No use writing here if I can’t occasionally plug a family member. My father, Daniel Bradlow, has a great (if I may say so) letter in today’s Financial Times bringing some sense to the heated debate about development aid raging between Dambisa Moyo, William Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs, etc. A good summary of the debate by the FT‘s William Wallis can be found here.

The main gist of his point is that aid is too often treated

as fundamentally different from the other sources of development finance that African countries utilise. It is not. Like these other sources – for example international capital markets, foreign direct investors, remittances etc – it entails both costs and benefits.

This means that, like them, there will be some occasions when aid, despite its costs, will be the best source of finance for the particular purpose, and some situations in which it will be an inappropriate source. Identifying the most desirable times for utilising aid requires governments to dispassionately assess both the explicit and implicit costs and benefits associated with the offers of aid that they have received, and of the alternatives to those offers. It also requires negotiating the best possible deal with the chosen source of funds.

Before everybody gets back to the full-on grind of 2009, it’s worth looking to some of the great feature reportage that comes out in abundance as newspapers pull back on late-breaking news. As a quick aside, is it really true that less news happens during “the holidays” (hello, War on Christmas) or is it just that reporters have to get a day off sometime? Anyway, two of the most interesting year-end/beginning features that I came across both concern international men of mystery. No, this isn’t me trying to go on some half-baked Austin Powers kick, but there’s really just no other way to describe these people.

First up, James Harkin, in this weekend’s Financial Times, profiles Alastair Crooke, a former British MI6 spy who lives in Beirut and serves as an intermediary between middle eastern Islamic groups on the terrorist watch lists of Western governments and people in Western governments. After being outed by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv for being an MI6 agent, he eventually quit the intelligence service and went rogue (or so he wants us to believe), and founded the Conflicts Forum,

a think-tank whose aim is to help western governments understand Islamist groups and their military resistance to Israel.

A backer of the Conflicts Forum, Tom Clarke, complained that a recent conference sponsored by the group featured

too much talk of theology and “the other,” and not enough about the politics of who should meet whom and what could be done.

Many criticize Parker for being too much in the hands of groups like Hizbollah and Hamas — according to the article he expresses strong support for the 1979 Iranian Revolution — but it seems like he’s someone worth listening to at a time when middle eastern conflicts are almost always reduced to “talk of theology and ‘the other'” and almost never about “what could be done” to make things better. See: “Israeli military, strategy of ‘the only thing they understand is force,'” for more information (maybe I should italicize “they” to make that one clear).

The Economist’s big Christmas double issue included an article on the recently captured Viktor Bout, an independent arms dealer who has basically made it his life’s goal to make as much money as possible by providing arms or other supplies to almost every side of every major war in recent history. The magazine’s typically unnamed author notes that Bout’s rise is particular to his time:

Mr Bout chose a useful time to come of age. As the Berlin Wall tumbled, supplies of surplus weaponry and fleets of military transport aircraft were up for grabs. Soldiers and air-force men, even senior ones, were poor and easily bribed; stocks of weapons, especially in remote corners such as Moldova, were barely monitored.

He seemed to operate on irony to keep up the high of being a world-traveling, war-fueling high roller:

Americans did not object when he supplied an Antonov An-24 to deliver goods for their soldiers in post-invasion Iraq. So what if he is also rumoured to have ferried gun-toting and bearded men to and fro in the Middle East?

He also helped supply both sides of Angola’s civil war, one of the longest and deadliest wars of post-colonial Africa — if there was ever a record about which to not be proud this may be it. Still he hoped to save Congo’s rain forests and wanted to help the pygmies in Central Africa. Give the guy a break! He loved the Discovery Channel for god’s sake.

Anyway, in March, he was apprehended in Bangkok by U.S. agents posing as Colombian FARC representatives, and now he will probably go to jail. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment will be the endless books and movies his life story will spawn. In fact, it has already begun.

Seems like this post would not be complete without a shout-out to another hoity toity publication rolling large on Christmas. The New Yorker’s holiday issue included an unpublished essay by Mark Twain (available online only to subscribers). It’s called “The Privilege of the Grave,” which Twain argues is the only place where one is afforded true free speech. For the living it is only “an empty formality.” Try this one on for size, blogosphere denizens:

Sometimes we suppress an opinion for reasons that are a credit to us, not a discredit, but oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, non of us likes to be shunned.

A natural result of these conditions is, that we consciously or unconsciously pay more attention to tuning our opinions to our neighbor’s pitch and preserving his approval than we do to examining the opinions searchingly and seeing to it that they are right and sound. This custom naturally produces another result: public opinion being born and reared on this plan, it is not opinion at all, it is merely policy; there is no reflection back of it, no principle, and it is entitled to no respect.

Word.