Category Archives: Policy

Playing Fair: “Horizontality” and the Future of Aid

The arrival of US Aid, “from the American people”.

In his book, Playing Fair, the self-confessed Whig, Ken Binore argued for the redistribution of the “social cake”.

For progress to be made, it is necessary for the affluent to understand that their freedom to enjoy what their “property rights” supposedly secure is actually contingent on the willingness of the less affluent to recognize such “rights”. It is not ordained that things must be the way they are. The common understandings that govern current behavior are constructs and what has been constructed can be reconstructed. If the affluent are willing to surrender some of their relative advantages in return for a more secure environment in which to enjoy those which remain, or in order to generate a larger social cake for division, then everybody can gain. (p.7)

In other words, if we do not share the cake, “they” might burn down the bakery.

I am more idealistic. I have a sense that we should share the social-cake because it is the right thing to do, or maybe it is less the case that redistribution is right than it is wrong to leave people in states of significant disadvantage, particularly when one can do something about it. I am also sufficiently pragmatic not to care what motivates people to extend a hand to others.

Do it because it is right. Do it because it serves your own interests. Do it as a romantic, random act of kindness. I don’t care. The capacity of a dollar to make a difference is not altered. DO IT!

Let me extend this discussion to support offered by more affluent countries to less affluent countries. A couple of days ago I attended a virtual dialogue at Wilton Park as part of their “Future of Aid” series. “Aid” in this context is the (usually financial) assistance provided by one country to another.

Definition; Aid: Late Middle English from Old French aide (noun), aidier (verb), based on Latin adjuvare, from ad- ‘towards’ + juvare ‘to help’.

At least in conceptual origin, country-level aid is about one country doing something towards helping another country. And I would argue that what is really meant (or should be meant) by one country helping another country is that they are helping to improve the lives of the people who live in that country and, in particular, the less affluent and less powerful people.

An important idea emerged in the discussions about aid and that was “horizontality”. Horizontality is the idea that the donor and the recipient countries are equal partners. It is an attempt to move aid beyond neocolonial domination. I applaud this idea, at least I applaud the idea that we should not use aid as a vehicle for exchanging one kind of colonialism for another.

What I hope we are saying when we talk about horizontality is that aid is not about the exercise of power, it is about the redistribution of power. To achieve horizontality, aid can be neither handout, loan nor gift. Aid must be part of a just, redistributive process to improve lives and reduce suffering that recognises we all share one planet, and appreciates that donor and recipient governments are imperfect, though necessary, vehicles for realising these goals.

Horizontality does not mean that aid should be without conditions or accountability. In fact, it means the very opposite. Aid should have strong accountability mechanisms because the purpose of aid is to help people, and governments (and other involved commercial or civil society organisations) are simply vehicles for achieving that goal. The aid is from my people to yours.

If I give money to a homeless person, I am not asking for them to account for how they spend it. I am giving it to them because they need it. Maybe it goes on food or shelter, or maybe some momentary pleasure or relief from misery. If I give money, however, to a charity, I absolutely want them to account for how they spend it, because they are the means to the end and not the end in itself.

COVID-19 has brought the “future of aid” question into stark relief. We need better, more respectful mechanisms for delivering even more aid from more affluent countries to less affluent countries. The aid needs to come with strong accountability mechanisms to ensure that benefits are distributed according to an inverse power-law: the least powerful and the least affluent first. Aid, of all things, should not trickle down. When it does, governments on both sides of the aid-exchange should be held to account, by your people and mine.

What is the optimal number of broken jaws?

I was chatting with a friend recently about the COVID-19 response in different countries. Reflecting on her own country, she said, “It is so hard to know what is right!”; that is, it is so hard to know what the right response to COVID-19 should be.

The variation, for instance, in countries’ lockdown responses is substantial, but which country is doing the right thing? In some countries, there has been no lockdown. The government asked the people to be sensible. In other countries, the government legally confined people to their homes — only one person was allowed out at very specific (restricted) times to buy essentials. Given these two policy extremes (be sensible and house arrest), which one is the right one, and how do you know?

An economist, I have forgotten who once asked tongue-in-cheek, what is the optimal number of dead babies? The very purpose of such a crass question is to make you stop and think. What tradeoffs are you prepared to make to save the lives of babies? Sure, you could be lazy, condemn the questioner as immoral (for even asking you to think), and declare zero dead babies to be the right number. As a simple policy proposition, if zero dead babies is the right number, then all the resources of society should be aimed at preventing neonatal deaths. ALL RESOURCES! Until the policy goal has been achieved, there is more work to be done to reduce the number. One dead baby is too many!!! Farmers may farm, but only to produce the food that supports the workforce that is striving to reduce baby deaths to zero. Teachers may teach, but only to educate the people to fill the jobs to support the policy goal to reduce baby deaths to zero. There is very limited use for art, music, cinema, sport, fashion, restaurants, etc. They will all have to go! If five-year-old deaths increase, that is something to live with, just as long as we can save another baby.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, well that’s stupid. That’s not what I meant when I said the optimal number of dead babies is zero. What I meant was something more along the lines of, “In an ideal world there would be zero dead babies”. Equally, if you were asked about poverty or crime, or amazing works of art, you presumably would have stated the ideals in terms of zero poverty, zero crime, and lots more wonderful art. And this is quite a different proposition. An ideal world is not ideal in virtue of its achievement of a single goal. It is ideal in having achieved all sorts of different outcomes. And that is why the real and the ideal do not intersect. In the real world, we do not achieve the ideal anything. We seek to achieve many ideals, and realistically, we hope to make progress against them, knowing that there is always more to be done. In striving to improve the societal position against a basket of goals, we allocate limited resources and make trade-offs.

This is one part of the COVID-19 problem, and, as my friend observed, why it is so hard to know what is right. What is the right number of COVID-19 deaths? There are lots of important, rational debates to be had around this topic because it is about the tradeoffs we are prepared to make against a basket of societal goals against the myopic achievement of one. Muscular public health responses — effective house arrest — are very good at reducing the number of new COVID-19 cases. They are also very effective at increasing domestic violence, increasing depression, lowering child immunisation rates, degrading child education, increasing poverty and increasing unemployment. If the societal goal should be zero COVID-19 deaths, what is the optimal number of broken jaws, suicide attempts, measles encephalitis cases, illiterate and enumerate children, beggars, and soup kitchens?

All these issues, under normal circumstances, are things of concern to Public Health and maybe, one day, they will be again.

Another part of the COVID-19 problem is that, whether a government “did the right thing” will be determined in hindsight, and by making (inadequate) historical comparisons between the outcomes across countries’. In democracies, at least in the short-term, “did the government do the right thing?” will often be decided at the ballot box. This will surely get the answer wrong. In less-than-democracies, astute rulers will write the history books themselves ensuring that, without regard to the outcome, the government did the right thing.

One of the main reasons that “it is so hard to know what is right!” is that we rarely have a societal view about the long term goals we wish to achieve and the tradeoffs we are prepared to make. Furthermore, we are reluctant to accept the fact that one can do the right thing and still fail. We assume that the right course of action will, by definition, result in success. We are prospective Kantians and retrospective Utilitarians.