Most college students have already drifted mindlessly into vacation mode, but there are always a few political junkies who call their peers' attention to interesting and thought provoking articles and op-ed pieces. One of the last intellectually stimulating conversations, the pinnacle of every college admissions sales pitch, I partook of less than 72 hours away from commencement involved having a bone to pick with NYT Op-Ed Columnist Nick Kristof.
The classmate who jump-started the conversation helped fund and oversee the building of a school in a rural village of Accra, Ghana. She adopted the method of raising money for a worthy cause that Elizabeth Gilbert described in Eat, Pray, Love. She sent an email to several of her friends and acquaintances explaining her proposed project, and received an encouraging response. And she was dismayed to find that Kristof downplayed the impact of building schools on education in Africa in his article last week about humanitarian aid.
He extolled the success of economists for cost-effective development initiatives in Africa, such as deworming children to keep them attending primary school. He also cited H.I.V. prevention by warning teenage girls that having sex with older men increases their risks of contracting the disease. It is a no brainer that these low-cost, high-impact, and quick results yielding projects are appealing to all in favor of development aid. So economists get a well-deserved nod from Nick Kristof.
But the underlying reason for this popular seal of approval is that these cost-effective initiatives make for attractive investments for economic development, public health, and education. Harvard medical anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer has often stated that significant investments in these three areas are the key to genuine development, or breaking the cycle of poverty. But development initiatives do not necessarily need to be quantitative to hold real value and make for attractive investments.
Thus, my worked-up classmate could not stomach Kristof's argument that economics holds greater rigor, substance and relevance than any other field. Calling political scientists "increasingly theoretical and irrelevant," Kristof said he would trade in his bachelor's degree in political science today for one in economics. In an attempt to make a valid argument for responsible and efficient giving, Kristof stumbled in his delivery by insinuating that students must major in either political science or economics to make change in the world. Consequently, his tangential remarks about choices in the social sciences have caused a stir among college professors and students.
College students are scratching their heads about choosing between the two disciplines. Meanwhile, college professors are banging their heads about the damage control involved in convincing their pupils that Kristof provided a false dichotomy that does not do justice to the complex reality of foreign aid. It is difficult for many college students to admit it's a false dichotomy because they have seen economics majors obtain research assistant positions at prestigious universities or high-paying jobs in economic consulting and finance. Likewise, they have seen plenty of political science majors head off to Capitol Hill or law school. But there are no similarly clear-cut paths for psychology, anthropology, sociology, art history majors, et cetera.
Doctorate-bearing social scientists do not deny that economists play a vital role in development by identifying incentives that bring about behavioral changes within communities. But they are whistle blowing because Kristof undermined the interdisciplinary nature of international development by creating an academic pedestal for economists. And frankly, he defecated on the anti-poverty efforts of all non-economists whose qualitative approaches to foreign aid are just as worthy of recognition.
There are many onerous problems hindering development in various countries that won't be solved through an economic approach alone because they don't fit the neat framework to be field tested for the most effective policies in so-called randomized controlled trials. One of the largest social impediments to development in rural areas in Africa that depend on subsistence farming is a lack of investment in agricultural infrastructure. There is a dearth of internal political pressure on the governments in Africa to make these investments because women make up the largest demographic in subsistence farming. They are oftentimes illiterate, and lack economic power, both of which deprive them of a political voice. In this case, foreign aid for a straightforward solution such as constructing all-weather roads will give farmers better access to markets, lower their costs of transport, and create greater incentives for higher food production.
Take a look at China, where over 200 million people were forced to forfeit social benefits such as access to education and healthcare in pursuit of greater working and living opportunities because of an archaic residency law called hukou, designed to restrict labor mobility from rural to urban areas. This political institution has long-perpetuated the cultural and wealth disparities between rural and urban populations.
Rural children who have migrated to urban areas may not need deworming, but are still largely absent from primary schools because they are socially marginalized. Again, straightforward solutions such as building schools and training teachers specifically targeted towards these populations matter. And to discount this large subset of the global population when drawing conclusions about foreign aid, or what is considered to be "smart aid," is erroneously simplistic.