Does foreign aid need a stiffer backbone?

Does foreign aid need a stiffer backbone?

In a fascinating feature in the new issue of the Boston Review, Oxford economist (and recent FP contributor) Paul Collier makes a radical proposal: What if instead of trying to find ways to promote economic development politely from afar, international actors considered full scale “interventions” to help poor countries jumpstart their development? 

Collier, author of The Bottom Billion and the more recent Wars, Guns and Votes, argues that the two main obstacles for development in the 60 or so poorest countries are institutional inabilities to provide security or government accountability. Rather than keep trying to build these institutions first, Collier proposes that outside actors should supply them for an interim period:

Recall what the United States did last time it got serious about developing another insecure region. Its agenda was radically more ambitious then. The time was 60 years ago, and the insecure region was post-war Europe. The United States got serious because the consequences of Europe falling apart, given the neighboring nuclear Soviet Union, were so alarming. Washington brought the full range of pertinent policies to bear. There was a large aid program, the Marshall Plan. But aid was only a part of the solution. A massive security program, NATO, complemented the aid; more than one hundred thousand American soldiers were stationed in Europe for more than 40 years.

Along with Collier’s admittedly provocative piece, the BR has shorter reactions from a host of aid experts: Stephen Krasner, William Easterly, Larry Diamond, Edward Miguel, Mike McGovern, and Nancy Birdsall. Collier then responds.

In contrast to Collier, Obama told allAfrica in an interview that with foreign aid he thinks “what [the U.S.] should be doing is trying to minimize our footprint and maximize the degree to which we’re training people to do for themselves.”

There is a lot to be said for reforming a system in which billions of U.S. foreign aid dollars go straight to contractors in Washington, but I think Collier has a point. Some countries like Somalia and the DRC are unlikely to put the pieces back together on their own. But while the idea of providing institutional strength for the bottom billion is attractive, it is still difficult to imagine how this could be implemented anytime soon. 

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