I asked around for the best introductory books on international development and foreign aid, with an emphasis on getting a diverse set of viewpoints. The White Man’s Burden, by William Easterly, came up repeatedly.
It’s important to caveat everything I write with this: I’m relatively new to the ideas presented in this book, and my naivete will inevitably show up myriad ways. As I read more, I’m likely to look back at my thoughts and perceptions and find them overly simplistic, uneducated, and brash – which is, of course, part of the learning process, so please bear with me. Or, better yet, talk with me about it! One of the difficult parts about independent learning is that the discussions and debates are harder to come by.
I opened William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden with the perception that I was probably going to disagree with a lot of it; the book has come up regularly in conversations with aid skeptics, and I’m predisposed to believe that thoughtful, smart people can make a difference in bad situations – which naturally puts me closer to the less skeptical side to begin with.
At the time of this writing, I’m through Part I of the book, and I find I actually agree with a lot of what Easterly is positing – but that the way he argues it leaves me frustrated.
Chapter 1: Planners vs. Searchers
Easterly begins the book by separating practitioners of international development/foreign aid into “Planners” and “Searchers,” which he contrasts in the following ways (p.5-6):
This strikes me as a little too ungenerous to those who believe in large-scale change through development, and it seems like Easterly is building up a straw man in his conception of a “Planner.” I’m certain there are those that cleave pretty close to it, but I question whether his designation above really is the best way to divide the schools of thought? Based on what little I know, this demarcation seems to give off more heat than light, and confuses more than it clarifies. It seems to me that Easterly is forcing a false choice upon the reader, in a way that colors everything that follows.
It’s this false choice that I find frustrating. In high school debate, my coach, Todd Hering, always encouraged us to “respond to the best arguments your opponent makes, not the worst” – this leads to substantive discussion and a more nuanced debate. It’s not clear Easterly is allowing this to happen, which is a shame – he comes across as extremely intelligent and more than capable of holding his own. I hope he’ll prove me right the further I get into the book.
Anyway. Planners include such groups as the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank (WB) – the Bretton Woods’ organizations established at the end of World War II to help rebuild the world. In this book, the platonic ideal of a Planner is Jeffrey Sachs, a well-known “celebrity economist” who is intimately involved with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Sachs wrote a book in 2005 called The End of Poverty (next on my list), and Easterly quotes him as writing, “’Success in ending the poverty trap will be much easier than it appears.”
Jumping on that over-confident statement, Easterly astutely notes, “But if rich people want to help the poor, they must face an unpleasant reality: If it’s so easy to end the poverty trap, why haven’t the Planners already made it history?” I think this is his strongest argument – spending 60 years and $2.3 trillion with little transformative effect should lead to a good deal of soul-searching among the large development organizations and their proponents. But it should also be looked at in the proper context: $2.3 trillion over 60 years is $38.3 billion a year – hardly an exhaustive sum of money.
But if large-scale development doesn’t appear to move the development dial, what should be done (if anything)? For Easterly, the first step is to ask the correct question, which he holds is, “What can foreign aid do for poor people?” This is a smart frame, though I’d add a layer of specificity: “Given society’s agreement that X is an issue, what can foreign aid do to mitigate X worldwide?” If society agrees that child mortality is something repugnant that needs to be drastically reduced, then it follows that society should look for ways that aid can help. There may be situations where aid can’t improve the situation, but that shouldn’t stop organizations and individuals from asking the question or doing the research.
Another piece I don’t yet agree with is Easterly’s contention that “Setting goals may be good for motivation, but it is counterproductive for implementation. The free market operates without fixed specific goals, only general goals (e.g., businessmen making profits, consumers achieving satisfaction).” I think the first piece of that sentence is most instructive and useful: “Setting goals may be good for motivation” (emphasis mine); sometimes, motivation is exactly what is needed! Goals – even specific ones – can co-exist with the “do what works” mindset; the two are far from mutually exclusive. When President Kennedy exhorted America to put a man on the moon, he didn’t say how it should be done – just that it was a goal worth striving for. It was outlandish and seemed impossible, but it focused resources, research, and attention, ultimately leading to one of the more significant accomplishments in human history.
It’s eleven pages in where I think Easterly’s most important point surfaces:
“… we will see in this book that aid agencies cannot end world poverty, but they can do many useful things to meet the desperate needs of the poor and give them new opportunities.”
Later, he writes:
“Aid agencies could do much more on these problems if they were not diverting their energies to Utopian Plans and were accountable for tasks such as getting food, roads, water, sanitation, and medicines to the poor.”
Knowing what little I did of Easterly’s reputation, I didn’t expect such a simple, forthright, and reasonable statement on the benefits of foreign aid.
As an example of an organization doing this, he cites Population Services International (PSI), which implemented a program to get insecticide-treated bed nets to those that would use them in Malawi. This is where I need to learn more; it seems to me that the “aid ecosystem” needs both organizations like PSI and the large, multilateral agencies. The smaller organizations should innovate, run experiments, and search for what truly works, while the multilaterals scale those projects that show promise and focus attention on what works and what doesn’t. As I understand it, this isn’t quite how things work today; perhaps it’s a model that will work in the future.
All in all, an interesting, informative, and frustrating start to the book; looking forward to diving deeper into the issues in the coming chapters.