William Easterly makes some telling points in his case for more focused aid to developing countries (see Time for a grand re-think of grand aid plans).
Success has indeed come through cumulative efforts such as oral rehydration therapy to counteract the effects of diarrhoea, sanitation projects and programmes to distribute bednets.
Easterly favours the selling of bednets over free distribution. He contrasts a project selling bednets for 50 cents to mothers in Malawi — which increased the percentage of children under five using nets from eight to 55 per cent over four years, and a comparable rise in use by pregnant women — with a Zambian free-bednet programme in which 40 per cent of recipients did not use them.
But this still means the majority, 60 per cent, benefited.
Easterly might also have cited village-level microcredits, loans for items like tools and equipment, that have enabled over 400 million poor people in 40 countries to help themselves. Nine in ten borrowers are women, empowered with financial assistance to take responsibility for their family.
Easterly is right in suggesting that programmes must consult the poor on their needs, and ensure proper infrastructure for delivery and accountability on where the money goes (though the British government, for example, cannot lecture foreign governments on corruption when it has halted the inquiry into allegations of sleaze over BAE arms sales to Saudi Arabia).
But he failed to address the structures that trap one billion of the world's people in dire hardship.
Britain may no longer insist developing countries privatise their public services or use expensive consultants as a condition for aid. Yet the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund maintain these strings.
Too many developing countries must forgo cash they could otherwise use for health and education to service unpayable debts to donors. Some of these debts trail back to oppressive regimes, often for arms sales. Others were for useless projects from which only our companies benefited, and still more were given on unfair terms.
The world's poorest nations are still paying over US$4 million every hour to the rich world, debts which in numerous cases followed irresponsible or self-interested lending.
Other factors keep people in poverty overseas. British retailers fail to ensure a living wage for employees who produce their clothes. United Kingdom-based mining companies profit from natural resources at the expense of poor communities faced with conflict, pollution and displacement.
Nor does Easterly refer to the biggest scandal behind global poverty: unfair trade rules, which the UN estimates deny poor countries US$700 billion every year. Less than 0.01 per cent of this sum could save the sight of 30 million people.
World trade robs poor countries of US$2.6 billion a day — 14 times what they get in aid. Rich countries spend US$100 billion a year to protect their markets with tariffs, quotas and subsidies — twice as much as they provide in aid for developing countries.Perhaps Easterly will join War on Want's campaigns for political change to bring peace and justice for poor people.