There's an interesting editorial by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times today. Bono was heckled at a conference in Africa recently for demanding more foreign aid. What's the problem? Well, there's a lot of controversy about whether more money is what Africa really needs. Kristof cites the skeptical new book The Bottom Billion (Paul Collier) glowlingly, but then argues that aid really is needed.
Kristof is a master of the vivid story. He says he was recently in Cambodia, where he visited a family with five children now in the care of their grandmother. The mother had recently died of malaria. The problem is that the grandmother had just one malaria net, and so every night she had to decide which two children should be left out, exposed to the risk of disease.
Kristof gives the grandmother another net--an example that's supposed to show that aid is obviously useful. He then offers the reader the url for a group that distributes nets, so he or she can give people nets as well.
The example is actually much more complex than meets the eye, as William Easterly argues in The White Man's Burden. And there's Kristof's blurb on the cover, calling the book "Tremendously important and provocative...an immensely stimulating book."
Easterly has an eye opening comparison. A group called Population Services International sponsored a program in Malawi in which local nurses made money by selling malaria nets, and people had to pay for them (the rich paid much more than the poor). This increased the use of nets from 8% to 55% over several years. By contrast, nets were handed out for free by a program in Zambia, and 40% of people didn't use them.
The example goes to show that, contrary to common sense, simply giving people something life-saving isn't necessarily effective. You need smart people running aid programs, folks who really understand how people think and behave, not just money. Funny that Kristof uses the malaria net example, which seems as simple as could be, but actually isn't!
If 10 people are given nets and 10 buy them, what number will use them in each group? Easterly's statistics don't really tell you. I probably found him persuasive not just because of his statistics, which are not "apples to apples," but because it's plausible in the first place that people value things more when they have higher prices.