Does humanitarian aid actually help? How do we know?

Outcome measures are being forced on ministries. Does this organization actually create change in the area of their cause? Ultimately, answering that question will be a good thing, even though it is very hard.

How about asking the same questions of humanitarian aid? Does the help provided actually make the lives of struggling people better? How do we know?

Measuring How and Why Aid Works – or Doesn’t, written by William Easterly in the Wall Street Journal, discusses two books that help us ask questions. The same concepts apply to aid as to domestic non-profits. Are they making any difference?

Mr. Easterly focuses in on the core issues when he says:

Both books’ signal achievement is in addressing two disgraceful problems that beset humanitarian aid. The first is that the effectiveness of aid is often not evaluated at all; the second is that even when aid is evaluated, the methods are often dubious, such as before-and-after analysis that doesn’t take into account variables that have nothing to do with the aid itself.


Usually nobody is asking if aid changes anything. And when asked, the methodology is so lousy that you can’t find out the real answer. This is the core of the outcome measure issue.

Outputs are:

  • how many meals were served at the addiction center,
  • how many inoculations were given to children, or
  • how many people-on-the-street were given microloans.

Outcomes are:

  • how many people got off drugs,
  • how the overall health of the community improved, or
  • how many people now have a functioning business that is sufficient to feed their family.

Those are two radically different things.

Please read the review to hear how these two books are raising the question.

Here are the two books he discusses, with Amazon links:

You can read the first chapter of each book for free at Amazon. How’s that for a good price?

Check out the books. Would be very helpful for those of us who are concerned about actually making a difference in the world.

Mr Easterly has written on this topic as well:

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