I wrote in my dissertation that “the foreign aid system exists in a constant state of crisis of self-examination”. A book reviewer really hated that sentence, considering it too glib and pretentious. And yet, look around: Angus Deaton’s new book criticizes aid for its effectiveness, a new book  has just exposed the failures and contradictions of Jeffrey Sachs’s “Millennium Villages” project, and William Easterly (who seems quite happy with the exposé of his arch-nemesis) will soon release a new book in the “aid does not work” series that has made him famous, with the convivial title “The Tyranny of Experts”. So after 60 years of development assistance it is 2013 and apparently aid has failed, thus joining an illustrious group of transformational ideas that “failed” after decades of setbacks.

Democracy died when the rise of demagogues like Themistocles in 5th-century Athens. Again with the collapse of the Roman republic, perhaps even earlier with the assassinations of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus in the 2nd century BC. It died in 1297 when the “Serrata del Maggior Consiglio” which placed decision-making in the republic of Venice entirely in the hands of an hereditary aristocracy. It certainly died in 18 Brumaire (1799), when Napoleon became First Consul of revolutionary France. And again in 1851 when President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte suspended the National Assembly and declared himself Emperor, a mere 3 years after the popular revolutions of 1848. It died in Spain between 194 and 1936, as political polarization became increasingly violent and ultimately propelled the country towards a military coup and civil war.

Bureaucracy probably first died during the First Intermediate Period in ancient Egypt (2181-2055 BC), between the Old and Middle Kingdoms, when temples were pillaged and destroyed and there was no order in the land. And again during the Second Intermediate Period (1650-1550 BC) when the barbaric Hyksos overran the Egyptian state. Bureaucracy probably died again in the late Roman Empire, and certainly with the dissolution of the Western Empire at the hands of the Germanic peoples. And again during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, when it became crystal clear that the bureaucratic apparatus of the Catholic Church had become venal and corrupt.

Gender equality obviously died with the demise of the Egyptian state in the first millennium BC, which ended three thousand years of equality for men and women under the law. The death stroke probably came with the establishment and consolidation of the Catholic Church.

Liberal capitalism died in the 1930s with the rise of totalitarian alternatives in Europe and Asia, and it was proven to be ineffectual by the meteoric economic success of the Soviet Union under Stalin. More recently it has died again in light of the comparative economic growth and poverty-reduction in China compared to India.

And so on.

Let us be reasonable: If foreign aid is trying to promote democracy, bureaucracy, equality, and liberal capitalism, processes of social change that took centuries and in some cases millennia to consolidate, how can be adjudicate success or failure after a few decades? One of the key messages from Acemoglu and Robinson’s otherwise bland Why Nations Fail is that institutional change is both contingent and reversible: Then how can we expect support for institutional change to be any different?

Aid has to be made more effective, of course. This probably entails focusing efforts on key reforms and country systems, building state capacity as well as empowering citizens and non-state forms of organization. But if “effectiveness” leads to a retrenchment in favor of quick fixes and measurable outputs, then we might as well go back to 1851 and declare that the debate is over because democracy has failed.