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kindly forgive me if this doesn't belong here. I just thought probably it's suited here.

Why do politicians choose mega projects in developing countries instead of spending more on health and education?

Also, are there any noted academics who work in this area.

Kindly enlighten.

  • Yes, there is a lot of academic work on this topic. When I was in college, I had professors in both economics and ocean engineering point out this issue. The Gates Foundation does a lot of work on such issues. Angelina Jolie has worked with Prof. Jeffrey Sachs. – Jasper Mar 24 '16 at 5:13
  • Perhaps the most useful way to improve life in the Third World is to encourage people from more-developed countries to go to less-developed countries to start small businesses, and/or provide advice to existing businesses. This is known as "technology transfer". It is best done on a person-to-person or within-a-business basis. Unfortunately, U.S. income tax laws have severely discouraged Americans from doing this since the mid-1970s, and anti-colonial governments have expelled millions of entrepreneurs from the third world. But the Chinese have encouraged technology transfer. – Jasper Mar 24 '16 at 5:22
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    I think your question is partly unclear. Which politicians are you talking about? What do you mean with "mega projects"? Can you provide some example? – clem steredenn Mar 24 '16 at 7:14
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    Do you mean that politicians in developing countries fund mega projects instead of health and education, that politicians in developed countries fund mega projects in developing countries instead of health and education in developing countries, or that politicians in developed countries fund mega projects in developing countries instead of domestic health and education? – PointlessSpike Mar 24 '16 at 9:49
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    You might get better answers when you give a few examples of such mega-projects. – Philipp Mar 24 '16 at 10:24
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A mega project is a single, discrete item that can be a showpiece for success in the next election. It also has the advantage of possibly costing far less than extra funding for health care / education that will have real meaningful results. Let's face it, in a large country a Billion into health care may hardly be noticable once spread country-wide. Example: in the US, a Billion spent is...$3/person. hard to spend $3 where people will notice the impact, but the price tag of "Billion" resonates when used in opposition attack ads next election. Also, in many nations it just becomes a continuing political issue as to where exactly the money is spent. why did this city get that but this region got less? Why did you fund ten new MRI machines, but not more nursing training? No matter where you do spend the money, an argument can be made for other choices. You can drop a billion into upgrading medical diagnostic equipment without it hardly showing any appreciable benefit to rural communities needing a local clinic staffed.

Similarly, you can drop a ton into education without it showing appreciable impact on outcomes for 20 years as you need a whole generation of kids to grow through that upgraded system and into the workforce, and if the economy is depressed or the new jobs aren't there then you just have a bunch of better educated people facing hardship.

Don't forget, politicians generally are looking to keep themselves employed. A mega project with a five year term is a "look what we did for you!" thing. Something with an uncertain 20-year outcome is far harder to use to get yourself re-elected. "Hi, I did this one thing and it put X people to work and did this for our country?" That is, unfortunately, easier to sell than "yeah this new education should make life better for your kids, but you're life isn't any better - sorry. Please vote me in again so I can spend more of your money with no appreciable improvement in your life".

And I hate to toss a dose of cynicism into the mix, but mega projects generally funnel money to the sorts of business entities who happen to financially support politicians. As the saying goes, sometimes you gotta dance with the one who brought you... or bought you as the case may be.

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    A good example of the last, more cynical, reasoning for politicians love for big projects, specially in third world is what was discovered by the Car Wash Operation in Brazil: "the state-controlled oil company Petrobras, where it is alleged that executives accepted bribes in return for awarding contracts to construction firms at inflated prices". Also "Some of the proceeds also got sent to friendly politicians, either as personal gifts or donations to their campaigns." – Brian Hellekin Mar 24 '16 at 18:45
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    Dick Cheney didn't do poorly on his Haliburton stock during the biggest nation-building mega project in recent history either... – Michael Broughton Mar 24 '16 at 19:17
  • So, the problem is not limited only to third world country politicians (that's important, since the national origin of the 'politicians' who are choosing mega-projects in developing countries is unclear in the question) – Brian Hellekin Mar 24 '16 at 19:28
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    No, but I think the issue in third world countries is that these mega-projects are often a bigger percentage chunk of GDP. A $10Billion roads project in the US is a drop in the bucket. In Mozambique that IS the bucket. – Michael Broughton Mar 24 '16 at 19:33
  • the impact often looks more incongruous also - running a shiny new bus through a shanty-town begs obvious questions on priorities that maybe aren't so starkly apparent in the first world. – Michael Broughton Mar 24 '16 at 19:41
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Why do politicians choose mega projects in developing countries instead of spending more on health and education?

Advantages of a mega project:

  1. It's easy to understand where the money is going.

  2. It may return money locally, as a mega project may import from the funding country.

  3. It may help a domestic business in a foreign country.

  4. It may get the foreign country to support initiatives desired by the funding country.

I can't speaks as to other countries, but in the US, only $30 billion is spent on foreign aid. That compares to $150 billion on education (by the federal government) and more than a trillion on health care. Overall government spending on education is around a trillion and on health care is about $1.5 trillion. Figure another $400 billion and $1.7 trillion for private spending. Foreign aid would hardly make a rounding error in US spending on education and health care.


Since you've clarified your original question, I think I was answering the wrong thing. I was focusing on why the US might support foreign aid rather than domestic spending. The numbered points still apply. The problem with giving money to a small project in a country like Pakistan is that it is likely that not all the money would reach the intended recipients.

At least if you fund a big expensive hospital or school, you end up with the building. If you intend to fund teachers or doctors, you may end up funding bureaucrats instead. Then a newspaper does a story about how we are wasting our foreign aid on buying expensive dinners for bureaucrats. This then makes it harder to fund future foreign aid. So even though you are doubtless correct that more doctors, nurses, and teachers would provide more benefit, it is difficult for the US to supply that kind of aid.

There have been some classic misses in big project foreign aid. For example, a foreign built road helped some people in one country. Not the road itself, but the shoulders were cleared of vegetation and good for walking. Or the Saharan example of UN funded wells. They worked fine initially, but if the pumps broke, they couldn't be fixed with local resources. Then a religious organization (Mennonite) came in and showed them how to make an equivalent of the part that broke locally. And those are comparative successes of foreign aid.

Directing aid to small projects is even more difficult. People in developed countries understand roads and even wells. But they do not understand how to work within a foreign culture to increase education and health care resources. This activity may be better taken by more focused organizations. This may be improving. For example, microloan programs are something at which developed countries have had some success in funding. Or we may just not have learned about the corruption yet.

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