How come $2.3 trillion dollars of Western aid has been spent in the last 50 years mostly in Africa, my native continent, and yet millions of children still die of preventible diseases like dysentery, cholera and malaria? Why have 'vast' amounts of aid money and Western good intentions not been able to lift Africa out of back-breaking poverty? William Easterly's argument, in this fascinating book, is that Western aid has failed because of the traditional approach that it has taken to tackling Third World poverty: planning and bureaucracy. According to Mr Easterly, Western aid in the form on the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the IMF) is the most recent reincarnation of the White Man's Burden, a phrase which was immortalized by Kipling. The basic argument of the White Man's Burden in the 19th century was that Western Europe spread Christianity, commerce and civilization to the coloured, benighted races of the world (of course, for the benefit of the coloured races).
THE BOOK's ARGUMENTS IN BRIEF
Mr Easterly, a former World Bank Economist, writes that the command-and-control bureaucrats of the aid establishment, whom he dubs 'Planners', cannot understand the complexities of getting aid to the desperate poor because:
- There is no accountability for service delivery, as the poor cannot do this by voting.
- Planners' thinking is dominated by grandiose, non-specific plans such as ending poverty and the Millennium Development Goals
- Planners think that they already have the answers. Hence, they tend to be patronizing and have a ready-made answer for every poor country - structural adjustment, free markets and privatization
The author then contrasts the failure of the Planners with Searchers, whom he defines as people who work at the local level seeking incremental economic change for the poor by constantly experimenting with new ideas on the ground. He provides interesting accounts of aid projects, done by Searchers; Westerners and Africans, which were modest in scope but brought significant benefits to the poor. My favourite example was from India. By making a contribution of $5,000, Western donors built a toilet block for teenage girls in a rural school. This dramatically cut the drop-out rate for the girls because, as it turns out, they (the girls) had been dropping out "in droves because of the embarrassment that they felt once they started menstruating and had no private facilities".
He shows that Western-style market societies cannot be planned "top-down" (contrary to the goals of the Planners). Markets in the developed West are the result of complex social and political institutions/norms that have taken thousands of years to evolve. Since free market opportunities in the West and The Rest depend on "bottom-up choices" which the planners don't begin to understand, Planners are doomed to fail in creating markets in the Third World.
Though the subject of the book is a serious one, the tome is spiced with witty accounts of the histories of various Third World countries: Western support for UNITA in Angola, the Contras in Nicaragua and in Haiti. On page after page, Easterly provides grim evidence of the failure of the World Bank, the IMF and Western military intervention to bring about desired social change. More often than not, it has led to much harm as in the above-mentioned countries. The message: Economic success in the tropics cannot be planned from an office in Washington DC. Instead, as has happened in Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, China and India, it must be homegrown. Certainly Western aid still has a role to play but the Planners in the World Bank and IMF would do well to be more humble in their ambitions and seek incrementally to improve the lives of people in poor countries
SIMPLIFICATION, OBFUSCATION AND OUTRAGE
The book has at least three glaring limitations. First, Mr Easterly's analysis is often disingenuous. For instance, he shows that rich) Danes trust their fellow countryfolk more than (poor) Philippinos do theirs. However, he erroneously concludes that wealth is a determinant of trust in a society. Could it be that Danes are more trustful of each other because theirs is a more ethnically homogenous and egalitarian society than The Philippines? Could a breakdown in social institutions in The Philippines - not wealth per se - be the cause of mistrust?
Second, Easterly asks the reader to be indignant because $2.3trillion of Western taxpayer wealth has been wasted on foreign aid in the last 50years. Two questions for Easterly: (1) How much is $2.3trillion? Well, not much. It breaks down to $46billion per year on average - a miniscule percentage of annual Western GDP in the last 50years. (2) How does $2.3trillion compare with the sums of money that the West extracted/siphoned from Africa in the form of interest payments, bribes, shady deals with corrupt governments, private stash of dictators, and even recycled aid money? Mr. Easterly is taciturn on these issues. $2.3 trillion in Western aid over 50years is hardly enough reason for moral outrage; the failure of aid and the hypocrisy of the aid system is.
Third, Easterly's distinction between Planners and Searchers is simplistic. It is hard to believe that every employee of the World Bank and IMF falls neatly into the "Planner" category. Surely, the truth is more complex than the author presents it. However, since the crude distinction works well in contrasting the traditional approach to aid, I'll not fault the author for this.
Despite these limitations, the author presents some ideas for making aid work: (1) Make aid agencies individually accountable for individual, feasible areas that help poor people improve their lives; (2) Give aid agencies the opportunity to experiment and search for what works; and (3) Abandon the utopian blueprint to fix the Third World's complex problems. Instead focus on getting specific, incremental improvement in people's lives in fields such as health, sanitation and food security. Broad-brush plans for delivering market economies, 'Making Poverty History' or establishing the rule of law, laudable as they are, are doomed to fail.
Western (good?) intentions, grandiose planning, bureaucratic hubris and bleeding-heart campaigns do not end poverty. In the concluding chapter, the author makes a poignant point: "Aid won't make poverty history...only the self-reliant efforts of poor people and poor societies themselves can end poverty, borrowing ideas and institutions from the West when it suits them to do so." Easterly's is a call for humility as we try to tackle the problem of poverty in The Third World. It is also a message with which I concur and one that I, as a Nigerian, have taken to heart. I recommend White Man's Burden for making such a timely point.