Book-Blogging: The White Man’s Burden – Chapter Four

This is part of my effort to write my way through a number of development-focused books, starting with The White Man’s Burden. Previous chapters: onetwothree

This is a fascinating chapter that investigates the role a bad government plays in a country’s quest for prosperity. Easterly contends that

“We don’t do the poor any favors by tenderly respecting the sensitivities of bad rulers who oppress their own people”

but qualifies it by holding that

“imposing democracy from the outside doesn’t [work].”

The unanswered question, then, is: what can we do (if anything)?

Democracy sounds better in theory that it works in practice, something that any 7th grade civics student knows. Theoretically, a democracy should lead to better government (what country would keep a bad government around when they could just be voted out?), perfectly-distributed public goods (via consistent feedback from the masses), and positive change when voices are vociferous enough about it occurring.

In practice? E. None of the Above.

To begin with the obvious: a democracy isn’t a democracy unless everyone has a voice – including the minority (for a counterexample, see: America, 1787-1920 – arguably, 1787-1964).

This rarely happens, and as Easterly notes, is

“far from hypothetical in poor-country democracies, which are often polarized along ethnic and class lines and where the winners sometimes abuse the losers.”


“democracy… does not lower the probability of the most extreme violation of minority rights of all: state-sponsored mass killings (even genocide) of political or ethnic victims.”

If the social norms of democracy aren’t in place, then the institution of democracy isn’t really democracy, and likely doesn’t function like it.

The introduction of democracy tends to be bad for the incumbent rich/powerful; after all, the democratic majority could just redistribute their wealth or otherwise enact policies that strip them of their power.

As a result, countries transitioning to democracy have a Goldilocks problem: they need to structure their democracy just right so that it protects the rich just enough to mollify them while not going overboard (which could cause the lower classes to revolt and could be inherently undemocratic). Throw in oil reserves, a highly agrarian society, a highly unequal society, or a high incidence of agriculture and it’s even more difficult to establish democracy – rent-seeking, violence, and inequality are not great pre-conditions for a society in which everyone has an equal voice.

Even if democracy – and the social norms accompanying it – is accepted, the collective voice of a people can often be swayed by the worse angels of our nature:

“politicians could appeal to voters’ gut instincts of hatred, fear, nationalism, or racism to win elections”

This is decidedly less than ideal.

In fact, we see a lot of the negatives of democracy in the United States of America. In the “Land of the Free” it isn’t unusual to see jingoistic paeans to a halcyon, white-washed past that never existed; politicians stoking racist fears of a black president; or voting “irregularities.”

Research indicates that “bad government does indeed cause poverty,” which then puts wealthier countries in a bind; as Easterly notes,

“It would be good to get aid from the rich of rich countries to the poor of poor countries, but what we see happening is that aid shifts money from being spent by the best governments in the world to being spent by the worst.”

This, in turn, leads to the “aid curse:” money funneled to the government goes to political insiders, who use it to entrench, rather than poor outsiders, who would use it to survive.

The question Easterly poses seems to be something like, “Given all of this information, why do Western countries/aid organizations give money to bad governments?” As in other examples throughout the book though, I feel that’s the wrong question to ask; a better one may be, “Given all of this information, what can the Western countries/aid organizations do to get funding to the worst-off people that should be helped? In what ways can these organizations bypass these bad actors?”

I think it’s fair to say that the United States and other countries in the West don’t have a sterling record of propping up the right leaders (see: Nicaragua, Afghanistan, most of Africa, most of Central America, etc.), so intervening overtly or covertly probably isn’t the best place to start. It appears Easterly would agree with this sentiment:

“the principle is nonintervention. Don’t reward bad governments by working with them, but don’t try to boss them around or overthrow them either.”

Bad governments are bad; it’s probably best to stay away from them.

One plausible response is to simply bypass bad governments and ditch the thought that aid money can go towards helping bad governments improve – again, something Easterly seems to agree with. If the goal in funding is to improve/save lives, then it should be possible to do so without kowtowing to the government or other bad actors. Bring it right to the source.

I don’t have the answers, and definitely need to do more research to come up with a better way to phrase the question, but it strikes me that Western power can be used to help develop the infrastructure to support improving government accountability. Again, I’m thinking about this more as the West in more offering the technical and financial expertise and incentives to midwife good African ideas into life. It’s not a permanent solution, but may help bring a better future a bit faster.