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Polman, Collier, and the Rational Actor Model

Aidwatch has another interesting post up, featuring David Zetland and his review of the review of Linda Polman’s new book “Crisis Caravan“.  I made a snide remark about it on twitter, and Bill Easterly rightly suggested I take it up with the author not Aidwatch.  So…..

Polman is a Dutch journalist who is writing about the aid and humanitarian industry.  As Zetland explains:

The central thesis of this book (as presented in the review) is that the people who deliver aid are addicted to horror stories and starving kids, and this addiction is fed by those who benefit from aid, whether they be local leaders, militias committing atrocities or even victims who don’t wear their prosthetic legs because they can get more attention with their stumps.

I watched Polman tout the book on the Daily Show, and went to her launch at the Half King in NYC a couple weeks back.  There are three main problems with it:

  1. Despite what Zetland says, anecdotes are not data. The book reminds me of “Lords of Poverty“, which was shooting in the right direction, but relied almost solely on entertaining anecdotes.  The aid industry is a total mess largely because huge decisions are made on what feels right, truthiness, if you will.  In this sense, Polman is right in general, the aid industry is a mess, but her anecdotes focus on coordination and motivation issues, not on aid effectiveness.  Polman’s got lots of “truthiness”, but little else.
  2. One of her prescriptions is some massive European-style coordinating and governance body which would oversee all NGOs around the world and ensure that they have ethical standards. This would only make matters worse, not better.  If you ever sat through an interminable UN Country Team coordination meeting in a place like Afghanistan or Haiti, you know of what I speak.
  3. Her argument on the motivation of warlords reminds me of a ridiculous formula Paul Collier once used to explain the decision making process of rebels (see below).  It combined the likelihood of victory, the taxable revenue at stake, the size of the population, and five other factors to arrive at the “Rebel Utility Function”.  Very impressive, but the only problem is that I’ve yet to meet a rebel leader who subscribes to the “rational actor model”.  Most of them are more than a little nuts, and even the sane ones take decisions based on a much more subjective basis such as how angry they are, and how many guns they have access to.

Collier explains Aceh, Timor, Rwanda, and the Visigoths

To sum up, bad book, bad ideas, and I disagree with David that anecdotes equal data.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by William Easterly, Aid Watch and Hot In Business, Scott Gilmore. Scott Gilmore said: @bill_easterly You're right. I'm always shooting messengers. Bad habit. Response to the author here: […]

  2. J. says:

    I basically agree with you.

    Okay, I *actually* agree with you.

    Maybe it’s time for aid workers to start publishing books about all the things wrong with journalism and economics? Oh, wait… we’re too busy actually trying to DO SHIT.

  3. Simon Rimmele says:

    Should have listened to my high school calculus teacher when she told me this stuff would come in useful one day. Because when I think of explaining civil war, I do it using integrals.

  4. Dr. Kurtz says:

    You’re talking about country team meetings like they are something bad. They happen therefore they are succesful it’s very simple really. Besides, anecdotes are evidence, or else HRI would not consistently get away with claiming success based on 300words “human interest” stories made up by nathan the intern.

    Finally, paulo cohelo does know about rebels. They all wear earrings and speak in riddles. When they take decisions they consult an ancient spirit called Mashroob, well known for its wisdom, demonstrated in randomised sampling.

    Now if you’ll excuse me i am actually quite busy getting shit coordinated.

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