What’s the best use for Human Rights Watch’s budget?

For the past few years, I’ve been flogging the idea that money spent to enforce human rights would be more productively devoted to development aid. I make this argument in a book; and I have developed it in an article, just posted on SSRN, which argues that development agencies should not consider themselves constrained by human rights law or required to “promote” human rights, as this idea is sometimes put.

The argument is based on the premise that the “human rights regime” (which is hard to define in any event) does not actually improve the well-being of people in poor (or rich) countries. It’s too hard for outsiders–well-meaning NGOs and more ambiguously motivated governments–to figure out how to advance human rights in foreign countries, or even what that means. There is a huge amount of disagreement about what rights mean and require, and how priorities should be established in a world of limited budgets and attention spans.

A problem with my argument has always been that the same thing can be said about development aid. Although the picture is not as bleak as the human rights picture is, many economists don’t think that development aid does much good. The reasons are similar to the reason why human rights enforcement does not do much good: we (on the outside) often find ourselves flummoxed by foreign cultures, institutions, and values, which overturn the best plans.

Yet here is a paper by David McKenzie that reports the results of a randomized control trial where $36 million was randomly assigned to small businesses in Nigeria that applied for grants in a business-plan competition and reached the semi-final round. The winners received grants of around $50,000. Over the next several years, they hired many more people , innovated more, and earned larger profits than the control group. By stimulating economic activity, the donations did more than just transfer a fixed sum of money to people in a poor country.

Meanwhile, HRW’s budget was $65 million as of 2013. It’s an article of faith that HRW does good, but there is no evidence whatsoever. HRW’s donors should use this paper as an opportunity to exercise effective altruism and redirect their donations accordingly.