If you’re interested in learning about international development or foreign aid, you need to read The White Man’s Burden. William Easterly provides a fair, cogent repudiation of the idea that all the poorest countries need is a “Big Push” from the richest countries, and his book is insightful, engaging, and thought-provoking.
None of which is to say that it’s perfect. At times, Easterly falls back on the straw man he created, which he has stuffed with the development sectors’ worst sins; the stylized example of the “ideal” Planner would be ineffective, insufferable, and ineffably awful in the real world. Such a person is unlikely to exist – or at least unlikely to be a development professional for long.
Ultimately, Easterly proves to be much more reasonable than I was originally led to believe by his supporters and detractors – that he was a flame-throwing polemic who was steadfastly against all aid and development. This caricature was far too simplistic, and masked the centrist position he takes on certain types of NGO activity – especially with respect to health. It seems with he would agree with this (admittedly too simple) statement: There’s a way to help. Aid may not stimulate economic growth, but it can save lives – just as worthy an undertaking.
Which allows us to turn away from the question of “Can we really help, or are we just making things worse?” (though we should ask that question at regular intervals) and to focus squarely on the question of “How do we help?” This is more powerful than it sounds; it shakes off the nagging sense of futility and directs our attention to what can be done. This doesn’t lead to an easy solution, but it allows conversation and opens up a zone of agreement that the first question cordons off.
And that’s where I found myself at the end of The White Man’s Burden: asking how – using Easterly’s criteria – could a well-meaning individual or NGO improve the lives of the worst off? There are a lot of possibilities; here’s just one:
1) Be a laser-focused NGO and home in on a specific, micro-targeted goal – but only decide on that goal after asking what your end-user beneficiaries actually want. Prevention is generally more cost-effective than treatment, and a small goal is better than a big one
2) Use market forces when possible – but recognize that some people are too poor to enter the market
3) Establish as many feedback mechanisms as is reasonable. Surveys, assessments, interviews, and more – figure out what is working, what isn’t, and then iterate. Fail fast, but be mindful of the effects on the people you’re trying to help
4) Be in it for the long haul, and always remember that you’re a gap filler. Major institutional change takes time – and it probably can’t be accomplished from the outside. This will be frustrating, but remember that Teach for America, Habitat for Humanity, and myriad other organizations in America operate under the same assumptions and circumstances. You’ll never be able to fill as much of the gap as you’d like, but you should do what you can, and do it well
Admittedly, that’s not quite as sexy as “We can save the world!” But we probably can’t save the world; if that’s the case, all of the effort and talent expended on that goal takes away from doing what we can. I’m not convinced Easterly is right that there is nothing we can do at a systemic level, but I’m certainly more skeptical than I was before.
Like I said: read the book. Grapple with his thesis. Then find someone who disagrees with him, rinse, lather, and repeat.