William Briggs Burton ’16
On Monday, January 21st, the Center for Entrepreneurship and Political Economy hosted Professor Chris Coyne, who spoke about his upcoming book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. Coyne is the F. A. Harper Professor of Economics at George Mason University and in 2008 was named a Hayek Fellow at the London Institute of Economics. In addition, Coyne began his academic career teaching right here at Hampden-Sydney College.
Before a large audience of students, faculty, and other visitors, Coyne began to explain how international, government-supervised humanitarian aid is often a misguided, if well-intentioned, fool’s errand that does more harm than good to those it is intended to help. State-led humanitarian action as Coyne defines it falls into one of two categories: non-coercive, like the financial aid to Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, or coercive, like military aid to Libyan rebels to overthrow the dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
The mindset Coyne identifies as being behind these interventions, he calls “the Man of the System”: those who believe that through international governmental guidance, or coercion, they can positively influence the development and growth of people and societies. Such goals, Coyne went on to vituperatively opine, are not as simple to achieve as they sound.
He identified several problems that such high-minded theories run afoul of in the real world. First, Coyne said, international development essentially creates planned economies, and planned economies cannot tell what does and does not appeal to consumers, because profitability is not a measurable metric. In fact, planned economies are often so disconnected from consumers that there are very few workable metrics that allow observers to determine what constitutes actual economic growth, or simply increased output. Finally, the proper disbursement of developmental aid runs afoul of rampant corruption, graft, and downright thievery that so often seems endemic in the places that most desperately require our assistance. To Coyne, the costs from this combination of variables and unknowns that come with government humanitarian aid far outweigh the benefits—both to the government that is giving the aid and to the nation that is receiving it.