A few days ago I listened to a great talk by Stephen Kidd, an anthropologist by training, who now works as a consultant for AUSAID and DFID the big Australian and British government agencies tasked with deciding on foreign aid. Stephen took us non-economics minded anthropologists and others through the ideology of international aid policy and the evidence that is used to back it up. Part of what he has been doing recently is to take a close look at the methodology and actual mathematics behind what is taken as hard fact by the big players including, of course, the World Bank.
In the paper attached here, Stephen and colleagues take down the Proxy Means Test as an central aspect of development policy. Proxy Means Testing goes hand in hand with a view that development aid should 'target the poorest' in society. It is taken for granted that this poverty targeting is intrinsically better than more generalised schemes of societal improvement in part because if 'the poor' can be accurately discovered the cost of development aid will be reduced and the right people will have their lives affected. A key method of finding 'the poor' in the societies in question is the Proxy Means Test. Proxy Means Testing involves very large surveys where a combination of 'proxies', for example, does the family own a television?, are used to decide whether the families are 'poor'. If they are poor they receive a grant with conditions attached.
The point of comparison for 'targeted poverty reduction' approaches are systems which are universally available under a certain condition - e.g. if you are old you get a pension. In many societies certain kinds of universal benefits coexist with poverty targeted benefits. However, there is a strong ideological bias in institutions like the World Bank that money should be targeted at 'the poor' and should have strings attached. Notice that the most socially developed countries in the world with the lowest levels of poverty - Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France etc. - use universal systems of benefit, while countries with some of the highest levels of social inequality/income disparity in the world - e.g. the U.S., England - focus their policy-making on means testing and targeting (isolating) 'the poor'.
In the paper attached here Stephen points to features of Proxy Means Tests that should be obvious to any practising anthropologist. The means test surveys are massive in scale but are based on extremely brief exposure to households and household assets (assuming that people are foolish enough to put their assets on display for the surveyors. Despite the claim that these surveys are extremely accurate there is a great deal of evidence that there are very large exclusion and inclusion errors involved in the surveys - as Stephen Kidd memorably put in his talk in some cases you 'might as well throw the money out of a helicopter'.
A whole slew of issues are brought up. Amongst these is that, if a methodology is divisive (defining some as 'poor' and others as undeserving or 'not poor'), and if it is highly inaccurate 'you might as well throw the money out of a helicopter', then its relative cheapness is illusory. For anthropologists there is an important bridge here to include qualitative knowledge as part of a critique of development ideologies.
Here is a link to Stephen Kidd's website: http://www.developmentpathways.co.uk/category/pubs/
We discussed this talk by Stephen Kidd a while back, but here is a link to a video of the presentation itself. If you want to know about how contemporary development aid works, and the degree to which it is dependent on valid social scientific evidence, this will be very revealing.