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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail/Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail/Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)

Doug Saunders

An unlikely path to aid: Paying to set up think tanks Add to ...

When we think of foreign aid, we tend to think of something rudimentary being delivered to a village: a well, some mosquito nets, a school building. Or of something big being delivered to a government: a harbour, a generating station, a prison.

And we tend to be disappointed with foreign-aid spending these days, because after years of investments on wells and mosquito nets and school buildings, we still have famines and disease outbreaks and illiteracy in some countries, and after dumping hundreds of millions into harbours and generating stations and prisons, we still have corrupt economies, dictatorships and violent Mafias dominating too many aid-recipient countries.

So while we can rightfully say that millions of lives have been saved by foreign-aid spending, it's all too apparent that the world's poorest countries aren't changing fast enough.

And if you ask people in those countries why all the millions have done nothing about famine and poverty and violence, they will always tell you: It's because of the political system.

Aid and economic assistance won't help deal with the fundamental problems as long as the political system consists of a thin selection of largely unprofessional and self-interested people, without competition, checks and balances, or institutional knowledge that lasts beyond a sudden change of regime. That's what people in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central America endlessly tell me.

Even in countries that are nominally democratic, there simply isn't the depth of experience or professionalism to keep corruption at bay and institutional knowledge in place. When political parties are out of power, they tend to dwindle into feeble irrelevance. The best minds in government are drawn to the private sector. Civil servants follow the rules, but have few resources to develop new ideas or fight the entrenched kleptocracy.

So what if, instead of attempting to pay for irrigation canals and nursing schools, some of that aid money instead went to pay for political think tanks?

That was the unlikely idea proposed to me recently by Rakesh Mohan, the renowned Indian economist, former central banker and economic reformer. Mr. Mohan, one of the major forces behind India's industrial transformation, noted that countries like his are now reasonably self-sufficient in conventional development terms - but they're stuck in the dreary, motionless past in terms of political development. And that prevents anything else from moving.

"Now that it's 50 or 60 years since these countries won their independence, it's high time they started to develop their own institutions of independent governance," he told me. "Too many of their problems are caused by the short-term nature of the political system, and the lack of lasting knowledge. This is what leads to corruption."

This is not conventional thinking among foreign-aid officials, who tend to see the political sphere as something that should be kept far away from aid dollars, not financed by them. Aid, the old wisdom went, is about lives, not governments.

Mr. Mohan is part of a group of economists who are backing an unorthodox international project called the Think Tank Initiative, in which Western government aid agencies pay for the creation and long-term operation of dozens of political and economic think tanks in the poorest countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In many cases, these are the only independent bodies of political thought in the country, the only voices willing to provide sober second thought, criticism, and the roots of an opposition to a government's dull certainties.

Although it never gets mentioned, this is one of the quiet aid successes of the Canadian government, which has pledged $10-million over five years through Ottawa's International Development Research Centre. The fact that it rarely gets mentioned is a good indication of its controversial nature.

But such politically focused projects should be moved to the centre, rather than the fringes, of foreign aid. As U.S. President Barack Obama finally acknowledged in his important speech Thursday, pouring billions of humanitarian and military aid into the dictatorships of the Middle East without financing a better political system was a self-defeating mistake. Good politics leads to better lives far more efficiently than foreign-funded infrastructure does.

Financing a think tank is more radical than it seems: It implies paying for change, debate and risk rather than for stability and certainty. It may well end up helping political parties we find disagreeable, such as the Muslim Brotherhood - but it also increases the odds of those elected parties becoming more moderate and effective; isolating them does the opposite. Besides, we have learned what happens when we pay for stability at all costs. Well-informed dissent is good aid. It is time to let a thousand political arguments bloom.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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