Give money straight to the poor?

G’day everyone,

Are aid agencies the best way to distribute aid or should we just give money directly to the poor so they can do what they like with it?

Aditya Chakrabortty thinks so, and he’s written about it in the Guardian today:

Logic is that since a good deal of aid is spent on trying to administer aid without it falling into the wrong hands or being wasted, maybe it would be better to give it directly to the people and see what happens. Perhaps the cost of administering is higher than the value of administration.

Lots of positive feeling on the CIF page where it posted but there are some pretty clear problems in my book. Firstly, if suddenly everyone has twice as much disposable local currency isn’t that just inflation? I suppose if you means tested it, it would be redistributive by reducing the value of everyone’s money. I don’t really think it is as simple as this but there would certainly be an effect.

Secondly, practicalities. I’m sure giving out money is harder than it sounds.

Thirdly, I was reading Paul Collier’s the bottom billion and he is all about the large scale infrastructure projects that help countries gear up to an export economy. I’m not saying I agree with Collier but he does raise some interesting points.  He also examines ‘dutch disease’ where mineral wealth or aid pushes up wages and therefore makes other industries internationally uncompetitive. I imagine he would have a problem with the approach described in the article.

Giving out money certainly would reduce some costs of bureaucracy but would this be enough to balance the negative effects on an economy? What does anyone else think?


What do opinion polls really tell us?

This post was prompted by a short piece in the Guardian that got me thinking about opinion polls.  the orginal is here in case you’re interested.

Numbers from opinion polls are often quoted but we don’t normally give much thought to what they can tell us or how accurate they are. Sampling the shifting opinions of a large population is just the sort of thing that gets statisticians excited and I thought I’d look at some of the numbers behind polls.

Most opinion poles are pretty simple. They ask a fairly standard question, usually “if the election was held tommorrow who would you vote for?”. In the most simple case they then work out how many people to ask by assuming the population is large and the sample is small and and random then use the formula for standard error

Standard error =  SQRT( (p(1-p))/n)) (where p is the probability of the question, and n is the sample size.

From this I can see that assuming 50% of my population supports labour and I ask 1000 whether they do, the error is:

Standard error =  SQRT( (0.5(1-0.5))/1000)) = 0.015 or 1.5%

Actually, most polls are considerably more complicated than this, they add  their own home brew of random and quota sampling, with  some stats used to choose a  sample size to keep the error down to about 3%. Quota sampling, since you ask,  is where you try to match your sample with the general population, so if 30% of the population are over 50 then you try to include 30% over 50s in your sample.

It should quickly become fairly clear that you can’t actually take a sample that exactly matches the whole population in every respect. People who are in their 20s could also be civil servants and also be women. Therefore you need some mathmatical wizardry afterwards to make sure all those women you interviewed to get the numbers of people in their 20s up don’t screw up the gender balance. In practise this means that different groups are identified and weighted more or less heavily to match the general population.

To try to get a result that could actually tell us what’ll happen we’d then need to understand where these people are and that is tricky. In an election it is no good having 90% of the vote in some areas, that doesn’t increase the number of seats.  We could do some research to find out how 35 year old council workers opinions vary geograpically but it would probably just be out of date and wrong.

To get around the problem that our sample doesn’t actually tell us who will win which seats, we approach things another way. We do the same flawed test regularly and look at the changes not the absolute numbers. The numbers may not be real but the  but the changes are real shifts in national public opinion. In short, opinion polls  give a good picture of a  national response to politics but are a bad way to find out which seats will be won and lost.

From Creating Drugs to Creating Markets (A response to “Hating Big Pharma and Flibanserin”)

Brilliant article, if you haven’t yet read it, you should. Who’d want to live in a world where we were medicated into having the same feelings or desires as everyone else? It would be a bit like allowing Simon Cowell to be in charge of UK arts funding.

Our conception of the power and respectability of medicine stem from an out of date idea about what medicine is. Interventions focussing on curing or treating disease or physical injury no longer represents the main focus of medicine. Most new public health interventions (in the developed world at least) are no longer about saving millions of lives but small improvements to existing practises. As a result the creative and entrepreneurial pharmaceutical industry looks for other ways to sell patented compounds.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on the achievements of medicine in the last 100 years. In the UK the life expectancy of new born children in 1999 was 75 years for boys and 80 years for girls. In 1901 baby boys were expected to live for 45 years and girls 49 years. []. A good chunk of this improvement is down to the continued in advances in preventative and curative medicine, and the investment by made by private firms in order to reap rewards when they demonstrated positive health outcomes.

The problem is that once the industry was established it needed to continue to introduce drugs and get paid for them. To the companies it makes no difference if the drug ends widespread childhood measles or if it has no positive impact at all. All that matters is that someone will pay for it.

As with all markets there are constant calculations going on in the background to work out what is the best way to make money. For much of the last 100 years the most cost effective thing to do was to pick a medical problem that didn’t seem to have effective or side effect free treatment and to pay for R&D to develop a better one. More recently, straightforward research had been taken and the cost of a health breakthrough began to rise. The balance began to tip so that the best use of investment became to create a market for products rather than create products for the market. This is borne out in the deployment of resource of the companies:

“Lauzon and Hasbani showed that between 1996 and 2005, these firms [pharmaceuticals] globally spent a total of US$739 billion on “marketing and administration.” In comparison, these same firms spent US$699 billion in manufacturing costs, US$288 billion in R&D, and had a net investment in property and equipment of US$43 billion, while receiving US$558 billion in profits”-

Once pharma’s engine of innovation became focussed on creating a market for their products rather than creating products the market wants, the whole market idea starts to look rather sorry.

This leads pharma to define a Platonic human experience and sell this ideal in pill form. The more people can be made to feel inadequate, the more effective this approach will be. It seems to me that the model that gave humanity so many improved health outcomes has run its course and should now be disbanded and replaced with something better.

Data rock

Ever wondered what the number of Deaths among children under five years of age due to HIV/AIDS (%) in belize? Of course you have.

That’s just one reason why you might be interested in the Guardian’s Datastore ( The guardian decided that since they would go to great lengths to check facts to support a story (sometimes), they should then publish the data they found for everyone to use.

Obviously, the store isn’t and exhaustive list of everything useful you may ever need but is a useful resource for making yourself appear like you’ve really thought about something when really you’ve hardly even considered it. Should I wan’t to impress my friends, I could pepper a discussion on whether council tax is a good system or fundamentally unfair with stats. For instance, where I live (Bourough of Camden) spends just 12% of council tax revenues on waste disposal, but Newcastle Under Lyme residents spend 53% of their hard earned council tax on waste.



“Would it be any better to have dozens of female management consultants, bankeresses, social workers and lawyers, clutching briefcases? All of them are bound to be dedicated to the dubious Leftist view that a woman’s place is in the office while her children do hard time in a baby farm – an idea that has done more damage to the country than almost anything except cannabis.”

Click here to read the rest of Peter Hitchens’ drivel on Tory plans for all-women short-lists.