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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 Hardcover – March 16, 2006
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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
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I had known that this book was out for a while, but had only gotten around to reading it after seeing Easterly here in Amsterdam. He was debating Jan Pronk about what he calls the difference between Planner- and Searcher-based methods of developmental aid. Planners, in his terms, prefer the sweeping top-down approaches to poverty eradication-- all governed by a central committee somewhere else. Searchers adopt a more piecemeal approach to solutions, looking from the bottom up without benefit (or as much benefit) from Utopian ideals. It was a very interesting debate. The audience was full of folks working in various NGOs and developmental organization. It inspired me enough to go ahead and buy The White Man's Burden.
The arguments that Easterly make feel so intuitively correct that they make me suspicious. The bottom line for him seems to be that real situations are individual, and solutions cannot be extrapolated from overriding principles. He is savage towards the unrealistic thinking of the neo-imperialists and unsparing of many of the political sacred cows. He points out that given limited resources, tradeoffs do have to be made. Too many people forget that even given unlimited funding (which is far from the case), resources can still be scarce-- attention, will power, distribution infrastructure, etc. He also says that if goals in aid programs are failing, then throwing more money at them will not help.
I think that Easterly's stand is often miscontrued based on the last point. I have heard detractors say that he is arguing towards limiting aid to the needy poor. There is no substantiation of that-- at least not in his books or in the lecture I attended. Instead, what he argues is that if unrealistic goals and cumbersome structures prevent aid from reaching the poorest, then adding more money on top of the pile will not fix the problem. For any experienced project managers out there, this is going to feel very "right". Easterly is not calling for less spending; he is calling for more sensible spending. He is calling for accountability, practicality, focus and honest evaluation. These are things that should be self-evident, but are apparently very difficult to achieve. He asks the very disturbing question whether the developed countries are more interested in selling their personal ideology in the form of a Utopian vision than they are interested in achieving real change on the ground where it is needed the most.
Other topics include examples of successful "Searcher" strategies for bringing change to the life of the poor; historical numbers looking at the effect of aid on growth; a discussion of the different aid agencies and their limitations; and some thinking about the role (or lack of one) in local governments when it comes to development initiatives.
The White Man's Burden is, as The Elusive Quest for Growth, precise, supported, readable, humane and funny. I think that it is in many respects a stronger book as it better integrates the stories of the poor with the structure. There are many fascinating pointers for further reading. I would have appreciated an annotated bibliography instead of just pulling references from the notes, but I guess that you cannot have everything that you want in a single book. Recommended reading.
I though many of the arguments were carefully thought out and explained. I liked the graphs too.
The writer makes some valid points about his Seekers (people who are looking locally for problems) and Planners (people far away with plans) and why the seekers are better. One of these points I could relate too as it happened to me. A road had in front of my work place a big hole, so I rang the council up to get it fixed. They started to work the next day. Now I was thinking where would people in many poor African countries call. Often they cannot as the road builder is far away.
Some points I think that might add to the discussion that I think the writer would agree is much of the reasons for the problems with aid though is that the Planners are generally not free agents either. For example, a charity might be able to collect Y dollars for a fever and X dollars for fighting aids in some poor country. Now what is it supposed to do, ignore the X dollars for aids because the Y dollars are better spent. Another example might be the Australian government has a big surplus of wheat now; a Planner could come along and ask for it for a poor country. Okay I admit rice might be better but rice is not on offer here wheat is.
Another point I though is that seekers in poor countries in all likelihood have a similar success rate to businesspeople in the West. Most start-up businesses fail, probably most Seekers do too.
One problem I did notice of the book is about 3/4 of the way, he starts going on about what he believes are Western foreign interventions mistakes. I could disagree whether or not the US did intervene in many of these countries a brutalization would still have occurred. In many of these conflicts, the reason for invading had little to do with local but geopolitical reasons often they are not local problems but foreigner and its success/failure must be measured in these terms.