The debate regarding the effectiveness of foreign aid is one that has divided scholars. The idealist, the pragmatist and the “randomist” refers to three approaches to the understanding of international development practices, in particular foreign aid. The idealist looks at the potential for aid, and the good that it can do for those nations where many or most of the population is in need. The pragmatists look at the performance of aid, and based their evaluation on the outcomes that have occurred. The randomist sees aid as not the most important issue at all, but rather one which is constrained and shaped by the context in which that aid occurs.
The Idealist: Sachs
Sachs states in “The Case for Aid” that it is not a case of whether aid should or should not happen but rather how it can be successfully delivered and also achieve its objectives. Sachs asserts that for many developing nations there is no question that aid is needed in order to raise standards of living and quality of life with regard to water, food security and other issues so that self-sustaining growth can occur. The issue is how to deliver high-quality aid to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people”. In a different paper entitled “Why Aid Does Work” Sachs describes what a different world it would be without the successful immunization programs, food aid and agricultural support. Sachs maintains there are some structural and process issues with international aid, but it is needed and it works.

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The Pragmatist: Easterly
Sachs and Easterly have had an ongoing debate through scholarly articles and other statements, despite a strong common interest in aid which delivers effective improvements to the standard of living of people in developing nations. Easterly, in his article “Aid Amnesia” takes issue with a number of Sach’s approaches and opinions, in particular the opinion Sachs once held that aid is the answer. Easterly does not however provide a critique of aid, but rather of Sachs prediction with regard to the good that aid can do. To that extent he is a pragmatist, looking at the reality of the performance measures in light of stated goals, however he is assessing Sachs as the promoter of aid, as such, and not the aid itself. Easterly feels that the aid debate avoids more important questions which arise after decades of aid delivery and outcome evaluation, that being why there is so little attention to basic political and economic rights of the individuals in the countries that receive aid. In fact, Easterly sees these individual rights as having been key to the development in the West which allowed individuals to rise out of poverty.

The Randomist
Erixon builds on these ideas in “Why Aid Does Not Work”, pointing out that it is structural needs for good governance and sound economic policies which are needed in developing nations. Without this aid funding became the fuel for corruption, economic mismanagement and, according to Erixon, a lack of development. Bad economic policies are supported by aid, and bad economic policies keep their citizens in poverty. Erixon points to the differential paths taken by Africa and Asia. When the latter began to use economic reforms that increased trade as a means of raising incomes and standards a deep divide developed between the two continents. Africa continued to be mired in aid, corruption and poor economic development while Asia began to thrive with the successful outcomes in the international marketplace.

The case of Jamaica provides a means of further analyzing each of the three philosophies of aid as well as a means by which to assess the accuracy of the various opinions regarding whether aid has either succeeded or failed in delivering development to the nations that have received it.

In the 1980s Jamaica began to receive significant increases with regard to the amount of aid which was supplied by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United States Agency for International Development (AID) and the World Bank (USAID, n.p.). While Jamaica continues to have higher rates of unemployment and lower incomes than developed nations, the income levels and production have continuously risen. Unfortunately deficits and fiscal imbalances have been just as continuous (USAID, n.p.). Today the standard of living in Jamaica has risen considerably over four decades and it is considered a middle income country.

When Sachs, the Idealist is assessed in light of the aid experience of Jamaica he seems somewhat vindicated in his belief that aid in greater amounts has a greater potential to untangle factors that create challenges and barriers for people to create growth on their own.

Easterly looks at performance, however here there is a disconnect between assessment of the gap between objectives and outcomes and the net positive effect over time. While the achievements with regard to aid have not been as lofty as those that were hoped for, the nation has continuously improved its standard of living, legal and governance framework and economic policies.

Erixon and the other Randomists might point to the key reforms in individual rights, beginning with the end of slavery in the 18th century and Jamaica’s independence from Great Britain in 1962 as much more powerful than financial aid. Following the “big push” regarding aid for Jamaica there were in fact many improvements in this area, and unlike Erixon claims it did not send economic policy development backward.

One can both assess the impacts of aid on Jamaica as well as critical evaluate the claims of scholars of international aid through the multiple perspectives of the idealist, the pragmatist and the randomist.

  • Easterly, William. “Aid Amnesia”, Foreign Policy 21, (2014).
  • Erixon, Fredrik. “Why Aid Doesn’t Work.” BBC News, (2005).
  • Sachs, Jeffrey. “Why Aid Does Work”, BBC News, (2005).
  • Sachs, Jeffrey. “The case for aid.” Foreign Policy 21, (2014).
  • USAID (United States Agency for International Development). “About Jamaica”. (2016). Retrieved from: