29 May, 2023


Disagreeing To Disagree Disagreeably

By Arjuna Seneviratne –

Arjuna Seneviratne

The madness of debating aid effectiveness and climate change

Let us temporarily set aside the never ending debates on what love is, what friendship is and whether religion has helped or damaged the world.

Apart from those, the two longest running debates n recent world history are the climate debate and the aid effectiveness debate. We have gone through 18 COPs, 2 Rio’s and a Kyoto on the climate debate and four HLF editions of the aid debate over the last two decades.  Not to mention the estimated 1.5 million other side-meets, side-events and side-shows at global, continental, regional, sub-regional, national, provincial and local levels.

These two discussions have a common reason for their existence and a natural congruence in the human responses to them. Both of these arose out of guilt for what the movers and shakers of the world had managed to do to this planet, its plants, its animals and its people over a period of 400 years. They meet, mesh and meld as a result of the fact that the same shudder-mongers believe that the two issues can be solved by flinging a bit of money around.

Anyone who has been involved in one of these would tell you they felt like they were being spun into a whirlpool while the said whirlpool was being simultaneously spun through a jet engine.

Now me? Well! I must have done some terrible karma in a past birth.

Through no direct fault of my own, I have been engaged in not one but both of these at a pretty high level (COPs, IPCCC on climate and the OECD on aid). Why a crazy, long haired nutjob would be allowed inside the august portals of the OECD HQ in Paris or be asked to back-seat formulate Sri Lankan strategies for a COP or contribute to an IPCCC requested communiqué is a mystery that is beyond my ability to comprehend. Yet, there you have it. I was whirlpooled into these debates and over nine long years I served a sentence for some heinous crime I know nothing of.

I hate them with a passion. Not the unknown crimes I must have surely committed but rather the debates. In fact I have come to hate such debates with a loathing that compares only to religious and racial hate-mongering. I hate them because they exist only to promote further debate. They are there to ferment greater discontent, sadder disillusionment, deeper disappointment and darker despair. Mark you, resolving issues, neutralizing conflicting opinions, empathizing with each other’s common lot, agreeing on action, commitment to participating in solutions are all on the agenda – of the next debate on the same issue. Not the current one. The “Baalagiri Dosha” aptly describes the outcome of these debates. They exist to make the world see what busy-li’l-bees we are. They are not there to create the instruments that will stop us jetting around the world for the next meeting cum shopping trip cum vacation cum sex tour cum whatever… blah!

And so, not only is there a common basis and convergence but a common outcome to these debates as well. That outcome can be summed up in a single word.


Hoo… come now. Surely, there is a reason why people spend gazillions of dollars physi-conferencing, tele-conferencing, researching, identifying, sharing, speaking, contradicting and debating something?

Well, no. At least, none that readily meets the eye.

Let us take a look at the aid carousal. In a series of meta-studies conducted between 2005 and 2010 based on an Aid Effectiveness Literature (AEL) consisting of 97 econometric studies done over 40 years, Hristos Doucouliagos and Martin Paldam conclude that aid has not been effective. In “AEL – The sad result of 40 years of research” as well as through similar studies on growth and accumulation resulting from aid, they make two key points that are paraphrased below:

a)     The AEL reveals a highly significant reluctancy bias.  Researchers typically present one of the most positive outcomes as the key result of the study. This is a problem for truth finding/revelation. Therefore, results are too polished and fail to converge on the truth. We had to conclude that the AEL had not proved that aid is effective, even when 74% of the published aid-growth effects are positive. 

b)     The AEL has not managed to show that there is a significantly positive effect of aid. Consequently, if there is an effect, it must be small. In order to attract popular support in donor countries, it caters to all kinds of lofty and continuously shifting goals mixed up with stakeholder and strategic interests. In the aid discourse, the air is often stale and muggy from big, sweet and vague words that steadily shift

Whoa! Let’s translate the academese. First, aid promoters, implementers and other actors routinely lie through their teeth. Second, in order to validate those lies, they come up with a weird label called “best practices” which is another way of highlighting the few small gains and projecting them to be the actuality instead of the exception. Third, they produce glossy, learned reports with all the right lexicon, paraphrasing and conclusions that package in virtual beauty that which is ugly in reality.

Change the word “aid” to “climate change responders” in the previous paragraph and you will not be wrong about where that circus is heading either.

What has this debate-o-rama yielded? It has yielded about six man-years worth of reading, most of it harmlessly irrelevant. About 500,000 “best practices” which are similar to attempts to stop a tsunami with a well built sand dyke or a child’s attempts to dig trenches on the sea shore to protect its sand castle. It has given Opportunities to nonentities to participate in about 30,000 conferences a year to indulge their egos in endless, mindless talk fests. And, oh, before I forget, particularly for sad sods like me, it has resulted in the chaotic disaster that one commonly associates with the juxtaposition of humans, whirlpools, suction and jet engines. If it serves (ha!), it serves just one purpose only. It serves to keep the aid and climate change industries (yes, industries I ask ya) afloat.

If a debate is for the purpose of resolution, it can be done in three sittings (the first to outline the problem and determine possible responses, the second to fine tune what those responses are going to be and come to an understanding on how to implement them and the third to consolidate and prioritize the responses, commit to common goals and set time frames for execution /management /penalties).

  1. The law of irresolution: If the number of debates required to resolve an issue is greater than three, then the issue that is being debated is irresolvable.
  2. The collateral to the law of irresolution: If the number of sittings continues beyond the three meeting limit, then there is more advantage to all parties to continue the debate than there would be in resolving it.
  3. The law of infinite disagreement: The number of points that a group of people disagree upon is geometrically proportional to the number of ways available to frame the problem. (This is actually a collateral of Pirsig’s law which states that the number of hypothesis that can be proposed to fit  a given set of facts is infinite)
  4. The collateral to the law of infinite disagreement: (more of a truism than an actual law) The volume of work generated on any given subject is directly proportional to the nebulosity of the word or phrase used to label it. (The current top five:religion, love, friendship, climate change, aid effectiveness)
  5. The law of uselessness: (again, a truism) The usability of a volume of work on a nebulously framed subject is inversely proportional to its size

*Chuckles* Welp! All of that was highly useless, no? So! whatchawegonnadoaboutitall?

Let’s screw around in conferences earning a buck here or a tenner there until we reach that level of disagreement that can only be resolved western style with the winner being the person with the quickest draw. Nah, that won’t work. In this world, everyone’s draw is the fastest so let us all have a good giggle about it and wait for Armageddon.

*This piece was triggered by a short communique to my brother Malinda when he inquired from me about the CANSA network and spiced up here and there by a research exercise I was recently working on and mostly, by the long discussions I’ve had with my very insightful and very young friend Dhanusha Amarasinghe – thanks for the 515 boxing matches in Manila Dhanu 🙂 )

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