The World Food Program and Elon Musk make governments look bad

Omar Al-Ubaydli
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Last week’s twitter exchange between the World Food Program (WFP) and Elon Musk regarding the cost of addressing world hunger was highly constructive and will help to achieve this goal. The only losers were the governments who look bad because they lack agility and transparency.

When WFP director David Beasley issued a plea to Elon Musk and other billionaires to donate $6 billion to help save the lives of 42 million people, several questions were raised. Has he checked his numbers? Is this a stopgap or permanent solution? Is this just a publicity stunt?

Elon Musk responded that he would be willing to make a large donation if the WFP would present a realistic plan coupled with transparent accounting. After a brief pause, which many interpreted to be an indication of the WFP having its bluff called, Beasley responded with a breakdown of his plan, which specified hunger relief for 42 million people for one year via a combination of cash transfers and in-kind food donations.

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Beasley also presented assurances that his organization’s accounts are an open book, as confirmed by the ability of the general public to peruse the accounts from previous years at any time.

While Musk and other billionaires mull over their response, there are several important points to take from this highly constructive exchange.

First, while social media has its drawbacks, two of its most salient virtues were on display: the democratization of mass communication – neither Beasley nor Musk had to navigate an entrenched media establishment with its own interests for them to convey their messages; and the speed of engagement.

A lively debate erupted on the internet over the various issues raised by Beasley’s call, and once you got past the vapid “it’s disgusting that someone could be so rich” comments, there was a lot of useful content. We learned about the complexities of solving world hunger, the nature of problems caused by Covid-19, the type of work that agencies such as the WFP perform, and the oversight that the WFP and other organizations are subject to.

An Ethiopian refugee fleeing from the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, walks past a world food program tent, at the Um-Rakoba camp, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in the Al-Qadarif state, Sudan November 23, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)
An Ethiopian refugee fleeing from the ongoing fighting in Tigray region, walks past a world food program tent, at the Um-Rakoba camp, on the Sudan-Ethiopia border, in the Al-Qadarif state, Sudan November 23, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

Second, the exchange also highlighted the benefits of a competitive environment for charitable contributions. When governments need more money to operate their programs, they raise taxes.

The processes that even the most mature democracies go through are quite slow and result in the existence of only a weak link between what the donor (the taxpayer) wants their money to be spent on, and what the money actually gets spent on when it eventually reaches its target.

While this is partially due to the checks and balances that help limit corruption in modern political systems, the lethargy also reflects the fact that the government has a monopoly on levying taxes, and so it isn’t really in a rush to get things done at all, let alone getting them done properly. Moreover, while financial transparency is generally passable in democracies, in non-democracies, it is completely absent, meaning that taxpayers have well-founded fears of corruption.

In contrast, international agencies frequently rely heavily on private donations from wealthy individuals to carry out their work. These philanthropists have many options when choosing where to donate, and this forces the agencies to be considerably more agile than an average government.

This is illustrated by the speed with which Beasley responded to Musk’s request for an elucidation. In the event that Musk and other billionaires have some follow-up questions, I am confident that they will continue to receive prompt and informative replies.

When facing similar calls for clarity, governments usually provide responses that are slow, unclear, inaccurate, and sometimes even misleading. Consider the US government’s cringeworthy response to questions about the drone attack outside Kabul airport, or tune in to Prime Minister’s Questions in the UK on any week to see empty rhetoric of the highest order.

Moreover, the WFP’s transparency levels are admirable: the financial statements and operational documents are all publicly available, as are the independent evaluation reports and audits. If – through incompetence or otherwise – Beasley messes up the deployment of any significant donation that is forthcoming in the wake of his exchange with Musk, the added transparency afforded by social media will ensure that he and the WFP pay a heavy price in terms of credibility and future ability to attract funds.

The incentives are very sharp, as they should be when one is being entrusted with billions of dollars to address life-threatening problems.

A few days after the first tweet, the matter is yet to be resolved as Musk considers how many Tesla shares to sell. However, it is possible that around five tweets by Beasley and Musk end up doing more to address world hunger than the work of any government.

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