Posted by: sean | June 26, 2005

Good governance and mosquito nets

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks illustrates once again that he either doesn’t know much about development aid or that he’s being disingenuous. He spends his time criticizing Jeffrey Sachs, the American economist from the Earth Institute at Columbia University, chosen to run the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Program.

According to Brooks, people like Sachs don’t really understand that real people live in poor countries and think that pouring money into Africa will solve the problem of poverty. On the other hand, according to Brooks, Bush and other conservatives understand that the real causes of poverty are due to the “crooked timber of humanity,” such as “corrupt governments, perverse incentives” and “institutions that crush freedom.”

As a result, he implies that the US Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) is a more effective answer to world poverty that the UN’s MDGs. Nevermind that the MDGs are cross cutting goals, which link almost every aspect, organization and program of the UN system, and nevermind the fact that to say that Sachs doesn’t focus on individual Africans would be like saying that a commander in chief doesn’t pay enough attention to privates in the army. The fact of the matter is that the MDGs are only the overall framework of a much larger effort which is done on regional, national and local scales, both from the top down and the bottom up. So when the UN’s World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) puts out its next World Water Development Report, there will be a chapter entirely devoted to governance and another entirely devoted to local case studies.

Furthermore, Brooks’s own newspaper took a look last week at the MCA on the occasion of the resignation of its chief executive, Paul Applegarth, who denies that his resignation had anything to do with complaints by the presidents of Ghana, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger and Botswana, who while visiting the White House, complained that the program’s fine print and bureaucracy made it next to impossible for their countries to get any aid. Brooks is right that the MCA pays attention to governance — so much so in fact, that since its inception in 2002, it has only found two countries worthy of aid: Honduras ($215 million) and Madagascar ($108 million). To be fair, MCA has recently accepted two other countries, Cape Verde and Nicaragua, but neither of these countries has seen any money yet.

So it’s hard for me to not agree with Jeffrey Sachs when he says that when over 1 million people are dying every year of malaria (90% of whom are in Africa, and 70% of whom are under the age of 5) a stern lecture on good governance is somehow less important than sending free mosquito nets.

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