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116 of 119 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Witty and insightful account of the failure of aid in Africa, 11 May 2008
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This review is from: The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Paperback)
How come $2.3 trillion dollars of Western aid has been spent in the last 50 years in Africa, my native continent, yet many African children still die of preventible diseases like dysentery, cholera and malaria? Why has Western good intentions not lifted Africa out of back-breaking poverty? Dr. William Easterly's argument in this fascinating book is that Western aid has failed because of the traditional approach to tackling Third World poverty: planning and bureaucracy. According to Easterly, Western aid by the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the IMF) is the most recent reincarnation of the White Man's Burden, a concept immortalised by Kipling. The premise of the White Man's Burden in the 19th century was that Western Europe spread Christianity, commerce and civilisation to the coloured, benighted races of the world (of course, for the benefit of the coloured races).

Mr Easterly, a former World Bank Economist, argues that the command-and-control bureaucrats of the aid establishment, whom he dubs 'Planners', cannot kickstart economic growth in the Third World because: (1) Planners are not accountable to the Third World poor since the poor do not vote in First World elections; (2) Planners' thinking is dominated by grandiose, non-specific plans such as the Millennium Development Goals; and (3) Planners think that they already have the answers. Hence, they tend to be patronising with ready-made answer for every poor country (e.g. structural adjustment, free markets and privatisation etc).

The author contrasts Planners with Searchers, whom he defines as people who work on the ground, constantly trying out new ideas for poverty alleviation. He provides interesting accounts of aid projects, done by Searchers--Westerners, Africans, Indians--that 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 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 contrary to the goals of the Planners, Western-style market societies cannot be planned "top-down". Markets in the developed West are the result of complex social and political institutions that evolved over thousands of years. 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 the Western political machinery to effect desired social change in the Third World. More often than not, Western good intentions led to much harm as in the above-mentioned countries. The message: Economic success in the Third World 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; they should seek incremental, targeted improvements in people's lives.

The book has at least three glaring limitations. First, Mr Easterly's analysis is often disingenuous. For instance, he shows that in (rich) Denmark, people trust their fellow countryfolk more than (poor) Filipinos do theirs. However, he erroneously concludes that wealth is a determinant of trust in a society. This sounds simplistic. Perhaps, causality is more complex. Could it be that Danes are more trustful of each other because theirs is a more ethnically homogeneous and egalitarian society than The Philippines? Could a history of extractive political and economic institutions in The Philippines 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: How much money 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. The argument becomes even more risible when you divide the adjust it per capita of recipient country. $46billion per year is a drop in the ocean.

How does $2.3trillion compare with the sums of money that the West extracted 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 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. However, since the coarse distinction works well in contrasting the traditional approach to aid, I'll not fault the author for this.

Despite these limitations, Mr Easterly presents some ideas for making aid work: (1) Make aid agencies 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 hope that Third World and Western policymakers are listening to Easterly. I recommend White Man's Burden for making such an important point.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 18 Apr 2010 22:08:01 BDT
Last edited by the author on 18 Apr 2010 22:10:08 BDT
It may be unpopular to say it, but these 'searchers' seem remarkably similar to the old 'Territorial Officers' of Imperial times. Practical types who could organise genuine improvements on the ground and often at minimal cost:- build a road, bridge a river, clear some jungle, open a mine, drain a malarial swamp etc... while skillfully avoiding the bureacratic ill-thought-out nonesense which so often flowed out from 'Whitehall' and/or the 'Home Government' even in those pre-WWII days. That said, I find it ironic that some 60/70yrs of well mean't socialist 'planning' can have failed so badly that even the unfortunates on the receiving end of it now realize my now long departed uncles were doing the better job; peaked caps, starched uniforms, Sam Brown belts, bristling moustaches and all!!!!

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Apr 2010 01:49:08 BDT
Yes, socialist development planning has failed miserably, yet it still lives on in our collective (romantic?) consciousness. Why is it so hard to let it go? I really respect Bill Easterly for challenging the aid establishment and taking the heat for it.

Perhaps one difference between today's 'searchers' and those long-departed uncles (bristling moustache and all) is this: a lot of the the 'searchers' are 'locals', who are genuinely interested in developing their own communities, rather than open these communities up to British commerce, civilisation and christianity.

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Mar 2011 15:23:55 GMT
Reader says:
One wouldn't want to tar all colonial administators with the same brush though, of course.

Posted on 17 Jun 2013 20:07:15 BDT
Brilliant review. Very interesting. Many thanks.


Peter Baker

In reply to an earlier post on 13 Dec 2015 22:34:10 GMT
Yes, in a sense, one should. They were all in the service of an exploitative colonial power. They may have had noble reasons--studying cultures, providing health services etc--but they are implicated for better or worse in the depredations of the colonial enterprise.

Note: I do not deny that colonial administrators did valuable work. That would be an obtuse thing to say. Many of them provided brilliant accounts of native life, saved lives and brought education. Yet, they were part of a more or less exploitative machinery designed for the benefit of the colonial power. It is like saying that "one would not want to tar all the administrators of a Nazi concentration camp with the same brush. Well, we do.
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