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Should We Worry About *Internal* Brain Drain?

Recently, the issue of internal brain drain in the developing world has come up on both development and economics blogs. The GiveWell blog mentions concerns that NGOs are pulling well-qualified individuals out of the private sector. Aid Thoughts and Roving Bandit take on the staff transfer from government ministries to development agencies and NGOs.

The issue is very clear to anyone who has spent time in the developing world. There is a steady stream of really good people leaving government agencies for jobs with the UN and international NGOs. That’s not surprising – UN and NGO work pays well and pays consistently. It offers opportunities for moving up, and a sense of making a difference in the world. Work for the government, on the other hand tends to be poorly paid, and not always on a regular basis. In many places it is plagued by bureaucratic incompetence and resistance to change.

As a result, the good people just keep leaving government posts for other jobs. As Aid Thoughts puts it, “When the top of that ladder ends at the UN, not the government, ambitious civil servants will feel less motivated to excel…Even when the few bright stars do bother to overachieve, they’re quickly snapped-up into the development sector.”

I think, however, that most proposed solutions are looking in the wrong direction. The problem is not that sexy UN jobs are pulling people out of government. The problem is that people are pushed out of government jobs by poor working conditions. It’s not a demand problem – it’s a supply problem. People who want to leave their government jobs will find a way to do it. If it wasn’t NGOs and the development sector pulling them out, it would be the private sector or international emigration.

Skilled personnel are ambitious and they don’t stick around in bad jobs. The issue goes beyond salary. You could force NGOs and UN agencies to reduce their salaries to government levels, but government work would still be boring and unsatisfying.

If you look at it that way, the solution is to build government capacities and make government work meaningful. Rather than trying to restrict opportunities outside the government, give the best people a reason to stay. Not an easy thing to achieve, it’s true. But a lot more humane than refusing them the right to chose their employment or trying to make all employment options equally bad.

Image: Flickr user lapolab


Haitian President visits the White House

Barack Obama and Haiti President Rene Preval speak to a public audience after a private meeting in the Oval Office. 

Meanwhile, the real action in Washington on Haiti will be in Congress, which is preparing a supplimental funding bill to pay for Haitian relief efforts.   The White House would like this to be passed by a March 31 Haiti donors conference, but as we’ve seen over the past year Congress tends to proceed at its own pace.  Josh Rogin has more.

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North Korean Defectors Describes Arms Export

A major South Korean newspaper ran an article today about North Korean arms exports, based on information they received from a North Korean defector. It’s a fascinating view of one of the scariest parts of a frightening economy. North Korea sells everything from small arms to warheads, and it has a whole set of structures set up to support the trade. One highlight “North Korea’s main weapons production base is Kanggye General Tractor Plant No. 26”

The defector detailed the methods by which North Korean gets around international sanctions. Apparently, partially filled containers of weaponry are sent to China, where they are forwarded to a third country, filled with other freight, and sent on to their destination. (I find myself wondering why they can’t just add the freight in China. Am I missing something?) The sheer volume of global trade and major ports means that the illegal arms are lost in the flood of freight traffic. Primary arms buyers are identified in the article as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Tractor Plant number 26 is said to have 10,000 workers who produce a wide range of weapons, including chemical and biological agents. It is located by a military weapon research center, in Kanggye, the capital of Chagang province. The city’s other major industrial facility is apparently a timber processing factory.

In case you are wondering what kind of North Korean weapons to purchase, small arms are a hot commodity. “The rugged AK-47s, which can operate flawlessly even in the sand-filled battlefields of the Middle East, are extremely popular…” Tanks, on the other hand, are “extremely poor quality.”

It’s hard to know how much weight to put into one story from one defector. The level of detail given by the unnamed defector comes very close to being suspicious. But we have enough reports on North Korean arms export to know it’s going on, and even an inaccurate report can give us a sense of what the process might look like.

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Somalia: What Happens When Political and Humanitarian Goals Collide?

The New York Times gets his hands on a UN memo that is sharply critical of the World Food Programs operations in Somalia.  The report, which will be presented to the Security Council next week, accuses the WFP aid of channeling its food aid through a host of seemingly nefarious actors:

“Some humanitarian resources, notably food aid, have been diverted to military uses,” the report said. “A handful of Somali contractors for aid agencies have formed a cartel and become important power brokers — some of whom channel their profits, or the aid itself, directly to armed opposition groups.”

There are two important points to make. The World Food Program see’s itself as stridently a-political.  Their goal is simply to deliver food to hungry people, regardless of their political affiliation.  Also — and this is crucial–if hungry people happen to live in areas controlled by bad guys, the WFP considers it their humanitarian duty to reach these people anyway.   In Somalia, this means that the WFP has figured out ways to deliver aid to much of al-Shabaab controlled territory in southern Somalia. (That is, until last month, when al Shabaab  kicked out the WFP). 

Second, the WFP’s a-politicalness puts them sharply at odds with other UN actors in Somalia. The UN, for example, has a political mission in Somalia, known as UNPOS, which has a mandate to support the very week Somali federal government.  One way to help strengthen the government is to channel aid through it. For the WFP, though, the main concern is to expediently deliver aid to needy populations.  This means that some WFP shipments sometimes go to ports that may be under the control of political forces opposed to the federal government, rather than the Port of Mogadishu which is nominally under government control.  You can see how this might create some friction between humanitarians and those focused on the political development of Somalia.

The provision of humanitarian aid in a place like Somalia raises complicated political and moral questions. On the one hand, the international community is heavily invested in creating a strong Somali federal government that is capable of providing for its people; after decades of intervention, the international community rightly considers this to be its only responsible and viable “exit strategy.” On the other hand, a strong and functioning Somali federal government seems to be a long way off.  In the meantime, is it morally justified to cut off aid to needy populations just because they happen to live in places controlled by forces opposed to the federal government? 

I don’t think there is an easy answer (or even a “right” answer) to this connundrum. For its part, the United States declared a few weeks ago that it was withdrawing its support for the WFP in Somalia because of the very concerns raised in this report.   Other donors and friends of Somalia may choose differently. 

The bottom line is any place where you have dual humanitarian and political goals (read: Afghanistan) you are going to run into these questions. It’s just important to remember that solutions are not exactly cut and dry. 

Image: Flickr user Peter Caiser/WFP

Security | | 2

Haiti Earthquake: Update from the UN on Recovery Efforts

The top UN official in Haiti traveled to UN headquarters for the first time in eight weeks and briefed the press on Haiti recovery efforts.  Here are some (paraphrased) highlights from the briefing.  You can watch for yourself via UN webcast

-Non-MINUSTAH troops (i.e. American, Jamaican, and Canadian troops that were invited by the Haitian government to help with post-earthquake efforts) are beginning to leave.  Mullet says that security in many IDP camps will, no doubt, be hard to maintain. Rape and violence against women are a particular concern.  The challenge, he says, is that there are around 900 different IDP camps in scattered all over Port au Prince and its been difficulty to provide security in all those places.  The idea is to consolidate many of the IDP camps so that security–and other services–can be better delivered.  He acknowledged, however, that there’s a concern that by consolidating these camps the groundwork may be laid for creating vast new slums. This is something that the UN and the Haitian government are striving to avoid. 

-While there has been progress in areas like food and water distribution, shelter and sanitation remain a very dire concern.  They still lack sufficient number of tents–and the rainy season is fast approaching. 

-Mullet said the UN puts the total death count at 220,000 at the very least, but echoed that we may never know the full number.

Meanwhile, the United Nations held a memorial service today for 101 UN staffers who lost their lives during the Haiti earthquake.  Full biographies of the deceased UN workers were compiled by their colleagues and posted to this site. 

Here were Ban’s remarks.



Dear colleagues,

Dear friends,

Above all, dear families of those to whom we sadly bid farewell:

Let us begin by thanking the families and friends who have traveled far to be with us. To those who could not be here, please know that our hearts are with you.

We are joined by duty stations around the world — the men and women of our proud United Nations.

Among them are the members of our UN mission in Haiti, who have carried on despite their pain and hardship.

I thank Mr. Edmond Mulet and his courageous staff who are working tirelessly – day in, day out – in MINUSTAH [UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti]. I highly commend [you] and I am deeply grateful to all of you.

Today, we commemorate the single greatest loss the UN has suffered in its history.

We remember 101 lives of consequence.

We honor 101 unique paths that joined in Haiti to write the larger story of the United Nations.

These women and men were our own. They were family.

They came to Haiti from all corners of the world, from all walks of life.

Yet they shared a common conviction … a belief in a better future for the people of Haiti, and a common resolve to help them build it.

Now those 101 paths come together one final time, here in this chamber, through us … families and friends, colleagues and loved ones.

The world knew them as trusted diplomats, dedicated humanitarians and conscientious professionals.

They were doctors and drivers, police officers and policy advisers, soldiers and lawyers — each contributing to the mission, each in his or her own way.

To us they were even more.

We knew them, very personally. We knew their smiles, their songs, their dreams.

Now we cannot forget the last email, the last conversation, the last meal together, the last au revoir.

Their words echo: “Don’t worry about me. This is where I need to be.”

At the United Nations, we don’t simply share office space; we share a passion for a better world.

So it is no surprise that many of these 101 paths criss-crossed the globe through the years.

In Cambodia and the DRC. Eritrea and East Timor. Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

Whether they came to Haiti … or came from Haiti … they knew that hope shines in even the darkest corners.

And so they chased the flame. Wherever they went, they carried the light of hope.

And as they fulfilled their mission in Haiti, they illuminated a profound truth:

Earthquakes are a force of nature, but people move the world.

Today, our hearts are heavy with a burden almost too difficult to bear.

Yet perhaps like you, it is gratitude that I feel most of all.

Gratitude to the international community for the spontaneous, whole-hearted and unstinting support in the face of this tragedy.

Gratitude to the rescue teams, aid workers, governments and NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] that rallied to our side, determined to help Haiti to recover and, in time, to “build back better.”

Gratitude to the people of Haiti, for their strength, resilience and faith … the faith of human spirit, the spirit that burns in all of us today.

I commend and appreciate the leadership of President [René] Preval and his Government and his people

Gratitude fills this chamber — profound thanks that our world and our lives were touched by the grace and nobility of these 101 UN heroes.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In life, we are measured by the company we keep.

To those here today, let us know that this is our measure. This is the company we keep.

To those we have lost, let us say: we will never forget you. We will carry on your work.

In a moment we will read out their names … the roll call of highest honor.

Look at their pictures. Look into their eyes. Remember their smiles and their dreams.

Together we stand … in honor of the victims … and in deepest sympathy for the bereaved.

May I now ask you to rise and join me in a minute of silence. Thank you.

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Hollywood Stars and Under-Secretaries of State Talk Global Water Issues

Actors, Musicians, ambassadors and under-secretaries of state mingled together in the plush Ben Franklin room at State Department Headquarters last night in a reception to honor a Hollywood Star-Washington, D.C. wonk collaboration known as Summit on the Summit.  The idea, conceived by Ethiopian-born musician Kenna, brought Hollywood stars, PhD’s and DC-based advocates on a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro to raise awareness about global water issues.

Kenna, Jessica Biel, Santigold, Lupe Fiasco, Emile Hirsch, and the UN Foundation’s Elizabeth Gore, among others, climbed Africa’s largest peak and then visited nearby villages and refugee camps.  Kenna, Lupe Fiasco,  Emile Hirsh as well as Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero and Ambassador-at-Large for Global Partnerships Elizabeth Frawley Bagely were on hand yesterday. 

A documentary about the expedition will air on MTV on Sunday.  Here’s the teaser:


Climate | | 9

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