The usual argument against foreign aid to Africa is that randomly giving tons of free goods (such as food) ruins local producers; and when at some later moment the charity goes out of fashion (or decides to target a different part of Africa), the local situation becomes even worse than before, because the local producers have gone out of business. In addition, it hurts the local people psychologically to know that any local business, no matter how successful it could otherwise have been, can at any moment be destroyed by a well-meaning foreign charity.
Recently I heard the same argument made about anti-malaria nets recommended by GiveWell. If I understand it correctly, the donated nets put local net producers out of business (increasing local poverty and dependence on foreign aid), and the estimated number of lives saved is misleading (because in the alternative scenario, the same people could have been saved by locally produced nets).
I have one specific question, and one more general concern.
The specific question... well, I know nothing about the anti-malaria industry in Africa. It exists, I assume. But quantitatively -- how many nets it produces, how many nets it stops producing because it is pushed out of the market by GiveWell, whether the nets are of comparable quality, what is the best estimate of the scenario with no foreign aid compared to the scenario with foreign aid -- I have no idea. I supposed some of this was already discussed by some effective altruists, so I would love to hear the summary.
The meta concern is the following: I find the argument of foreign goods disrupting local market plausible. But seems to me that the problem is with high variance (one year a ton of goods, the very next year nothing), not with foreign goods per se. Because, anytime a country participates in foreign trade, the local producers of the stuff that is being imported, are pushed out of business. But we have the law of comparative advantages saying that in global, this is a good thing, for both countries. (Or to put it differently, trade sanctions are typically used as a punishment, not as a reward.) I worry that at some moment, the "stop destroying African economy by your disruptive aid" argument becomes effectively "stop trading with Africa", and I am not sure where exactly to draw that line.
After brief reading, seems like the conclusion is: "At market prices, most people would not use the anti-malaria nets; this is empirically verified. Therefore, we provide the nets for free, and we give the nets instead of cash to buy the nets."
The obvious question is why are people unwilling to buy the nets?
Is there a rational reason, such as "the money is needed to prevent more immediate dangers, such as starvation"? Or is it an irrational one, such as underestimating the danger of malaria, not understanding how malaria spreads, or fatalism about diseases?
Between rational and irrational is PD: individually rational, collectively irrational. Lanrian gave two reasons that nets benefit people other than they person paying. One is that they are most valuable for children. The other is that they protect people not using the nets. Probably the most valuable nets are those deployed on people who already have malaria, to prevent it from spreading to mosquitoes, and thus to more people. (See also Paul Ewald.)
Parasites in general and malaria in particular are pretty specific. For example, humans developed immunity shortly after speciation from chimps and malaria only jumped back 30kya (but probably did so multiple times to produce the several species of malaria). It's pretty clear that it doesn't have other hosts in the New World because the strategy of treating all humans in an area for 3 weeks wipes it out. But it's hard to rule out the possibility that it has other hosts in Africa.
Ewald has written lots of great papers. Here is a paper summarizing his career. Mostly it's about explaining the past, but he goes on to say that we should design interventions to shape the evolution of infectious agents. His main claim about the past is that malaria is debilitating because it can be passed on from someone who can't move. Thus if we keep the mosquitoes out of beds or out of homes, then malaria will evolve to be less debilitating. But I'm not sure where he says this. Scientific American? TED?