Sunday, November 4, 2012

Easterly on Gates?

Easterly’s Contrast between “planners” and “searchers” got me thinking about major aid efforts beyond those he mentions in the book, and how he might categorize them. I had heard that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was heading a campaign to eradicate polio, but I hadn’t heard any specifics. I decided to do some research and evaluate the Gates Foundation’s project by Easterly’s standards to determine if one would call it more of a “planning” or “searching” endeavor. After analyzing the Gates Foundation’s strategy, I think Easterly would consider it a “searcher’s” approach.

1. First and foremost, the Gates mission is the type of high-minded “utopian blueprint” that Easterly despises. Rather, it is a focused effort at a specific problem. Easterly agrees that the West should continue to send food, medicine and other basic necessities (albeit in an effective manner). Further, polio eradication is not a politically aspirational mission; since polio is already 99% destroyed, the actual number of cases being addressed is relatively small compared to other global diseases (fewer than 1,500 reported cases worldwide) but the marginal cost of eradicating the final 1% is extremely high because the majority of them occur in undeveloped, rural and often conflict-ridden, regions. The Gates Foundation has simply decided that the long-term benefits of a polio-free world are worth these costs, even if shortsighted politicians do not.

2. The Gates Foundation is addressing the demand side of the issue as well (recall Easterly’s example of paid-for nets being more effectively utilized than free ones because people don’t understand the value of something that is just thrown at them). Strategies include offering the vaccine in a package deal with other products and promoting “community dialogues” to educate people about the benefits of vaccination and raise demand. For example, the Gates Foundation “support[s] a network of more than 5,000 women who interact each month with more than 1.5 million households” in India.

3. Finally, the Gates Foundation demonstrates a “searcher” quality in that it recognizes the importance of “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” planning. By utilizing cutting-edge and adaptable surveillance and testing methods, the Gates Foundation is able to quickly and effectively alter its strategies as circumstances necessitate.

I will admit that the Gates Foundation mission to eradicate polio isn’t exactly market-based, so it may not be an epitome of Easterly’s searcher ideal. Regardless, I contend that that the clear and streamlined mission, comprehensive and effective bottom-up implementation and bypass of government bureaucracy employed by the Gates Foundation puts it squarely in the “searcher” camp.

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