Monday, September 30, 2013

Disagreeing to disagree disagreeably

The madness of debating aid effectiveness and climate change

Let us temporarily set aside the never ending debates on what love is, what friendship is and whether religion has helped or damaged the world.

Apart from those, the two longest running debates in recent world history are the climate debate and the aid effectiveness debate. We have gone through 18 COPs, 2 Rio’s and a Kyoto on the climate debate and four HLF editions of the aid debate over the last two decades.  Not to mention the estimated 1.5 million other side-meets, side-events and side-shows at global, continental, regional, sub-regional, national, provincial and local levels.

These two discussions have a common reason for their existence and a natural congruence in the human responses to them. Both of these arose out of guilt for what the movers and shakers of the world had managed to do to this planet, its plants, its animals and its people over a period of 400 years. They meet, mesh and meld as a result of the fact that the same shudder-mongers believe that the two issues can be solved by flinging a bit of money around.

Anyone who has been involved in one of these would tell you they felt like they were being spun into a whirlpool while the said whirlpool was being simultaneously spun through a jet engine.

Now me? Well! I must have done some terrible karma in a past birth.

Through no direct fault of my own, I have been engaged in not one but both of these at a pretty high level (COPs, IPCC on climate and the OECD on aid). Why a crazy, long haired nutjob would be allowed inside the august portals of the OECD HQ in Paris or be asked to back-seat formulate Sri Lankan strategies for a COP or contribute to an IPCC requested communiqué is a mystery that is beyond my ability to comprehend. Yet, there you have it. I was whirlpooled into these debates and, over nine long years I served a sentence for some heinous crime I know nothing of.

I hate them with a passion. Not the unknown crimes I must have surely committed but rather the debates. In fact I have come to hate such debates with a loathing that compares only to religious and racial hate-mongering. I hate them because they exist only to promote further debate. They are there to ferment greater discontent, sadder disillusionment, deeper disappointment and darker despair. Mark you, resolving issues, neutralizing conflicting opinions, empathizing with each other’s common lot, agreeing on action, commitment to participating in solutions are all on the agenda – of the next debate on the same issue. Not the current one. The “Baalagiri Dosha” aptly describes the outcome of these debates. They exist to make the world see what busy-li’l-bees we are. They are not there to create the instruments that will stop us jetting around the world for the next meeting cum shopping trip cum vacation cum sex tour cum whatever… blah!

And so, not only is there a common basis and convergence but a common outcome to these debates as well. That outcome can be summed up in a single word.


Hoo… come now. Surely, there is a reason why people spend gazillions of dollars physi-conferencing, tele-conferencing, researching, identifying, sharing, speaking, contradicting and debating something?

Well, no. At least, none that readily meets the eye.

Let us take a look at the aid carousal. In a series of meta-studies conducted between 2005 and 2010 based on an Aid Effectiveness Literature (AEL) consisting of 97 econometric studies done over 40 years, Hristos Doucouliagos and Martin Paldam conclude that aid has not been effective. In “AEL – The sad result of 40 years of research” as well as through similar studies on growth and accumulation resulting from aid, they make two key points that are paraphrased below:

  • The AEL reveals a highly significant reluctancy bias.  Researchers typically present one of the most positive outcomes as the key result of the study. This is a problem for truth finding/revelation. Therefore, results are too polished and fail to converge on the truth. We had to conclude that the AEL had not proved that aid is effective, even when 74% of the published aid-growth effects are positive. 
  • The AEL has not managed to show that there is a significantly positive effect of aid. Consequently, if there is an effect, it must be small. In order to attract popular support in donor countries, it caters to all kinds of lofty and continuously shifting goals mixed up with stakeholder and strategic interests. In the aid discourse, the air is often stale and muggy from big, sweet and vague words that steadily shift.

 Whoa! Let’s translate the academese. First, aid promoters, implementers and other actors routinely lie through their teeth. Second, in order to validate those lies, they come up with a weird label called “best practices” which is another way of highlighting the few small gains and projecting them to be the norm instead of the exception. Third, they produce glossy, learned reports with all the right lexicon, paraphrasing and conclusions that package in virtual beauty that which is ugly in reality.

Change the word “aid” to “climate change responders” in the previous paragraph and you will not be wrong about where that circus is heading either. 

What has this debate-o-rama yielded? It has yielded about six man-years worth of reading, most of it harmlessly irrelevant. About 500,000 “best practices” which are similar to attempts to stop a tsunami with a well built sand dyke or a child’s attempts to dig trenches on the sea shore to protect its sand castle. It has given Opportunities to nonentities to participate in about 30,000 conferences a year to indulge their egos in endless, mindless talk fests. And, oh, before I forget, particularly for sad sods like me, it has resulted in the chaotic disaster that one commonly associates with the juxtaposition of humans, whirlpools, suction and jet engines. If it serves (ha!), it serves just one purpose only. It serves to keep the aid and climate change industries (yes, industries I ask ya) afloat.

If a debate is for the purpose of resolution, it can be done in three sittings (the first to outline the problem and determine possible responses, the second to fine tune what those responses are going to be and come to an understanding on how to implement them and the third to consolidate and prioritize the responses, commit to common goals and set time frames for execution /management /penalties). 

That my friends, just doesn't happen. Instead what does happens can be stated by a set of laws (some of my less cranky friends amusedly call them  "Arjuna’s laws" when I mention them) on disagreeing to disagree disagreeably.
  1. The law of irresolution: If the number of debates required to resolve an issue is greater than three, then the issue that is being debated is irresolvable.
  2. The collateral to the law of irresolution: If the number of sittings continues beyond the three meeting limit, then there is more advantage to all parties to continue the debate than there would be in resolving it.
  3. The law of infinite disagreement: The number of points that a group of people disagree upon is geometrically proportional to the number of ways available to frame the problem. (This is actually a collateral of Pirsig’s law which states that the number of hypothesis that can be proposed to fit  a given set of facts is infinite) 
  4. The collateral to the law of infinite disagreement: (more of a truism than an actual law) The volume of work generated on any given subject is directly proportional to the nebulosity of the word or phrase used to label it. (The current top five:religion, love, friendship, climate change, aid effectiveness) 
  5. The law of uselessness: (again, a truism) The usability of a volume of work on a nebulously framed subject is inversely proportional to its size
*Chuckles* Welp! All of that was highly useless, no? So! whatchawegonnadoaboutitall? 

Let’s screw around in conferences earning a buck here or a tenner there until we reach that level of disagreement that can only be resolved western style with the winner being the person with the quickest draw. Nah, that won’t work. In this world, everyone’s draw is the fastest so let us all have a good giggle about it and wait for Armageddon. 

(This piece was triggered by a short communique to my brother Malinda when he inquired from me about the CANSA network and spiced up here and there by a research exercise I was recently working on and mostly, by the long discussions I've had with my very insightful and very young friend Dhanusha Amarasinghe - thanks for the 515 boxing matches in Manila Dhanu :) ) 


  1. I disagreeably agree to this thinking, and happy to see that you put these into words somehow. I believe this is a relatively truer, sober, mature, and a realist outlook of this discourse. Anyhow, it’s pretty sad for me to say that I agree because I believe a kid should be at least 8 years old to know that Santa Claus and Tooth Fairies do not exist, not less; It hasn’t even been two years since I embarked to observe and try to understand –at least bits and pieces of-the foreign aid (/effectiveness) discourse. Pity me ! I hear you loud and clear when you say that it’s ‘bad karma’ that sucked you into this debate.

    Allow me take the discussion a step up horizontally. If aid is such a contentious subject and hasn’t proved to be as effective as it seems, why do States receive aid in spite of all the socio-politico-economic arguments against it which sometimes even go along the lines of ‘global conspiracy’ and ‘imperialism’ (grin) ? On the same argument, why do aid providers allocate billions of dollars each year for ‘development assistance’ when they themselves need all the assistance available to raise them up from economic / debt crises? Don’t tell me that it’s global development and global commitment to alleviation of poverty—this story is too old! Then what is the real outcome of aid? Not quite sure! Who determines it? Not quite sure again. A Neo-Realist will say that it’s the anarchy in the system thus it’s the global (/regional) superpowers and the outcomes of aid to be ones theorized by the realists. A Civilizationist will say that it’s the civilization (which is exclusively based on ethnicity, religion, and culture) and the outcomes to be with regard to civilization. An Institutionlist will say that it’s the global(/regional) institutions like the OECD, BWI, UNDG, BRICSs, UN, and those regional ones and that the outcomes to be in relation to institutions. Someone else will see, perceive, say, and promote something else, and maybe even advocate and fight for it as well and tell that outcomes are in view of whatever it is ( Humanism is quite boring so don’t think a lot will go with it, hence very low humanist outcomes in any global transaction). As I see, everyone’s playing their own game in the global arena; sometimes ignorantly, sometimes skillfully, sometimes forcefully; but mostly not acknowledging, or ignoring an existence of ‘another’; and almost all the time, to their own –selfish-win. Obviously the outcome of any mean to reconcile all the games towards an overall effective outcome—whatever that may be- must definitely be ‘disagreeably disagreeing to disagree’. Cont...

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    2. Well, Dhanusha, I agree, you should have had a bit more time to get disgusted with it :)

      Let me try to respond to your many, very valid queries. One of the points where we need to use are sharpest intellectual knife is to slice away the pretense from the actuality. Here is how I will do it. The ratio of global hoarding to global sharing is more than a billion percent. That is, the amount of "aid" given against the amount of finances that are salted away in a given period of time is about 0.000000001%, or, for every dollar given, a billion is saved. That saving comes from exploiting either human resources or natural resources or both. This is something far more sinister than disparities in PPP and less sinister than if you also factor in the true worth of resources wasted/damaged/destroyed into the equation as well.

      The upshot of the reasoning is simple: If a billion units worth of resources are sequestered in a given period of time and one unit is provided to regenerate, develop or revamp the foundations of the "lesser enabled" do you think it would have the ghost of a chance of succeeding? Not only is that dollar required, but also the resources to optimize that unit and the opportunities to do so. All of those are rendered useless when compared against the hoarding and that single unit is also, essentially used for creating the environment or facilitating the process of adding to the resource exploitation and fund sequestration. Suharto was right "Aid is the new instrument of colonization" :) If 10% of the human beings of the world are ALLOWED to own 85% of the world's resources, then you don't really have to look further than that for the controllers since all others are infinitely "lesser" controllers (nations, institutions, civilization, Darwin, et al). As long as that 10% hoards about 50% of the 85% that they own, there can be neither social justice nor resource justice nor environmental justice because the release of those resources is essential to deliver that justice. As far as us poor sods go, playing our little games of nation making, institution making, civilization rearranging, well, as mentioned in the article, they are all "busy-work" exercises of marginal important as change drivers.

      A simile here. An ant cannot push an elephant. 6 billion of them shoving together won't manage more than to give the fellow a very minor caress. One of two things have to happen to change that static state to the outcome of the "effort". a) The elephant needs to understand that it must move and does so or b) instead of pushing, 6 billion ants simultaneously give the elephant a bite up its butt... that will not just move the elephant but it will cause it to leap up with an earth shattering trumpet and fall flat on its rump, destroying in an instant, the said 6 billion ants. (b) is a horrible solution therefore. That leaves (a) and I doubt it is going to happen before the future decided it does not wish to be present and engineers Armageddon before it can actually arrive :)

  2. Nevertheless, I think I still have some youth juices left in me, so I believe we should not disengage with the debate and the never-ending search for effective aid despite its ultimate ‘truth’ of ‘uselessness’ as you say here. I believe that aid effectiveness (like many other things such as happiness and peace) are not absolute ends but relative situations and resolutions. They are (at least for me) roads to the terms themselves rather than final destinations. Maybe there are ten aid-ball-games played simultaneously having first class players and regular winners for each game. Maybe they are playing those games with all other States (especially in the 3rd World) because it’s only in that game that they can win and retain their winner statuses (or should I say maintaining the status-quo? ) (be it in terms of global politico-economic hegemonies, civilization, or institution). Maybe the aid recipients can’t change the game even if they want to because they’ve been trained for 70 years to play these games and programmed to believe that success and/or development is only achieved when they play and score in these games. One day, some recipients may breakaway and form their own game and find new players, and maybe they will teach, train, and program their subjects for years to subliminally perceive that ‘this is the game, and this is the way to succeed and develop’. The saga will continue, again, and again, and again. BUT, in our lifetime we will not be able to change the grand-game, but maybe we will be able to help amend the rules of the game that we play so that at least all players will be better than what they are or what they used to be. Rule after a rule, decade after a decade, maybe, we will have contributed to the change of the game after all (if at all). Some are lucky to be able create change then and there, but some are not. Sadly, we fall to the latter but it is important that some momentum is created towards ‘agreeing to agree agreeably’. I want to believe so at least until I am able to tell this to another young soul with ‘bad karma’ :)

    1. "agreeing to agree agreeably"! YES! INDEED! I am increasingly of the opinion that small efforts with small groups are a more effective arena for engineering "aid effectiveness" and "agreement" than all the folderol that gets stuck under those two labels in mainstream discourse/action. So, yes, as member of humanity who will need to take over in a decade or so, you *must* engage. Be strategic in trying to change the rules also. Inside-Outside strategies (what I like to call the "modified Kim Philby protocol") that do not compromise your soul are the best in that regard. And, I cannot over-stress this - continue with the smaller work and most importantly, keep it small :)


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