by social enterprise. However, we shouldn't expect everything to be able to be solved that way in which case the money should be spent as effectively as possible through EA like methods." With perhaps the addendum the lack of a current solution is not evidence that one method or the other works better.

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So basically Acumen? https://acumen.org/about/

In particular their idea of patient capital: https://acumen.org/about/patient-capital/

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I've met some people who work at Acumen and they're definitely on board with this kind of thing. But they're just one company out of an ecosystem. They specifically, ime, leans more heavily towards lower ROI social investment.

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I do wonder how well EA would take it if someone said, “Well, seems to me like the problem is that you took money intended for charity and used it to fund your buddies sitting around an office in Berkeley brainstorming ideas for how to take over the world”

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Poorly. Though I will say: that's something that's happened. But it's also not the fully general problem since it's only a specific failure mode.

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I think the discussion of how much of EA spending should be on 'meta' funding is pretty lively. Although I do think that your wording makes me feel like you've already made up your mind.

I also think you're over-estimating the amount of EA funding that goes to EA orgs, as opposed to global health. This estimates all EA/rationality funding to be ~6% relative to global health's 44%, for instance:

https://80000hours.org/2021/08/effective-altruism-allocation-resources-cause-areas/

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Considering that your "critiques" of EA have been thinks like dogmatically proclaiming with absolute certainty that the thing that EA ought to be doing is building malaria net factories in sub-sahara Africa rather than donating them, and that they in fact know (or at least would know) this and are deliberately choosing not to in order to make their donors feel better about their donations....that might be the problem.

Of course, building a factory is sub-saharan Africa is an extraordinarily risky thing to do, you cannot assume that the economics will even work out favorably even while ignoring the enormous risks of corruption (embezzlement of funds, awarding contracts to cronies, skimping on construction materials, stealing of the factory's product to be sold for profit, the government confiscating the factory and using it to make officials money or do political favors etc.). Hilariously, you're guilty of the same thing that this post is talking about. You're assuming that some standard economic principles apply to sub-saharan africa and not considering the cultural, political, social etc. diversity in these places, within africa and between africa and other places.

At best, such a proposition is extremely speculative, and so the certainty with which you assert its the optimal thing to do is itself extremely off-putting, but the fact that you also claim that EA know that this is the right thing to do are doing something else instead is never going to get you anywhere. And given your wilful ignorance on the heritability of behavior in humans generally and the heritably of behavioral differences between populations specifically, you really ought to be a hell of a lot more humble in your opinions, because there's a significant chance you're wrong.

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Well, you don't appear to have actually comprehended my argument. And you don't seem to be aware of the full range of my critiques. (Which, as I said, is fair enough because a lot of them were not made in this community.) But I fully admit that there's a chance I'm wrong. I admitted it in the initial post as well.

Are you an EA supporter? I'd be surprised considering your other views on Africa and the poor.

If you're serious about believing that EA accepts critiques and that I am just uniquely someone who shouldn't be paid attention to: If you can find other examples where they've accepted fundamental or strident critiques that would prove your thesis that the problem is me, not EA's willingness to accept outside criticism.

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re: your response to the other commenter, "...you don't seem to be aware of the full range of my critiques. (Which, as I said, is fair enough because a lot of them were not made in this community.)"

I'd love to read your critiques, if they're readily accessible? I'm involved with the effective altruism movement and your comment rattled me--effective altruists do invite critique/critique their own and each others' projects a lot, but your comment made me realize how similar all the existing critiques I've seen are to each other, and they're never systematic. (Eg, one common form is the "how we might be wrong and/or fuck up" section of grant proposals, which by definition is a project-specific critique.)

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I'm afraid I haven't put them all together in one place. As I said somewhere, at this point I discourage people from putting in effort to EA critiques. If they're not going to listen (which they haven't) and I don't want to harm the movement (which I don't) then it's a bit purposeless.

The greatly simplified, 5,000 foot view of my main critique is that the practice of Effective Altruism incentivizes not effectiveness or altruism but the creation (and not fulfillment) of donation based charity organizations that appeal to wealthy donors. In other words, their primary purpose is to provision charitable prestige to wealthy tech-y types. Their incentives are set by their customers and their customers are wealthy tech elites. The demands of these donors have some advantages (namely, money) but also put fairly limiting demands on EA initiatives that prevent them from being as effective or altruistic as they could be. This is not itself an issue if it's understood as a limitation of the project. If there's a pool of money generated by wealthy techies that can only be accessed in exchange for prestige it's still best that we use that money. But instead the ideology sees itself as rational rather than ideological which blinds it to its own flaws and limitations. And it prevents it from fixing absolutely fixable problems within its own framework that lead to fairly obvious failures to people on the outside.

There are some obvious flaws in this brief summary. If you're interested in a more drawn out version let me know and I might write something longer.

(Also: I could link you to the discussion I had with JM. But it's two discussions about whether Africans have the mental capacity to run modern industry like smelters/factories and whether Africa is doomed to be poor because of the genetic traits of Africans. I appear to have really upset some HBD folks. They follow me around and call me an idiot while discussing completely random topics. So it goes.)

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Yeah, I would def be interested in further explanation, particularly what types of limiting demands you're referring to and which fixable problems. (I'm not that interested in reading the HBD stuff, haha. But thanks for the offer.)

fwiw, I know you said you've had trouble with grants but if you have something translatable for the format, you might be interested in this: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/8hvmvrgcxJJ2pYR4X/announcing-a-contest-ea-criticism-and-red-teaming

(There are definitely issues with the format, like lack of guaranteed payment, but the contest organizers are offering to try to help people get financial support.)

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> (There are definitely issues with the format, like lack of guaranteed payment, but the contest organizers are offering to try to help people get financial support.)

Thanks. I actually submitted to their parent at one point and got a nice form rejection letter. Again, I'm entirely willing to admit that I might just not have all that much to offer. But reading over the current entries I think you're right about the same-ness. I'll take a look.

> (I'm not that interested in reading the HBD stuff, haha. But thanks for the offer.)

I'm not either and yet here we are.

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“I think one of the highest impact investments an Effective Altruist fund could make right now would be to hire a handful of trained anthropologists (or other outside experts in qualitative research / ethnography) to hang out in places like GiveWell or the Machine Intelligence Research Institute for a few years and really study how effective altruism works as a system.”

I’d suggest a neo-classical micro economist. Not because I agree wholeheartedly with all the neo-classical approach, but because it would be well-suited to anticipating where the problems might lie.

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They need a Devil's Advocate.

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Is the ideal devil's advocate someone from within the paradigm, or someone from outside it? The original meaning seems to refer to a Catholic Church insider who has been tasked with defending someone accused of heresy, which doesn't fit the situation all that well.

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May 29, 2022·edited May 29, 2022

Someone inside EA to say "no, you're doing it wrong, because X Y and Z." The idea isn't that you get the DA to agree with you[1], but that there's someone who can raise issues without harm to their career.

[1] because then the DA becomes the ultimate approver and holder of authority

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May 27, 2022·edited May 28, 2022

This is an extremely outdated, anecdotal take on development economics. Which, come to think of it, describes anthropology quite well, in many different ways. Not the highest quality theory or evidence.

Current models of development economics, (actually even these models are by now at least 20 years old) which have evolved by learning from failed attempts at development (and successful ones), recognise very clearly the fundamental importance of political and legal institutions, as also the importance of markets.

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Yes, it seems strange to suggest that one entire field is wrong based on an old example of just one terrible program.

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On can find many, many examples of terrible programs, but the poster may have a point in that all the ones that immediately come to mind for me are ~40 years old

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What informs your understanding of this? Are you involved in the developmental economics field yourself? Do you have any interesting pointers (e.g. things to read) for people to see what developmental economics is like these days and how it's adapted to failures like those of the past?

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Being from a developing country, I've always wanted my country to develop faster, and have been studying and working in the field of development for 15 years. My day job is development, and I have

masters' degrees in two relevant fields. Two good books that I would recommend - Why Nations fail by Acemoglu and How China escaped the poverty trap by Yuen Ang

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>Why Nations fail

This is not a good book, or at least, it is a deeply flawed book. For a number of reasons, but first and foremost, the author does not have a coherent fundamental explanation for why good institutions exist in some places and not others. He treats things like genetics and culture as entirely independent from the ability to create and maintain good institutions, when there's no justifiable reason for doing this.

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Fair enough, I don't think they have a fully casual explanation, but I think they show quite convincingly that institutions matter. I agree that they don't go further to explain how good institutions form in the first place, but that doesn't make the theory bad, just incomplete.

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Ironically, Jim Robinson (one of the authors of “How Nations Fail”) famously has an even more radical take on Development Economics than this review does.

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I'm unfamiliar. Do point me in the right direction

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I'm struggling to find something in writing, which is unfair of me but also the truth. (Context: the reason I'm so sure of his views is that I've taken several classes from Jim, and in person he is fiercely but charmingly opposed to pretty much everything about modern development economics, including the word "development".) The closest thing I could find in writing was this: https://voices.uchicago.edu/jamesrobinson/2020/06/16/how-different-social-scientists-think/

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Thank you for the pointer, it's a thought-provoking article.

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Actually, a great way to discover the field would be this - https://mru.org/development-economics

However, I would recommend their principles of microeconomics course first, as a very engaging way to learn the fundamentals of the economists' way of thinking

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I've seen this several times, with behavioural econ and modern milhist as well as development.

1) academics recognise problems with their field

2) academics spend a couple of decades fixing the problems (this usually involves more empiricism, statistics and evidence gathering than the field used to have)

3) the criticisms filter out to the broader public, levelled at the field as it stood 30 years ago

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"There’s been a little bit of research on the quantitative side --Recent research has found, for instance, that GiveDirectly’s 2014 unconditional cash transfer trial increased community participation but did not change voting patterns, so at least in 2014 the Kenyan government wasn’t using the program to stay in power."

This on its own is an idiotic line of reasoning, that I see far too often. Observing that after intervention x, variable y did not change and blithely stating that therefore x had no effect towards y. In this case the Kenyan government could have used the program to buy itself goodwill, which hadn't they done that, would have led to an even greater loss of their power than the unchanged voting patterns would have already led to. What's the offical term for this fallacy? Birdbrain monocausal-constancy assumption mania?

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Excellent point. I've seen this kind of fallacy all the time and would like a good name for it too.

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The unaffecting monocause fallacy?

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It gets worse. Presumably the calculated effect on voting patterns was X, whose absolute value was less than some number Y that depends on the size and noisiness of the data and on arbitrary convention, therefore there was no effect whatsoever.

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May 27, 2022·edited May 27, 2022

When you included "Many families had large flocks of underfed cattle. Even when money was tight, the team rarely observed cattle sales.", my instinctive reaction was "Well, yeah, cattle are wealth!" but that's because I'm from a rural background with a strong tradition going back centuries that cattle represent wealth:

http://lisburn.com/archives/history/rambler/rambler-2000/woman_of_the_three_cows.html

So my initial takeaway from this is that the lessons EA can learn are:

(1) Fewer technocrats, more rednecks on your staff, and by "rednecks" I mean "people who know what land supports cows and what land supports goats and why you might raise one rather than the other"

(2) Work with the locals - and this does *not* mean the Minister for Embezzlement of Foreign Do-Gooder Funds sent to meet you and have a nice chat about developing that project, it means the guy in the village who has lived there all his life

(3) The problems you think are the big issues may not be the problems the locals think are big issues: why are you trying to breed ponies in cattle-raising country?

(4) The real problems may be something different from what you or the locals think

I appreciated this review, thanks!

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Really anyone who played King Of Dragon Pass should understand cattle/goats/horses type stuff. Like the bar is so low.

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...you would not believe the number of influential academic development scholars who are convinced that there is no 'cattle culture' in the USA.

They've never talked to more than one cow rancher, but they know.

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May 27, 2022·edited May 27, 2022

I would ask where they think milk comes from, but I'd be afraid they'd answer "Nuts! And oats, too, and rice and soya".

As for beef - meat is murder!

Let me quote from "The Napoleon of Notting Hill":

"So your sympathies are," said Del Fuego, quite calmly, "with the big nation which..."

"Pardon me, pardon me, President," said Barker, warmly; "my sympathies are with no nation. You misunderstand, I think, the modern intellect. We do not disapprove of the fire and extravagance of such commonwealths as yours only to become more extravagant on a larger scale. We do not condemn Nicaragua because we think Britain ought to be more Nicaraguan. We do not discourage small nationalities because we wish large nationalities to have all their smallness, all their uniformity of outlook, all their exaggeration of spirit. If I differ with the greatest respect from your Nicaraguan enthusiasm, it is not because a nation or ten nations were against you; it is because civilization was against you. We moderns believe in a great cosmopolitan civilization, one which shall include all the talents of all the absorbed peoples."

"The Senor will forgive me," said the President. "May I ask the Senor how, under ordinary circumstances, he catches a wild horse?"

"I never catch a wild horse," replied Barker, with dignity.

"Precisely," said the other; "and there ends your absorption of the talents. That is what I complain of your cosmopolitanism. When you say you want all peoples to unite, you really mean that you want all peoples to unite to learn the tricks of your people. If the Bedouin Arab does not know how to read, some English missionary or schoolmaster must be sent to teach him to read, but no one ever says, 'This schoolmaster does not know how to ride on a camel; let us pay a Bedouin to teach him.' You say your civilization will include all talents. Will it? Do you really mean to say that at the moment when the Esquimaux has learnt to vote for a County Council, you will have learnt to spear a walrus? I recur to the example I gave. In Nicaragua we had a way of catching wild horses by lassoing the fore-feet which was supposed to be the best in South America. If you are going to include all the talents, go and do it. If not, permit me to say, what I have always said, that something went from the world when Nicaragua was civilized."

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To be fair, though, some trades are more useful than others. For example, humanity is better off for having people who can spear walruses; however, it is even better off because of the fact that most people today do not *need* to spear walruses.

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When the Long Dark Cold comes in and the hell-tusked walruses are lolloping throughout the land, you will be sorry you said that 😁

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...are we?

I mean, yes, fewer people so hungry and desperate that they don't have room in their hearts for charity for their fellow man is a great thing. Ways to demonstrate status that don't require the deaths of other young men is great. Fewer families grieving the loss of a child is great.

But have we lost something that keeps us healthy as humans by no longer having to strive and take physical risks? In this eternal privileged adolescence have we left behind something vital?

Is it even possible to find a balance, or are we doomed to continue down the path we are on?

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I mean, spearing a walrus WAS a way to demonstrate status that didn't require the death of another young man (even if it was risky for the spearer himself.) On first reading I actually thought that was what you meant. (To be perfectly honest I'm still slightly confused. I guess you're extrapolating to other ancient customs?) I cannot pull up the information, as I'm not a proper ACX reader with statistics at my fingertips, but I believe I read an article once about suicide rates in Greenland that rather bore out the idea that young men, especially, set more value on their own lives back when they'd sometimes successfully risked them in order to feed their families.

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Sorry, musing outloud. (Can't you read all the footnotes on my head?) Yes, people can strive against the environment or against the next tribe over, and we are smart buggers, so the next tribe lasted longer than the cavebears, or the walruses.

I agree w the suicide rate stuff.

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> But have we lost something that keeps us healthy as humans by no longer having to strive and take physical risks? In this eternal privileged adolescence have we left behind something vital?

Despite Scott's "minimal viable hobby" jibe, this is exactly what rock climbing and mountaineering provide for me and many other climbers. Was Scott only talking about indoor gym climbing, I wonder?

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Yeah, it was obvious to me too. If they'd said NEVER traded then I'd think we were dealing with some weird taboo. But holding onto them in lean times? That's the expected behavior. The other thing that struck me: why are they taking central land for ponies?

Most good things Victor Davis Hanson's written can be summarized as, "My family are rural farmers. Everyone prior to about 200 years ago was also rural farmers. There are things that are obvious to me that are not obvious to you cosmopolitan urbanites." Seriously, one of his early works was all about how much work it takes to actually physically destroy crops for scorched earth.

Unfortunately, VDH continued to speak and did some rather shoddier work afterward. But honestly the amount of people who are educated and presume that education is the end all and be all of knowledge gets to me. Now, I'm not saying book and study learning isn't valuable. I really think it is. But it only teaches you a subset of knowledge. There are some forms that you wouldn't be able to gain even if it were written down. (Of course, you CAN learn it in schools. Agricultural colleges are a thing. Just not a thing at Harvard.)

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The horse raising thing is interesting, because there are not many places to raise horses in Africa. Zebra carry a blood bourne, fly spread disease that is fatal to horses. So if there was a place to raise horses, it's almost literally a gold mine.

As for keeping cows in lean times, there are some poor practices there. For example, the important thing is the number of cows, more than the quality. So if cash money is needed, say $50, and the option is to sell either 2 $25 old cows or one $50 nice young heifer, they sell the one heifer, because now they still have 11 cows instead of 10.

Over time, the quality and size of the herd suffers.

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May 28, 2022·edited May 28, 2022

I was curious about the ponies because it did not seem intuitive, so I looked it up and there is a breed of small horse/pony called the Basuto pony:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basuto_pony

So reading the article, again, "establish herds of native ponies which can be sold on to meet demand" is not a bad idea. And again, if the local big-wigs use this as an excuse to set themselves up as the pony-breeders, grab the grazing land for the ponies, and now the rest of the villagers have nowhere to graze their cattle - this will not end well.

And this is not to be pointing the finger of blame at African nations - every country has this going on. If an African Development Project set up in San Francisco to help the homeless by teaching them to weave and produce native cloth for sale, don't you imagine there are local power-brokers and connections that want their palms greased just as much? Think of the disputes about trying to get building permits, and how local activists can halt a project in its tracks by claiming the shadow of the building will cut off natural light to the neighbourhood (because nobody bribed the local activist group with a big chunk of 'donations' to get them on board).

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I have been involved in enough attempts to solve problems that are not local to me that I am close to swearing off it all.

It's not that I don't care, it's that I no longer have the arrogant self assurance to hoist the flag of the fierce moral urgency of 'something must be done, and done now!!' Too many somethings are going to make it worse.

Time is the one resource that we can never regain, once it is spent...and yet, until the End Times, there is no shortages of tomorrows. There will be another chance, later, and if not, a better one.

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It has to be done with co-operation, and sometimes the way local people want to do things will clash very badly with the nice shiny technocrat project way of doing things. And the local people may be wrong! I'm not saying they're going to be correct at every time, because there are traditional ways and mores that are outdated and regressive.

I dislike the term "White Saviour" but it is true - you can't come sweeping in like Lady Bountiful dropping your largesse on your social and economic (and possibly moral, too) inferiors. You may well be right, and your way of doing things is better, but nobody likes having a stranger turning up and telling them to stop doing it that way and change your entire attitude and customs. Persuasion and co-operation.

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It makes me think of Machievelli's admonition against half-measures; either you go in there with the full cooperation of willing locals, or you go in there with an army and an imported bureaucracy and stay for a century or three. Anything in between will fail.

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Is that included in the report? If so I missed it. I expected they were attempting to preserver their herds in relatively intelligent ways with lots of local knowledge about exactly how good cows were. Also, something you missed with the horses: even well bred horses can die later on so there's not as much of a market for them.

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No, sorry, not in that report. This is personal experience/supported by a US trained researcher, using slaughterhouse records. (They looked at several locations, and I saw the results in Uganda. It is possible that the results didn't apply to this region, but they were pretty widespread.) And of course this is self defeating, but urbanization, colonial strife and the ongoing AIDS epidemic did quite a number on the ability to sustain the local folkways.

And yeah, there aren't many, if any, horses with any naive resistance to AHS. A pity zebras are such lousy domestication material.

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Huh. If so that is a problem for the reasons you mentioned. And perhaps something you could solve by education on cow economics and biology. If they all store wealth in cows you could presumably get some interest the same way Personal Finance types do in the US.

Yeah. I'd hope the long term solution is that Africa gets wealthy enough they can afford basic, cheap cars. But obviously they're not now.

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Lesotho is a long way south and a long way up. It's outside the tropics and has the highest lowest point of any country on earth. The climate doesn't seem to be much hotter than somewhere like Rome.

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Having been in Rome in August, that's a hell of a low bar. And yeah, it's probably outside the fly reach.

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It's all done with good intentions, is the worst of it. They see how industrialisation worked in the West and they fit that template on to other countries even if it doesn't fit. I realise that you do have to work with local governments, but you also need to be aware that they have ulterior motives.

The part about seizing land is exactly this - the outsiders have the good intention to cultivate woodlands for firewood. You need land to grow trees on. Generally in the West this is marginal land - this is why hillsides are covered in commercial plots of fast-growing softwoods like Sitka spruce - but if the crony politics of the state means that the people in power use this as an excuse to grab good land and parcel it out to their clients and allies, then of course the locals are going to be angry and fight back by destroying wood lots.

I think that's the applicable lesson for EA - EA projects have good intentions and are run by nice people. The other end of the pipeline may not be nice people and you have to be aware of that.

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The intentions don't really matter to me. If someone, with the best of intentions, gets me killed then I won't regard them differently than a murderer. And if someone accidentally helps me then I still feel some debt of gratitude. I made this point in a previous development thread: I give people as much credit as good they do regardless of their intentions. For example, if a businessman shows up in a rural village and starts buying their crops to sell at market and as a result both he and the village get rich then I credit him as having done something good.

I'm aware this is not a normal moral intuition. A lot of people pushed back he was doing it for selfish reasons. Or that he benefited from his profits and so wasn't owed further gratitude. But that's simply not my view. I think, regardless of his selfish motives, he did more for those people than any aid organizations whose efforts were selfless but ineffective. (This is all hypothetical but I hope you get the moral point I'm explaining.)

I think it really needs to be hammered into the heads of people in charitable organizations. If you come with good intentions, do harm, and leave then you are doing an immensely evil thing. And the fact it was an "unforeseen consequence" in no way excuses you. You are responsible for the results of your actions. EA's are good intentioned people. But they're not necessarily committed or willing to put themselves in a position where they're responsible for what happens.

Also, to be completely honest with you, there are European precedents for Lesotho style industrialization. They're just in the south of Europe. They clearly didn't even study their own past, let alone Lesotho's.

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In the case of your hypothetical businessman, the issue with those saying he didn't "really" do good is not that they place intentions over actions -- it's that their conception of a "good intention" is completely batshit insane.

Let's consider what the charge against the businessmen is. It's that he found a way to improve his own life while also improving the lives of numerous others. If we hold that moral desert is a real thing and that rewarding those who do good is a good thing, then this is strictly better than the alternative where he offers the same help altruistically, both in intention and effect. If, on the other hand, we reject moral desert and say that everyone's flourishing is equally good -- then what the businessman did is *also* strictly better than the altruistic alternative. The only way you can classify this as a case of "doing good with bad intentions" is if you believe in *reverse* moral desert, where it's good when those who help others are miserable and only those who've accomplished nothing with their lives have the moral right to be happy. It's not putting intentions over effects, it's just envy in the Randian sense -- hatred of the good *for* being good.

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To add to the other replies, "Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches" was published in 1974 and it explains the concept of holding on to cattle in lean times. So I agree w/ Emma_B who said this seems more like an "old example of just one terrible program." (Though, in defense of the author of this review, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches was written by an anthropologist-type and not an economist-type.)

Re (2): the review's conclusion says "Ferguson largely gave up on the idea of charitable or state-based aid." -- but how much of EA is state-based aid, currently?

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Indeed, I've been looking through a West Coast gardening reference book lately and I'm struck by how immensely complicated gardening is and how much local knowledge is involved. Agriculture is more important and thus is likely even more hard to master from abroad.

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Local conditions really make a big difference when you're trying to establish farmland and livestock rearing. The review makes it pretty clear though that the most important local conditions, which the Western development teams didn't factor in, were *political* ones - who is the village big-wig? how is power filtered down from the government to the local big-wigs? Who owns the land? Is there a tradition of common ownership or rights to graze animals on this plot? And when you do enclosing the commons in that village, who gets the benefits - the local big-wigs who use the project for the betterment of the entire village to further enrich themselves by seizing land to raise their pony herds or grow the woodlots?

'Them that has, gets' is a good rule of thumb.

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Getting the guy from the village is great, but you have to apply skepticism there, too. Even if he's not a petty warlord, he'll still want to see his hated neighbor punished.

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The beginning of the final section left me with a criticism -

"So what do we do as effective altruists........"

I'm not an EA in any shape or form. For reasons similar to those explored in Ferguson's book, I have a negative attitude towards most effective altruism. So it grated a bit for the reviewer to talk as if "We" are all EA's.

I know Scott is more than a little sympathetic and yes, it's his blog. But he's also a Dem voter generally, and it would be really weird to have a reviewer of a book to say "So what do we do as progressives..."

I would rather the author had made an effort to put aside his or her EA prior beliefs and also not to assume that all of his/her readers shared them.

I still really liked the review.

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In the English language, there's only one pronoun, "we", for the first-person plural *inclusive* case (which includes the addressed person) and *exclusive* case (which excludes the addressed person). Why would you assume that the author meant the former case, when it's more plausible that they meant the latter case?

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May 28, 2022·edited May 28, 2022

The two cases are readily distinguishable if you can write well. The first is "What we do as effective altruists is..." and the second is "What we effective altruists do is..." Anteros is assuming the writer had an excellent command of written English. You are assuming he might not have.

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To me as an English as a first (and only) language speaker, both of your sentences equally strongly imply that the reader is included in 'effective altruists'. Your mileage may vary.

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I see. So if you, a citizen of New York (say), were talking to someone from Omaha about the regrettable increase in crime, and he said "Well...what we Nebraskans would do in that case is..." you'd immediately object that you're not a Nebraskan, so why is he talking this way?

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So I doubt I'd cut him off since it's unlikely that group membership mattered enough for the purposes of the conversation to be rude. But if for some reason my status as a non-Nebraskan was a really important point, then yes, I would establish that because the sentence you quoted doesn't clearly exclude me-as-listener from the 'we'.

Again, this is just to my ear. Maybe it's clear to you. I grew up in a mid-sized town in Iowa, if you're curious about tracking the grammatical sources.

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May 31, 2022·edited May 31, 2022

I don’t see those two sentences as even slightly semantically distinct.

But that’s because both of your examples read as “Those of us who who are Nebraskans” to me. I also am not an effective altruist, and did not take any offense at the author’s use of “we” to clearly refer to a group I am not a part of.

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I was more inclined to reflect on how little attention Scott seems to be paying to the upcoming global food crisis that could easily unravel all the benefits of these EA development programs, or even most of the economic development Africa's seen over the past 50 years.

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“I think one of the highest impact investments an Effective Altruist fund could make right now would be to hire a handful of trained anthropologists (or other outside experts in qualitative research / ethnography) to hang out in places like GiveWell or the Machine Intelligence Research Institute for a few years and really study how effective altruism works as a system.”

The problem is that the trained anthropologists would bring their own host of biases to the project, in particular that they tend to have an instinctual aversion to Western NGOs getting involved in the "Global South".

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That looks like a general disproof of everything.

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May 27, 2022·edited May 27, 2022

Yeah, the classic response is: They will have biases but they will be DIFFERENT biases. So it may still be helpful.

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There are a large number of (cultural) anthropologists who wanted their discipline not to be classified as a social science, viewing themselves as activists instead, which went over poorly with the physical anthropologists.

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I was re-reading Samzdat's 'Banish Plump Mouse Deer and Banish All the World' just a few days ago.

1. Funny how James C. Scott keeps popping up.

2. One of the handful of Samzdat pieces that references SSC directly.

3. Extremely apropos to this (which I really enjoyed and will probably vote for).

https://www.google.com/amp/s/samzdat.com/2017/11/20/banish-plump-mouse-deer-and-banish-all-the-world/amp/

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May 27, 2022·edited May 27, 2022

Fantastic book review/essay.

There's a "sunnier essay" about the quant/qual combo platter approach. About schools in Kenya. "Beyond Moneyball" in the journal Education Next.

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>> ”…really study how effective altruism works as a system. How are decisions being made, and how is evidence being used to make them? What does “EA discourse” help make visible and which problems and concerns does it hide from our view?”<<

This is truth-seeking activity that in practice today would likely receive major push back from NGOs and their stakeholders, answering such questions emphasizes the fundamental problems of charitable aid approaches (perhaps why Ferguson gave up the idea altogether?).

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Effectively the same criticism can be made of other elements of the liberal state approach to Africa, such as governance reform, defence and police reform, justice reform, elections and so forth. After thirty years of involvement with these sorts of issues on the ground, I have decided that the best thing the West could do is to go away. On balance, and for all that there are individual successes, I think we do a lot more harm than good. It's not that countries can't benefit from foreign expertise (Japan and Korea both did, for example) it's that the recipient state has to be an expert customer, able to pick and choose what makes sense and is useful. (Ha-Jun Chang has written about this at length). But development aid in the widest sense ultimately comes to dominate the country. Western-funded NGOs pay much better and so attract able people out of government. And local governments eventually wind up having policies on, say, police and justice which are just the sum total of projects that various donors are prepared to fund. And as the review points out, horizons are very short: the average EU project is expected to show results in two years, because the average length of tour in a job is three years, so the incumbent wants to start something and see it through to the end. Thus, African governments tend to be presented with much the same projects every five years or so, because donors have no institutional memory of what was offered before. And of course donors themselves are in competition with each other.

Maybe we should just go away and let them sort it out.

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May 27, 2022·edited May 27, 2022

So if development programs don't work, what does? Not a single African country has risen from developing to developed status. In fact, I think the only non-European of any size that went from very poor to developed in the 20th century was South Korea. Maybe economic success is just a fiendishly hard problem that's beyond our current capabilities to understand. It might be true that the World Bank missed many important aspects of the problem in Lesotho, but society is so complex and multifaceted, and the motivations of its millions of actors so opaque (often even to themselves), that *any* investigation is bound to be superficial.

You could explain some of the lack of development by saying that governments are run by thugs who care about power and status above economic development, but is it plausible that every government in every African country is like that? Especially because economic success is a good way to purchase legitimacy, status, *and* state power, as China demonstrates? And what about the citizens--do they want to live in squalor forever, or are they also exhausting their mental and physical energies to improve their financial situation? When billions of people working day and night on a problem haven't managed to solve it, we should admit that it's a hard problem, and avoid blaming the World Bank, Effective Altruists, or whoever else for also failing to solve it.

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I don't know whether "in the twentieth century" is a useful qualifier here. South Korea was devastated by war, and for the next decade under Rhee resembled an African country quite closely: it was only in the sixties under the military regime that "development" started, and the Koreans very deliberately copied the Japanese model. Singapore went from nothing on independence in 1960 to perhaps the most aggressively developed state in the world today. Before China there was the Soviet Union, which underwent staggering development from 1921-41 and again after WW2. There's no commonality either in post-colonial experience. Malaysia and Indonesia are both quite "developed" but Burma/Myanmar and Bangladesh much less so. Even if Africa there are gradations: Ethiopia was doing well before the lunatic recent war: Addis increasingly resembled a city in Portugal or Greece, say. The Côte d'Ivoire was the financial and commercial powerhouse of West Africa before the West started forcing competitive elections and caused a civil war. South Africa, even in the last days of apartheid, was sufficiently a developed state that very large numbers of foreign workers came there.

What all these very different examples have in common is that none of them paid any attention to western development experts, and all of them either made their own way or copied actual, you know, successes. One of my constant gripes about development ideology is that it's so sure it's right, it is inherently incapable of adjusting for experience. .

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Maybe South Korea copied the Japanese model, but the Japanese themselves slavishly copied the West in the 19th century in order to achieve their industrial miracle. Singapore is tiny, hence my "of any size" qualifier, which I realize is badly worded, because I meant "of any significant size". Taiwan might be a better example for your point, as they were a former Japanese colony and had significant Japanese cultural influence. The Soviet Union was never close to a developed country, especially if you measure quality of life and not the raw output of heavy industry. Malaysia and Indonesia are both still middle income countries. Ethiopia was 173/189 in HDI in 2019, hardly a shining example of success. The Ivory Coast had a GDP per capita PPP of $2800 in 1990, but its economy has been growing fairly rapidly after the West started forcing competitive elections (and causing a civil war). South Africa's economic success was illusory, hiding a vast difference in wealth between whites and blacks that persists to this day.

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I could have mentioned Taiwan, but I haven't been there for many decades, since military rule, in fact, and don't know the country well. The Japanese didn't "slavishly copy" the West: there wasn't a single West anyway, in those days. They sent out missions around the world to find out who was good at what: they still do. So they sent students to study engineering in Britain and Germany. The French were brought in to organise shipbuilding. The British trained the Navy, and the French were originally supposed to train the Army, until the Franco- Prussian war, after which the Japanese asked the Germans instead.

I'm not sure what the rest of your argument is. It's true that the concept of "development," once relatively simple, has been hijacked to mean just "becoming like us." This is especially true for things like the HDI, which often just measure how "western adjacent" countries are. If you include things like developed capital markets and human rights laws, you certainly get one set of answers. But actually everyone knows what development really is: it's essentially complexity and sophistication of society and economy. It means infrastructure, roads, railways, healthcare, education etc, and this kind of thing is objectively and easily traceable. It is reflected in statistics like life expectancy, prevalence of disease, years of education and so forth. By those standard, for example, the Soviet Union did exceptionally well. By those standards, some countries in every region have done much better than others. You wouldn't get off a plane in Jakarta, for example, and think you were in Dhaka. Addis Ababa is not Lomé.

In particular, development is not the same as economic growth, or even GDP per capita, nor is it anything to do with having political systems like ours. Nor is it anything to do with distribution of income. When I first went to South Africa thirty years ago, economic power was massively unequally distributed. This was much more complex than back vs white (there were around twenty-five separate groups according to the mad scientists of apartheid) and there was also an impoverished white working class, but the country was, by any objective standards, a developed one, comparable to some poorer countries in Europe.

But the interesting question is why some of these countries have done better than others, and the answer is very simple. Almost any system of development, from Soviet central planning, to Asian mercantilist export-led growth and borrowing ideas, to the post colonial French tutelage of the Côte d'Ivoire, to the isolation of South Africa, to almost any other alternative you care to name, has produced better results than western development theory. Indeed, as Ha-Jun Chang is fond of pointing out, western economies only grew in the first place by doing the opposite of what they are now recommending to others.

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>You could explain some of the lack of development by saying that governments are run by thugs who care about power and status above economic development, but is it plausible that every government in every African country is like that?

You think there are governments that aren't like this? Cause, I see every government in the world putting power and status over economic development most of the time. Examples;

Canada refusing to build pipelines to export oil.

Russia invading Ukraine.

Germany closing down it's nuclear plants.

>And what about the citizens--do they want to live in squalor forever, or are they also exhausting their mental and physical energies to improve their financial situation?

First, I doubt that the "squalor" that most Africans are living in is that harsh; we get shown the sad images of the villages going through rough times and in need of help; we never really get to see what daily life is like for the average African. If you're well fed and have a strong social network, economic development may not be particularly important to you, it might even be to your disadvantage as prices rise for everyone, but wages rise much more unevenly.

But more importantly, if you're an African who does want greater financial wealth and is willing to pay a higher cost of living to get it, which is easier, trying to build your country up, invest in it, do development, be an entreprenur, ect... all of which is somewhat risky when compared to your other option of: Move to somewhere where the cab drivers get paid more in a week than you did in a year back home.

A lot of the people who would have been building up the African nations for the past 60 years moved to Europe or the Americas instead and built their businesses there.

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"You think there are governments that aren't like this? "

Yes, I do, because economic development is often a powerful route to power and status. Not *all* economic development everywhere is a route to power and status, but the Canadian government isn't in the business of actively sabotaging every sector of the economy. Even if they didn't care about their people at all, a record high unemployment rate and a recession are good ways to get wiped out in an election. Just ask Kim Campbell.

"First, I doubt that the "squalor" that most Africans are living in is that harsh; we get shown the sad images of the villages going through rough times and in need of help; we never really get to see what daily life is like for the average African."

I grew up in a lower middle class family in a developing country (not in Africa). You're right that what most Americans/Europeans would consider squalor isn't that harsh for the people living in them. Humans are a very adaptable species. However, you don't have to be desperately hungry to want that bike in the neighborhood store, or the fancy apartment you saw on TV. Greed is a powerful motivator at every income level, and people in developing countries aren't immune to it.

"A lot of the people who would have been building up the African nations for the past 60 years moved to Europe or the Americas instead and built their businesses there."

I agree, and this makes the problem of development that much harder.

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> "Not *all* economic development everywhere is a route to power and status, but the Canadian government isn't in the business of actively sabotaging every sector of the economy."

Sure, but how is this different from the situation described above? The government wasn't anti development, they just wanted to use the development to aid their allies and hurt their ideological opponents; same as all governments do.

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You can prove too much.

A lot of countries stupidly put off economic development. But lots of rich countries deliberately and wisely "spend" some of their economic development on improving their quality of life. Clean Air Act definitely cost the US economy but it was spending money on wanting to live without smog.

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It took Europe thousands of years to go from a bunch of villagers in mud huts to a twenty-first century economy, I don't necessarily think it's realistic for Africa to do it in a few decades. Parts of Asia give the impression of having caught up rapidly in recent decades, but those places have thousands of years of civilisation under their belts and just needed to catch up on the last couple of centuries.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is to set a good example.

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>It took Europe thousands of years to go from a bunch of villagers in mud huts to a twenty-first century economy, I don't necessarily think it's realistic for Africa to do it in a few decades.

This is fallacious. Europeans developed science and the industry it lead to practically from scratch. No country anywhere else has to do this. All they have to do is copy what Europeans have already developed, which is exactly what wealthy Asian countries have done (and are of course now in a position to innovate themselves). With the internet and highly developed international trade, it's never been easier i theory for a country to industrialize. They absolutely do not need to follow the same path that Europeans took because the hard work has already been done.

It is not realistic for Africa to develop in a few decades, but not because it took Europeans thousands of years. China's GDP in the 1950s was not substantially higher than most of Africa's, and Europeans brought with them institutions and technologies that meant that post-colonial african states were not starting from scratch (i.e. pre-colonial africa).

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Not all the Asian countries that tried hard to modernize succeeded on the first try. Was it just luck? What were the necessary prerequisites? How may of the intermediate steps are necessary?

Resource extraction -> manufacturing -> white-collar is probably a good ladder, but how many steps am I implicitly leaving out?

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Well, but the starting gun went off at the same time for everybody. It's not like Africa was waiting in stasis for 500 years while Europe got started working away from mud huts, so Europe ended up with a 500-year head start.

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That isn't quite true. Botswana has exhibited huge economic growth over the past 50 years and is generally considered to be a development success story. See https://web.worldbank.org/archive/website01321/WEB/0__CONTE.HTM for a probably biased but still interesting overview.

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Yet Botswana is still a middle income country, with a GDP per capita PPP of $15,000 ($6700 nominal). Not bad for Africa, but it still hasn't escaped the middle income trap: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_income_trap

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" Not a single African country has risen from developing to developed status. In fact, I think the only non-European of any size that went from very poor to developed in the 20th century was South Korea. "

Some African countries have gone from poor to middle-income. You seem to not count this as economic success. But in terms of reducing human suffering, it is a tremendous improvement. If there is a way to develop Congo so it has a similar wealth as Brazil, we should do that, even if we then don't know how to develop either Brazil to Congo so they have a similar wealth as Germany.

Along with South Korea, you should include Malaysia, the Gulf States, and several countries in Latin America like Costa Rica and Chile.

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I think the Marshall program worked very well - Full American military occupation coupled with a conscious desire to build a powerful nation to act as a bulwark against communism seems to have resulted in a successful Germany, Japan, and South Korea. I think part of the key was that America wasn't planning to leave, basically ever - while America was present in the ME for a long time, it was always with an eye to the door and thinking short-term.

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I think the dichotomy of "developing vs. developed" is a bit outdated at this point. As far back as 2006 (e.g. Hans Rosling's excellent TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen) it was possible to observe that the bimodal distribution of wealth in countries had disappeared, giving way to (eyeballing) a more log-normal distribution of wealth.

> You could explain some of the lack of development

What lack of development? Most countries have steadily (and in many cases dramatically) increased their economy and healthcare over the 20th century. There are very few countries that this doesn't apply to. Rosling has a statistic along the lines of (paraphrasing) "Africa achieved an increase in development since 1900 equal to what the developed countries achieved between the middle ages and 1900". Or put differently, due to technological diffusion, the countries you'd call "developing" are able to recapitulate the development of the wealthiest countries much more efficiently than we did when doing it for the first time.

Of course, it's not possible to lift a country from the 1900 directly to the level of 2000; the process of building human and economic capital takes time. But I think the positive story often gets lost when this subject is discussed.

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It ain't just economics, and it ain't new, yo. "Body Rituals Among the Nacirema" is a hoot and a classic, going back to the 1950s.

https://www.sfu.ca/~palys/Miner-1956-BodyRitualAmongTheNacirema.pdf

In addition, I have seen Ghanians, Kenyans, etc. re-write western MSM headlines about western countries to parody the condescending tone of western MSM articles about their own countries. These are also quite funny, talking about the hereditary rulers of the British Isles and the quaint customs of the flavor-deprived natives there, for instance.

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Any examples of those satires?

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I'd have to look.

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https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/ is a related classic

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Darn, that funny.

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> Are 401(k)s merely a “product” that young Americans hold onto because they’re too hard to sell?

This *definitely is* the self-concept of the 401(k) program; that's why there are so many legal barriers to liquidating your 401(k).

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>As funding gaps for “low hanging fruit” like malaria disappear, EA is going to have to focus on more complicated interventions

A few years ago I read a story claiming that the biggest problem with mosquito nets is getting people to actually use them. Has this problem been solved? If so, how was it solved?

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I’ve also heard of them being used for fishing and waste nets piling up in streams and choking them.

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Let's pay $1 for each net pulled from a stream!

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givewell accounts for this in its cost-effectiveness analysis and finds that it’s still a very cost-effective intervention.

https://www.givewell.org/charities/amf#What_proportion_of_targeted_recipients_use_LLINs_over_time

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