Foreign Aid

Aid Keeps Latin America Poor

Mary Anastasia O’Grady
The Wall Street Journal
April 6, 2009

The Wall Street Journal‘s Mary Anastasia O’Grady pokes at Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for jetting to last week’s Inter-American Development Bank annual meeting in order to propose a near tripling of the development bank’s capital. Obama’s first-string hurler is, she says, “a man who never meets a problem that can’t be solved by throwing more money around.”

But back in the real world, even the IDB’s own analysis shows the “weak evidence” that aid promotes an improvement in incomes. “Latin America remains poor and backward,” she writes, “not despite multilateral ‘assistance’ but, in a large part, because of it.” “Economic liberty and property rights are the key drivers of development,” and “there is no correlation between the volume of foreign aid a country receives and its respect for these values.” Just the opposite, it seems.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has a lot on his plate these days with the banking system on life-support, the economy in recession, and his office in charge of running the master plan to patch up the whole mess.

Still, President Barack Obama’s top fix-it man managed to jet down to Medellin, Colombia, a week ago for the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) general assembly. His big contribution was to get behind a proposal to nearly triple the development bank’s capital.

By supporting the bureaucratic status quo in Latin America, Mr. Geithner strengthens himself politically. All hail the Obama administration’s first-string hurler, a man who never meets a problem that can’t be solved by throwing more money around. But back in the real world, the expansion of the already menacing IDB is grim news for the serfs who toil in the feudal Latin American systems that the bank calls its “clients.”

Drawing on the wisdom of Orwell, this is a good time to repeat what is already manifest: Latin America remains poor and backward not despite multilateral “assistance” but, in a large part, because of it. The IDB has been going at the problem of poverty in Latin America since 1959, but it hasn’t acted alone. In the postwar period the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and untold bilateral agencies have blanketed the region with aid. World-wide foreign aid has boomed. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “in 2008, total net official development assistance (ODA) from members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) rose by 10.2% in real terms to USD 119.8 billion. This is the highest dollar figure ever recorded.”

Does it follow that poverty persists because the amounts have been just too measly to do the job? It does for Mr. Geithner and the foreign-aid brigades. But rather than rely on those with vested interests, it’s more useful to look at the empirical evidence. A 2006 paper titled “Foreign Aid, Income Inequality and Poverty,” from the research department of the IDB itself, looked at the period 1971-2002 and found “some weak evidence that foreign aid is conducive to the improvement of the distribution of income [sic]. When the quality of institutions is taken into account, however, this result is not robust. This finding is consistent with recent empirical research on aid ineffectiveness in achieving economic growth or promoting democratic institutions.”

So now that we know it doesn’t work, Mr. Geithner wants more of it. This is what the late, great development economist Peter Lord Bauer called “the disregard of reality.” In a 1987 essay in the Cato Journal, he called the claim that poverty is a trap that cannot be escaped without external aid an “obvious conflict with simple reality.” “All developed countries began as underdeveloped,” Bauer wrote. “If the notion of the vicious circle were valid, mankind would still be in the Stone Age at best.”

Bauer spent a lifetime studying development. In 1972 he published “Dissent on Development” sharply criticizing aid for its focus on “symptoms and effects” of poverty while “divert[ing] attention from the determinants of development.” For Bauer, foreign aid was not just a waste of money; it worked against getting things right in those areas that really matter to progress. Those “determinants” are now widely acknowledged, even by researchers at the World Bank. They produce an annual “Doing Business” survey that looks at the regulatory burden in 181 countries and points out the critical link between economically free people and prosperity.

In a recent book titled “Lessons From the Poor” about successful entrepreneurs in the developing world, researcher Alvaro Vargas Llosa echoes these insights. “The decisive element” in bringing a society out of poverty is “the development of the entrepreneurial reserves that exist in its men and women,” Mr. Vargas Llosa writes. “The institutions that grant more freedom to their citizens and more security to their citizens’ possessions are those that best facilitate the accumulation of wealth.”

It is obvious that economic liberty and property rights are the key drivers of development, and that there is no correlation between the volume of foreign aid a country receives and its respect for these values. Yet what is more troubling is the IDB’s reputation for working against liberalization in the region, most notoriously, against the flat tax. With its institutional checkbook it easily overpowers civic groups that try to limit the power of government. In doing so it promotes neither development nor just societies.

Corrections & Amplifications: In a speech last month at the general assembly of the Inter-American Development Bank, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner pledged to begin a formal review of a proposal that would increase the bank’s permanent capital base. This information was mischaracterized in this article.

Read the full article here. [PDFver here]

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