Who can deliver aid?

Jeffrey Sachs, in his book, The End of Poverty, argues that the UN (specifically the UN Development Program) is the most capable and best suited to effectively operate the distribution of aid for eliminating poverty in developing countries. He argues that having this done on a coordinated basis by one dedicated UN entity vs. the typical large number of bilaterals and NGO’s all dealing directly with the various national and local governments is much more efficient. He says that the effort to negotiate and administrate all of these agreements with various agencies is a huge resource drain on the recipient countries as well as a factor in delaying implementation. He notes that the UN needs to make organizational and mandate changes in order to do this more effectively coordinating IMF, World Bank, UNICEF, WHO, CMH and others.

I know that many people have critiqued the UN for its lack of efficiency. Most recently there have been headlines of bribes/fraud in the food-for-oil program and sexual misconduct on the part of UN peacekeepers. The question is not whether there is corruption, ineptitude or mismanagement in the UN (as there is in every governmental organization of their size), but whether the mission can be achieved by the UN despite its inherent weaknesses with a reasonable level of accountability.

Some people have suggested that NGOs should have a large role in aid distribution. I think that many of the kinds of investments which Sachs is recommending are infrastructure projects vs. survival/relief-type projects. My observation is that NGOs are generally more skilled at relief and less about significant public works projects and other projects of very large size which are best run and managed by expert for-profit entities (think: Bectel). So, while NGOs should be considered as sub-contractors for some activities, I’m not convinced that they are suited for a major role in developing human and physical capital. Remember that the goal here is create enough capital infrastructure to enable ongoing sustainable economic growth.

By nature, I have a lot of skepticism in big governmental bureaucracies especially when the leadership is appointed vs. directly elected. While I don’t fully have confidence in the UN, I remember someone who once challenged me “what better alternative do you have?” I do believe that perfection is the enemy of good enough. And inaction results in no progress which has a severe moral cost of justice. So, until someone proposes an alternative, I’m supportive of Sachs’ general approach.

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