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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"The Vortex of Vacuousness"

Bill Easterly says "you might find this entertaining":

The vortex of vacuousness, by William Easterly: A tragic law of global poverty is that the efforts of many well-meaning and accomplished people somehow get sucked down into meaningless activities and empty rhetoric.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried an oped by uber-heavyweights Madeline Albright and Colin Powell about how we should not forget about the world’s poor during the crisis. Their solution – another summit! Addressing the previously unappreciated shortage of summits by the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the G-7, the G-20, U2, and Bob Geldof, there is a two day summit starting today of something called the Initiative for Global Development (IGD) National Summit 2009 in Washington DC.

The closest thing to novelty about this summit is that the IGD includes (and was started by) leading business executives, some of whom apparently want to learn from diplomats and aid bureaucrats how to make compassionate statements about global poverty with no content. So Carly Fiorina on the IGD website proclaims “Reducing global poverty is in our nation’s best interest, and a sustained collaboration between the private sector and the government is needed in this regard.” (Presumably she had to be a tad more specific to get things done at HP.)

The IGD has been around since 2003, and includes a lineup of really big names from the worlds of business, government, and aid. Chairpersons Albright and Powell were able to distill all of this experience and talent in their signature Journal oped yesterday into new ideas like “we have to focus our efforts where they can have maximum impact, and draw on the strengths of the public and private sectors alike.”

(Maybe we should subject this statement to the NOT test for meaningful content we discussed in a previous blog post: Briefly consider whether there is anyone arguing “we need to focus our efforts where they can have MINIMUM impact, and draw on the WEAKNESSES of the public and private sectors alike.”)

The IGD helpfully provided Aid Watch some background materials on the 2009 Summit, which has the subtitle “Business leaders advance a bold strategy to reduce global poverty.” They acknowledge the critical need for foreign aid reform, so “Congress and the administration should work together to define a coherent strategy for U.S. foreign assistance and streamline its implementation.” (Reader exercise: apply the NOT test to this statement.) They only get a bit more specific when they endorse the ritual call for a doubling of foreign aid.

Something that sounds slightly more promising is that the IGD summit invited some 20 African CEOs of private businesses. Let’s hope they can get the things that real businessmen want, new deals and investments, in return for being subjected to two days of summiteering. Maybe a few CEOs at IGD are starting to get a glimmer of insight – business leaders should not imitate aid bureaucrats, it should be the other way around.

Leaving aid to the goodwill of corporate America is not going to work. Things are better than they were with the last administration, but we still need more leadership from the new administration on this issue, and the US needs to step up to the plate and quit shirking its obligations in this area. The politics of foreign aid aren't great during a recession, sending money overseas when there is unemployment and other problems at home isn't popular. That's why leadership is important, to explain why it's often in our best interest to help, and to explain that even if it doesn't provide net domestic benefits to the US, it's the right and compassionate thing to do.

    Posted by on Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 10:37 AM in Development, Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (28)

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