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The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good Paperback – February 27, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
No one who attacks the humanitarian aid establishment is going to win any popularity contests, but, neither, it seems, is that establishment winning any contests with the people it is supposed to be helping. Easterly, an NYU economics professor and a former research economist at the World Bank, brazenly contends that the West has failed, and continues to fail, to enact its ill-formed, utopian aid plans because, like the colonialists of old, it assumes it knows what is best for everyone. Existing aid strategies, Easterly argues, provide neither accountability nor feedback. Without accountability for failures, he says, broken economic systems are never fixed. And without feedback from the poor who need the aid, no one in charge really understands exactly what trouble spots need fixing. True victories against poverty, he demonstrates, are most often achieved through indigenous, ground-level planning. Except in its early chapters, where Easterly builds his strategic platform atop a tower of statistical analyses, the book's wry, cynical prose is highly accessible. Readers will come away with a clear sense of how orthodox methods of poverty reduction do not help, and can sometimes worsen, poor economies. (Mar. 20)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* As the dictator of Haiti for decades, Papa Doc Duvalier had good reasons--tens of millions of them--to praise international aid agencies for their generosity. As a former analyst in the World Bank system that coordinates such generosity, Easterly thinks it is time to start listening to people other than corrupt dictators and self-congratulatory bureaucrats in assessing international-aid projects. Though he acknowledges that such projects have succeeded in some tasks--reducing infant mortality, for example--Easterly adduces sobering evidence that Western nations have accomplished depressingly little with the trillions they have spent on foreign aid. That evidence suggests that in some countries--including Haiti, Zaire, and Angola--foreign aid has actually intensified the suffering of the poor. By examining the tortured history of several aid initiatives, he shows how blind and arrogant Western aid officers have imposed on helpless clients a postmodern neocolonialism of political manipulation and economic dependency, stifling democracy and local enterprise in the process. Easterly forcefully argues that an ambitious new round of Western aid programs will help the suffering poor only if those who manage them wake up from the ideological fantasy of global omniscience and begin the difficult search for piecemeal local approaches, rigorously monitoring the results of every project. Proffering no blueprint for bringing poverty and disease to an end, Easterly does set the terms for a debate over how to give foreign aid a new start. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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This attempt at a big fix – massive programs of aid with lofty goals but little accountability – has been the world of classically trained development economists, who he derisively dubs “The Planners.” They think they have the answers, he says, and rhetorically they have the advantage because they promise great things, such as “the end of poverty.” Reality, however, is much different according Easterly. There are no easy answers. “The only Big Plan is to discontinue the Big Plans,” he says. “The only Big Answer is that there is no Big Answer.” The promises of the Planners, such as his professional rival Jeffrey Sachs, “shows all the pretensions of utopian social engineering,” he writes rather caustically. Yet they flourish in a world without feedback or accountability, and where big plans and big promises play well with politicians and celebrities. Nobody (especially those with no direction connection to the problems) wants to promote small but achievable objectives. They want “to do something” – and do it big. Easterly claims that the West, perhaps innocently and unintentionally, has written itself into the hero role in saving the uncivilized world. Indeed, he writes, “…the development expert…is the heir to the missionary and the colonial officer.”
In contrast to the Planners, the author encourages those who want to help to “think small”: the little answers that work and that can make a material, if not revolutionary, difference on the lives of the impoverished. He calls these people, mostly locally-based activists, “The Searchers.” They possess an entrepreneurial and experimentation mindset, and naturally embrace the iterative testing model promoted by Ries in “The Lean Start Up.” They get regular feedback from the poor they serve and are held accountable for their work. They don’t promise to solve world hunger, but they often make incremental yet substantive impact where they work. “The dynamism of the poor at the bottom,” he writes, “has much more potential than plans at the top.”
The book is broken into four parts, each of varying interest and value. The first part, “Why planners cannot bring prosperity” is dedicated to undermining the theory of the “Big Push,” which Easterly writes is demonstrably false. He claims that “Statistically, countries with high aid are no more likely to take off than are those with low aid – contrary to the Big Push idea.” Likewise, attempts to promote free markets from the top down, as is often the case with IMF and World Bank-led structural reforms, ambitious schemes to promote capitalist growth that Easterly admittedly once believed in wholeheartedly, are doomed to failure. The same goes for top down efforts to promote democracy, although he sees democracy as important because it can supply the two things most important for meaningful reform: feedback and accountability.
In Part two, “Acting out the burden,” Easterly accentuates “The tragedy of poverty is that the poorest people in the world have no money or political power to motivate Searchers to address their desperate needs, while the rich can use their money and power through well-developed markets and accountable bureaucracies to address theirs.” He highlights the insanity of the international development industry, which he likes to repeat has pumped $2.3 trillion (yes, “trillion”) into the developing world since the end of World War II – and for what? He says. He cites Tanzania as a typical case study in development economics absurdity, as that country was forced to produce 2,400 reports and host over 1,000 donor visits in a single year. The author hammers home on his two main themes of feedback and accountability, noting what little input the poor actually have on the aid that they receive and that the Planners at the top are usually divorced from reality on the ground. Easterly writes that development aid is a classic “principle/agent” relationship, where the principle is a rich donor country and the agent is the aid agency. The actual target, the poor, are nowhere in the system of response. The principle wants to see big results, and yet is in no position to check on the work and achievements. The agents are thus cloaked in a sort of invisibility – and it’s under this invisibility, the author claims, that the Planners take over. The Planners thrive in the dark, Easterly says; the Searchers in direct light. The Planners benefit from the fact that there are so many aid agencies, all with very similar missions, all supposedly coordinating efforts, yet no single entity is ultimately accountable for achieving results. The smaller and more focused an NGO’s mandate, the better. Or, as Easterly complains, “If the aid business were not so beguiled by utopian visions, it could address a more realistic set of problems for which it had evidence of a workable solution.”
If the aid agencies have failed because their mandates are too broad, what about the IMF, which has the relatively narrow mission of promoting “trade and currency stability”? Easterly argues that the IMF suffers from poor data, a misplaced one-size-fits-all approach, and is all too willing to forgive loans. What should be done? Simple, Easterly says, focus the IMF on emerging markets only and reserve the true bottom billion for aid agencies, thus removing the politically unpopular conditionality that has marked IMF interventions over the past several decades.
Part 3, “The White Man’s Army,” is lengthy and the least insightful in the book. Easterly’s core message, as told through vignettes about Pakistan, the Congo, Sudan, India, and Palestine/Israel is that Western meddling with the Rest has been damaging, whether it was colonialism, de-colonialism or well-intentioned aid intervention. He further argues that US efforts to restructure societies via military force, either directly or through proxies, has all the hallmarks of utopian planner mentality, as suggested by case studies on Nicaragua, Angola and Haiti. In other words, neo-conservatives are the Right wing on “The Planner continuum”, with idealists like Sachs on the Left.
In Part 4, “The Future,” Easterly argues that 60 years of Planners in control of the economic development agenda is enough. It is time to drop the utopian goals of eradicating poverty and transforming governments. “The Big Goals of the Big Plan distract everyone’s attention…” he writes. “The rich-country public has to live with making poor people’s lives better in a few concrete ways that aid agencies can actually achieve.” Even worse, he writes, “The Planners’ response to failure of previous interventions [has been] to do even more intensive and comprehensive interventions.” It is time to empower the Searchers, those who probe and experiment their way to success with modest efforts to make individuals better off, even if only marginally.
As far as the aid agencies are concerned, Easterly recommends: 1) end the system of collective responsibility for multiple goals; 2) and instead encourage individual accountability for individual tasks; 3) promote aid agencies to specialize rather than having many all pursue significant goals; and 4) employ independent auditors of aid activities. The central theme developed by the author throughout this book is that aid agencies need to be constantly experimenting and searching for modest interventions that work. And they must employ more on-the-ground learning with deeply embedded staff. Thus, Easterly encourages the idea of “development vouchers” that would empower local communities to get the aid they most need from the agencies that are most effective. Theoretically, those agencies that either don’t deliver value and/or don’t deliver as promised would be put out of business. It’s a compelling idea that Easterly nevertheless stresses is no panacea.
Easterly writes with a certain punch, which I’m sure ruffled more than a few feathers not only with his arguments but with his style, which can be cynical and snarky. For instance, when looking to catalog the redeeming benefits of U.S. interventions over the past several decades, he cites an “Explosion of Vietnamese restaurants in the United States” for Vietnam, “Black Hawk Down was a great book and movie” for Somalia, and “Salvadoran refugees became cheap housekeepers of desperate housewives” for El Salvador. He goes on to characterize U.S. Angolan ally Jonas Savimbi as “to democracy what Paris Hilton is to chastity.” Amusing commentary, for sure, although perhaps a bit misguided given the gravity of the subject matter.
In closing, Easterly makes a compelling case to “go small” with development efforts and always seek feedback and accountability. He may not be on the Christmas card list of Bono and Angelina Jolie, but I’m afraid he is much more insightful and directionally correct than their hero, Jeffrey Sachs.
Easterly’s general framework is to contrast “Planners” and “Searchers.” Planners are what we typically think of when we think of development aid. They are external organizations like the United Nations or the Gates Foundation, well-funded, pursuing a range of big, difficult-to-achieve goals. Searchers are smaller, usually locally-based organizations and people, focusing on smaller, quickly achievable goals, where the methods used are adjusted based on immediate evaluation and feedback. The argument of the book is that Planners, totally dominant in the development industry for 60 years, have failed miserably, except at making people in the West feel good about themselves, and it is time for Searchers to dominate.
The mantra of the Planners is that of Bob Geldof: “Something must be done; anything must be done; whether it works or not.” Usually, it is hard to determine if the goals of Planners have really been accomplished, so accountability is minimal, and feedback adjustment loops do not exist. Nobody ever really investigates whether progress, and the right progress, has been made, and adjusts accordingly. Nobody is willing to admit that tradeoffs have to be made in the allocation of resources. Instead, in a few years, another call goes out for another giant, costly, shotgun-type development program.
An example of the difference between Planners and Searchers is anti-malarial mosquito nets. You’ve heard of these—they’re cheap, and extremely effective in reducing disease and mortality, particularly in children and pregnant women. Much money has been spent on distributing them for free as part of big Plans. What you probably haven’t heard is that when free nets are given out to people, they take them and use it for other purposes they value more highly, such as using them for fishing nets or wedding veils. (While Easterly doesn’t mention it, a side effect of this well-intended program is the destruction of African fish populations—see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/25/world/africa/mosquito-nets-for-malaria-spawn-new-epidemic-overfishing.html?_r=0) Therefore, most of the mosquito nets don’t reach their intended targets. This is a natural consequence of providing a free good—it distorts the incentive mechanisms inherent in the free market, leading to all sorts of unintended consequences. But great success has been achieved by a small, Searcher, organization in Malawi modifying the Plan, by selling the nets, cheaply, directly to pregnant women and mothers, where the selling nurse also gets to keep a small profit to incentivize her. Because the end users paid for them, and thus have a stake in them, their actual use is nearly universal. In other countries, where Planners distribute them free, the vast majority of the nets are not used, or not used for their intended purpose.
But even though central planning has been shown, in every walk of life, to be a defective nightmare, Planners still dominate the development industry. What Easterly calls “The Big Push” is still the universal development model. The prototypical example is the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which also involves private organizations, notably the Gates Foundation. Easterly goes to considerable length to demonstrate exactly how and why Big Pushes don’t help poor people become not poor. Among other things, he demonstrates that is a fiction that there is a “poverty trap” where countries need external help to jump-start their growth. In fact, most countries that can grow do grow, regardless of external aid, and those that can’t, don’t. (This is the essence of Angus Deaton’s argument as well.) Therefore, Big Pushes are a waste of money.
Rather, Easterly argues that what developing countries need is the rule of law (and democracy, at least to the extent it helps the government respond to actual needs), and free markets. Development aid is frequently anti-democracy, because it props up non-democratic regimes. In fact, development agencies dislike democracy in practice, because grand plans concocted by specialists (what James C. Scott, whom Easterly quotes to this effect, called “high modernism,” and not as a compliment) are easily frustrated in democracies.
Easterly also gives innumerable examples of the heinous bureaucratese that dominates and enervates the development industry. The norm seems to be mealy-mouthed, passive-voice, voluminous reports that say nothing much but insist that more money is needed to achieve the success that is finally just around the corner. His own background is the World Bank, so Easterly certainly has first-hand familiarity. I’m pretty sure, though, that he’s not welcome at World Bank parties anymore.
Of course, Easterly isn’t going to just throw his hands up and declare that aid is stupid. He is not opposed to aid—he wants it implemented in an incremental, accountable, properly incentivized fashion by Searchers, instead of spent poorly by unaccountable, utopian, not-very-bright Planners. While he is careful to note there is no panacea, and probably he would admit there is little reason for optimism, he also offers narrow specific methods for improving aid. He suggests more approaches, even radical approaches, be tried and the results examined, such as development vouchers, where the poor themselves choose how to allocate aid. He endorses the crowdfunding of GlobalGiving.com (he wrote this in 2006, and it still appears to be going strong in 2015). In sum, he wants the poor to be given tools to create their own future.
One highly original and useful idea is to target aid to project maintenance. Most Western aid goes to grandiose projects that make both donors and recipients look good—dams, road networks, school buildings. In reality, though, once the bunting comes down and the politicians leave, such projects decay because the politically dysfunctional aid recipients fail to maintain the dynamos, fix the roads, or provide textbooks. And donors don’t want to fund ongoing maintenance, repair and consumables, because they believe that local people should take some responsibility. But they don’t. Easterly says Western aid organizations should just “bite the bullet and permanently fund” ongoing costs for projects, accepting that recipients are not going to reliably do it themselves.
Easterly does go somewhat off the rails toward the end of the book, in which he criticizes past colonialism and modern (American) “imperialism” for creating problems and approaching development in the same way as modern Planners. I’m not really sure what the point of these two sections is, other than perhaps to prevent the author being perceived as conservative due to his bias towards free markets as necessary for development. No doubt the hasty British departure from, and partition of, India in 1948 created all sort of bad things. But does anyone really think that India would be better off if the British had never ruled, or that the British were the ones who wanted partition? And Nehru-style socialism, rather than colonial after-effects, was responsible for decades of Indian stagnation, only reversed when India shook off that socialism in the 1990s. Doubtless Western national security interests can prop up bad regimes and create ill effects, such as in Pakistan and Sudan, but does anybody really think that either Pakistan or Sudan is ever going to be anything but a crappy country? I don’t.
Easterly also seems to think that American attempts to engage in nation-building, usually combined with serving American security interests, are a disaster from a development perspective. He may be right, but his history is pretty selective, and often distorted. For some reason he spends a lot of time on the Nicaraguan civil war of the 1980s, not an exercise in nation-building, where he continuously slanders the heroic indigenous resistance (the Contras) and swallows the left-wing propaganda of the time disseminated by the Communist Sandinistas and their Western lackeys. He bizarrely refers to the Communist-friendly and violently anti-American pressure group Americas Watch simply as a “human rights organization,” and he blithely states that “the Contras executed on the spot any civilian associated with the Sandinistas.” The Contras are all “homicidal” and so forth; no negative adjective or stigma attaches to the terroristic Sandinistas and their mass graves.
Actually, killing of prominent local civilians as a terror tactic has always been a key and required ideological element of left-wing and Communist revolutionaries, from Lenin on, including the FMLN in El Salvador (notorious for killing scores of village mayors) and Sendero Luminoso in Peru. Such killing has generally not been associated with right-wing organizations (admittedly a much smaller set of data, given that right-wing organizations, revolutionary or government, have been responsible globally for a miniscule fraction of the tens of millions killed by left-wing groups). While there may have been occasional such incidents involving the Contras, they were very few, or they would have been extensively publicized at the time, which they weren’t.
I remember once a group of Contras in the field, in 1985, killed a military prisoner they had, because they were being pursued and could not transport the prisoner silently. A Western photographer happened to be with them. The resulting picture was headline news for days, if not weeks, in the United States, as the media desperately tried to use the “news” to attack the Contras, and by extension, President Reagan. The American media would have had a field day if they ever could have shown the Contras deliberately killed a single civilian.
The Contras were an indigenous and generally popular resistance movement, which ultimately was able to overcome the Sandinistas in a free election (although credit has to be given to the Sandinistas for even having a free election, the only Communist state ever to voluntarily do so). That Easterly shows violent irrational bias against them is strange in someone who generally seems very even-keeled.
Easterly’s other blind spot is the same one found in “The Tyranny Of Experts”—Easterly never seems to consider that some cultures simply aren’t capable of advancement, no matter how much money or other aid is handed to them. He implicitly assumes that every culture wants the same thing and is capable of progress. He believes that Searchers can come to predominate in any culture, as they did in Japan, Botswana and Singapore, once backward and now very or more advanced. But that’s not always true, or maybe even often true. Afghanistan was a pit with a defective culture when Alexander the Great swept through; it was a pit when Winston Churchill fought the Pashtun in the 1890s on the Northwest Frontier; and it is a pit with a defective culture today. All the money in the world, no matter how distributed or applied, will not change that and there is nothing more futile than trying to force change on those who do not want to change. But Easterly is an optimist, so perhaps he does not see this, or perhaps he simply thinks pessimism will not help his cause. And the world can always use more realistic optimists.
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I always believed in "start small, start slow, and you end up fast, end up big".
Easterly clearly points it out.
Kudos to him!