Archive for October, 2011

The Ghost of 0.7%

One thing about being new to a field is that you not only have to keep up with the latest developments, but also have to explore the voluminous literature that built up before your time. A lot of it is no longer relevant, but there’s a lot of good stuff that isn’t appearing on social media or in the news.

Case in point: this working paper by Michael Clemens and Todd Moss of CGD, “Ghost of 0.7%: Origins and Relevance of the International Aid Target” (PDF). The abstract:

The international goal for rich countries to devote 0.7% of their national income to development assistance has become a cause célèbre for aid activists and has been accepted in many official quarters as the legitimate target for aid budgets. The origins of the target, however, raise serious questions about its relevance.

First, the 0.7% target was calculated using a series of assumptions that are no longer true, and justified by a model that is no longer considered credible. When we use essentially the same method used to arrive at 0.7% in the early 1960s and apply today’s conditions, it yields an aid goal of just 0.01% of rich-country GDP for the poorest countries and negative aid flows to the developing world as a whole. We do not claim in any way that this is the ‘right’ amount of aid, but only that this exercise lays bare the folly of the initial method and the subsequent unreflective commitment to the 0.7% aid goal.

Second, we document the fact that, despite frequent misinterpretation of UN documents, no government ever agreed in a UN forum to actually reach 0.7%—though many pledged to move toward it.

Third, we argue that aid as a fraction of rich country income does not constitute a meaningful metric for the adequacy of aid flows. It would be far better to estimate aid needs by starting on the recipient side with a meaningful model of how aid affects development. Although aid certainly has positive impacts in many circumstances, our quantitative understanding of this relationship is too poor to accurately conduct such a tally. The 0.7% target began life as a lobbying tool, and stretching it to become a functional target for real aid budgets across all donors is to exalt it beyond reason. That no longer makes any sense, if it ever did.

What if you start from an estimate of recipient ‘need’ rather than from the donor end?

One recent estimate that does try to start from the recipient ‘need’ and add up the costs is the Millennium Project.69 Even if one were to accept their methodology and their long list of recommended interventions (many of which are problematic), they nonetheless only arrive at 0.54% of rich country GNI as the total aid requirement. That is, even the most ambitious estimates suggest that 0.7% is vastly overstated.

But from a purely political point of view, aren’t these goals helpful? (As they ask it, “Is there any harm in promoting nonsensical goals?”) Their answer to this is more cursory, but basically they hypothesize that the 0.7% goal may be politically useful in European countries, while it may be counterproductive in the United States where it represents a drastic — and politically unlikely — increase in aid.


10 2011

US global health architecture

How confusing is the US global health bureaucracy? Here’s a sentence with 6 acronyms to help clear it up:

We tried to map out what the USG GH architecture might look like with USAID as the GHI leader, and OGAC as the PEPFAR coordinator; after several attempts to create a diagram, we gave up.

From “Is USAID Being Set Up to Fail on the GHI?” by Nandini Oomman and Rachel Silverman.


10 2011

"We are nowhere"

What happens when you don’t have a country? Here’s the India/Bangladesh answer to that question, from the NYT a few weeks ago:

Mr. Ali, however, exists in a no man’s land. The patch of earth here on which he lives and farms is part of an archipelago of villages, known as enclaves, that are technically Bangladeshi territory but sit entirely surrounded by India, stuck on the wrong side of the border.

“The Indians say we are not Indian; the Bangladeshis say we are not Bangladeshi,” Mr. Ali said. “We are nowhere.”

There are 50 other Bangladeshi enclaves like Mr. Ali’s inside India; there are 111 Indian enclaves inside Bangladesh. The people of the enclaves are orphans, citizens of no country.


10 2011

Hitch on Che

This is old (’97) but worth a read: Christopher Hitchens reviews John Lee Anderson’s biography of  Che, along with Guevara’s own Motorcycle Diaries.


10 2011

Libya backlash

I’m fresh off a roleplay for a course where I had to argue that, in hindsight, the Libyan intervention was a bad idea. Being given a role to play can make thinking through tough issues deceptively easier — your mind is made up, so you just have to sort through the available evidence and narratives to make the best possible case for that decision. If I had had to choose my own position, well… I’m much more conflicted. The media narrative of the moment is that Qaddafi’s death proves that the Libya intervention was a success. Maybe I’m under the influence of my assumed position, but here are two alternate perspectives that I think are extremely valuable.

First, Daniel Larison, writing at The Week, says the Libya war is still a failure. It weakened the “responsibility to protect” principle and has already made it harder to respond to other situations (such as in Syria):

Instead of protecting the population of Libya — which is what the U.N. authorized — the West’s intervention allowed the conflict to continue and consume perhaps as many as 30,000 Libyan lives, including many thousands of civilians, in addition to tens of thousands wounded and hundreds of thousands displaced. Rather than the “limited” war presented by the intervention’s defenders, it immediately expanded into a policy of regime change. The official goal of protecting civilians was subordinated very early on to the real purpose of the war — namely, the destruction of the existing government and the elimination of its leaders.

Contrary to the hope that Libya would provide a deterrent to regime violence elsewhere, the political fallout from the war has stalled any international response to Syria’s crackdown. By exceeding the U.N. mandate they received in March, the U.S. and its allies have poisoned emerging democratic powers such as India and Brazil against taking any action in other countries. Libya has confirmed every skeptic’s worst fears that in practice, the “responsibility to protect” is little more than a pretext for toppling vulnerable governments.

And David Rieff, writing at Foreign Policy, calls Qaddafi “the man who knew too much”:

Qaddafi was, quite simply, a man who knew too much. Taken alive, he would have almost certainly have been handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which had indicted him — along with his son, Saif al-Islam, and brother-in-law and military intelligence chief Abdullah Senussi (whereabouts unknown) — for crimes against humanity in late June. Imagine the stir he would have made in The Hague. There, along with any number of fantasies and false accusations, he would almost certainly have revealed the extent of his intimate relations with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the details of his government’s collaboration with Western intelligence services in counterterrorism, with the European Union in limiting migration from Libyan shores, and in the granting of major contracts to big Western oil and construction firms.

He would have had much to tell, for this cooperation was extensive. In the war against the jihadis — a war to which Qaddafi regularly claimed to be as committed to prosecuting as Washington, Paris, or London — links between Libyan intelligence and the CIA were particularly strong, as an archive of secret documents unearthed by Human Rights Watch researchers has revealed. If anything, the CIA’s British counterpart, MI6, was even more involved with the Qaddafi family. As the Guardian reported in early September, it was Sir Mark Allen, then the director of the counterterrorism section of MI6, the British overseas spying agency, who was the key figure on the Western side in the secret negotiations to get Qaddafi to give up his WMD programs. The Guardian story further laid out how, after failing to become director of MI6 in 2004, Allen went into the private sector, becoming a senior advisor to the Monitor Group, a consulting firm that was paid huge fees by Qaddafi to burnish his image around the world, and, while they were at it, helped Saif (who had been his father’s initial envoy to MI6) research his PhD thesis for the London School of Economics (LSE). Allen was also an advisor to BP, helping the oil giant secure major contracts in Libya from the Qaddafi regime.

Messy all around.


10 2011

Polio and confidence

Maryn McKenna writes about a new report (PDF) on polio eradication at Wired’s SuperBug blog. The report comes from the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). The GPEI has existed for 23 years now, and while they’ve made much progress (polio cases are down 99% since the campaign started) the campaign has repeatedly missed the deadlines it sets for itself for eradication. The latest goal is to interrupt polio transmission worldwide by 2012, and despite a recent infusion of funding and enthusiasm the campaign is — according to the IMB — likely to miss yet another of its own goals.

McKenna writes, “Possibly the biggest problem, the board concludes, is a get-it-done optimism so ingrained in the 23-year effort that it cannot acknowledge when things are not working.” She quotes the report to the same effect:

The Programme has an established narrative of positivity – a pervading sense of “nearly there”. The danger comes in how the Programme deals with information that does not sit well with this narrative. We have observed that the Programme:

  • Is not wholly open to critical voices, perceiving them as too negative – despite the fact that they may be reporting important information from which the Programme could benefit.
  • Tends to believe that observed dysfunctions are confined to the particular geography in which they occur, rather than being indicative of broader systemic problems.
  • Displays nervousness in openly discussing difficult or negative items.

This report is likely to ruffle some feathers as the public discussion regarding polio eradication often suffers from the same dearth of criticism. One reason for that — and likely for GPEI’s own “get-it-done optimism” — seems to be that polio eradication is an epic high-stakes gamble. If we can do it the benefits are huge: no more polio, and less need for continued vaccination (though much of the projected cost-savings are predicated on the idea that the US and other countries will stop polio vaccination, which is highly unlikely given fears of vaccine-derived strains or bioterrorism). But if we can’t do it then it might be better to spend resources on some other priority in global health; spend some lesser amount on polio, allow a bit of resurgence (but not too much), and focus resources on other vital needs. Thus the real battle is over the general donor consensus around whether polio eradication will be achieved soon. As soon as the global health donor community decides that eradication isn’t actually possible, that belief will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


10 2011

Save Google Reader

Update 2: (1 pm EST 11/2) now up to 13,745 signatures with some love from Mashable and Weibo. Those signatures include many from Chinese and Iranian users upset about the loss of the ability to securely and horizontally share items outside of social networks like Google+ that are blocked in Iran and China.

Sidenote: who came up with the term “Sharebros”? Ugh — it’s gendered and conjures images of obnoxious popped collars — can everyone stop using the term please?

Also annoyed by Google Reader changes: Tyler Cowen and Brian Shih (who used to work at Google). Austin Frakt links to a script that fixes many of the aesthetic problems.

Update: (9 pm EST 10/26) up to 7,383 signatures, with links from TechCrunch and Andrew Sullivan. As those two posts note, a bunch of Iranian activists are quite upset over the pending removal of social features from Google Reader, as it allows them to share news and commentary horizontally even after the source websites are blocked (and other social networks are blocked). I had no idea about all that when I set up this petition. My original thought was that Google should add features to Plus rather than taking them away from Reader, and not try and force us over, just because as a user I was annoyed. But now it seems there’s an even better reason they should retain the social functions within Google Reader itself.  Hundreds if not thousands of the early signatures came from Iranians — you can see petition results here.

save the whales! and/or fail whaleFor those who don’t use Google Reader, you probably know it as just another RSS feed reader, so this post may not interest you at all.

For those of us who do use it it can be a major part of our daily routines. Last year I posted an “information flow audit” where I critiqued what and how much I read, along with how I prioritize information — all of which is done through Reader. Needless to say, I’m a heavy user. I think it’s the Google service I use most — more than search, and even more than GMail.

So I’m apprehensive about this announcement on the Google Reader blog (which I of course found through Reader) regarding upcoming changes to the service:

As a result of these changes, we also think it’s important to clean things up a bit. Many of Reader’s social features will soon be available via Google+, so in a week’s time we’ll be retiring things like friending, following and shared link blogs inside of Reader.

We think the end result is better than what’s available today, and you can sign up for Google+ right now to start prepping Reader-specific circles. We recognize, however, that some of you may feel like the product is no longer for you.

Basically, Google wants us all to use Google+, and it seems Reader is destined to go the way of other niche services like Buzz and Wave. In the likely misguided hope that Reader’s vocal users can make Google rethink this decision to push us towards Google+, or that they’ll at least keep an old version of Reader available indefinitely, I put together a brief petition in response. You can sign here or below:


Some other reactions I’ve seen so far — ranging from agnostic to angry — include:


10 2011


This week in one of my classes we were scheduled to discuss humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect” principle. Our case study is on Libya, and especially on the initial decision to intervene. Not coincidentally, one of the professors for the course is Anne-Marie Slaughter (see her NYT editorial in support of action, just days before UN Resolution 1973).

The news of Gadhafi’s death broke just before class. Then, after a session touching on these topics in the context of broader theories of international relations, I found myself in a computer lab with several of my classmates. We were mostly checking our email or printing assignments, but the conversation turned to Libya. Someone mentioned that a video had been posted of Gadhafi still alive when he was captured (see here), and we started pulling up different videos and trying to piece together what happened. What order, who did what, how we should react, and so forth.

Separate from the implications of Gadhafi’s death for the future of Libya, there’s a question of how quickly media has changed how we interact with world events, and how participants in those events seek to portray them. A century ago radio brought real-time news, followed a few decades later by TV. The last decade has seen the proliferation of digital video cameras and the rise of sites like YouTube where anyone can disseminate footage to the entire world, at first side-stepping the old media and then being amplified by it.

I don’t know how this situation would have played out a few decades ago, but here we were watching videos taken earlier the same day by rebel forces in Libya. Has there ever been faster turnaround between the fall of a despot, the spread of imagery to shape the narrative of what happened? As viewers and discussants we were participating in the immediate struggle to claim responsibility.


10 2011

Monday Miscellany

  • Japan started a huge cohort study to look at health problems in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster — they’ll follow children in the area for decades, watching for thyroid problems in particular.
  • Community health centers lose funding and no one notices. One of my friends works for this program and I didn’t even know this.
  • Just how messed up are our political and lobbying processes? Morgenson and Rosner’s Reckless Endangerment is a great read on Fannie Mae’s role in the housing bubble, but this NY Review of Books critique is a necessary corrective to the somewhat myopic point of view taken by Morgenson and Rosner, who portray Fannie as the primum movens of the crisis.
  • Planned Parenthood in Texas struggles after state budget cuts. Battles over health care (of which PP is a major — or the only –provider to many women and low-income families) and abortion rights are increasingly being fought in the states.
  • Rush Limbaugh reacted to Obama’s decision to send 100 US (armed) military advisers to Uganda to help hunt Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army by saying “Obama Invades Uganda, Targets Christians.” Best Twitter reaction came from @jonathanshainin: “I remember when Rush Limbaugh was one of our top central Africa experts. Looks like he may be slipping a bit.”
  • Did you know top MBA programs don’t disclose grades? Bizarre. Grades definitely aren’t the most important part of school, but still


10 2011

Discarding efficacy?

Andrew Grove, former CEO of Intel, writes an editorial in Science:

We might conceptualize an “e-trial” system along similar lines. Drug safety would continue to be ensured by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. While safety-focused Phase I trials would continue under their jurisdiction, establishing efficacy would no longer be under their purview. Once safety is proven, patients could access the medicine in question through qualified physicians. Patients’ responses to a drug would be stored in a database, along with their medical histories. Patient identity would be protected by biometric identifiers, and the database would be open to qualified medical researchers as a “commons.” The response of any patient or group of patients to a drug or treatment would be tracked and compared to those of others in the database who were treated in a different manner or not at all.

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution (who is a big advocate for FDA reform, running this site) really likes the idea. I hate it. While the current system has some problems, Grove’s system would be much, much worse than the current system. The biggest problem is that we would have no good data about whether a drug is truly efficacious, because all of the results in the database would be confounded by selection bias. Getting a large sample size and having subgroups tells you nothing about why someone got the treatment in the first place.

Would physicians pay attention to peer-reviewed articles and reviews identifying the best treatments for specific groups? Or would they just run their own analyses? I think there would be a lot of the latter, which is scary since many clinicians can’t even define selection bias or properly interpret statistical tests. The current system has limitations, but Grove’s idea would move us even further from any sort of evidence-based medicine.

Other commenters at Marginal Revolution rightly note that it’s difficult to separate safety from efficacy, because recommending a drug is always based on a balance of risks and benefits. Debilitating nausea or strong likelihood of heart attack would never be OK in a drug for mild headaches, but if it cures cancer the standards are (and should be) different.

Derek Lowe, a fellow Arkansan who writes the excellent chemistry blog In The Pipeline, has more extensive (and informed) thoughts here.

Update (1/5/2012): More criticism, summarized by Derek Lowe.