The White Man’s Burden

Emily reading Oedipus Rex

William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good seeks to refute utopian notions of what can be done with foreign aid and military interventions by citing evidence from past disasters. In his analysis, the planners who develop and implement foreign aid plans lack the capability, incentive, and ability to provide what is really needed by the poor. Rather than continuing to empower them in seeking grand solutions, mechanisms should be established through which ‘searchers’ can create meaningful initiatives to deal with specific, tractable issues. One paragraph sums up the basics of Easterly’s view of development:

Even when the West fails to “develop” the Rest, the Rest develops itself. The great bulk of development success in the Rest comes from self-reliant, exploratory efforts, and the borrowing of ideas, institutions, and technology from the West when it suits the Rest to do so.

He argues that Western states should abandon their pretences and most of the approaches they have deployed so far. Because of the fundamental linkages of accountability they create, Easterly holds that markets, rather than bureaucracies, are the ideal mechanism for serving human needs. He does not, however, have an excessive faith in the ability of effective markets to emerge: stressing that they can do so only when social, legal, and political conditions are appropriate. Given that the complexities of these things aren’t even understood in relation to long-standing markets in developed states, he argues that it is unrealistic to try to develop and deploy market creation plans in poor states.

One somewhat curious aspect of the book is a focus on countries which is sometimes too rigid, with less consideration of the economic breakdown within them. Almost always, the most authoritative measure of a country’s success is taken to be the level of GDP and the rate of GDP growth. Comparatively little consideration is given to the distribution of wealth or income. Claims made about different forms of poverty reduction could have been more comprehensively examined through a combination of aggregate data and considerations of distributions.

Easterly acknowledges that health is an area where aid has done unusually well – partly because health problems lend themselves to the kind of high-accountability, distributed solutions he favours. Efforts to eradicate certain diseases with vaccines and medication demonstrate that big, expensive efforts are sometimes justified. Recognizing that, the book is highly critical of health efforts that fail to take into account local conditions. It is also very critical of spending money on AIDS treatment. Easterly argues that such treatment costs about $1,500 a year, in total, with only a few hundred of those dollars for the generic first-line drugs themselves. Since both preventing the transmission of AIDS and treating other diseases can extend the total number of years of human life much more efficiently, he argues that funding AIDS treatment is a gross misallocation of resources. He also argues that it is important to counteract entities that are doing enormous amounts of harm: such as the Christian organizations that push governments and NGOs to back away from condoms, or those that promote useless abstinence education programs. Other education programs can be enormously more effective: such as teaching prostitutes about AIDS and how to prevent it with barriers.

The book completely ignores environmental issues, which I see as a major problem. Climate change is a huge threat to development, and carries many risks of poverty and conflict. Easterly rightly criticizes planners everywhere from failing to anticipate the eventual consequences of the AIDS epidemic, and taking preventative action beforehand. Inadequate global action on climate change threatens to produce a much worse problem. When the book praises Beijing for having eight beltways around its core, it highlights the difference I have seen in other places between pro-growth development economists and others who are more concerned about the environmental consequences of such unbridled activity. While environmentalists are often insufficiently concerned with poverty reduction (sometimes monstrously suggesting that keeping most people in poverty is a good way to lighten the environmental burden), economists are often guilty of ignoring the real impacts and enormous threats associated with being unconcerned with sustainability.

Easterly’s suggests that organizations that provide or distribute aid need to be much more focused on particular, comprehensible tasks and that mechanisms must be in place to evaluate their effectiveness at serving the interests of the people who are the targets of the aid. They should concentrate on providing basic needs in a direct way: things like medicine, seeds, roads, textbooks, and medical staff. Results should be evaluated using scientific approaches (both randomized trials and statistical analyses) conducted by truly independent organizations. The concept of ‘development vouchers’ which could be given to poor people and then used in exchange for development services, from an organization selected by the recipients, is an example of the same general kind of thinking.

The book’s style deserves some criticism. It is written in the form of dozens of little sections, each a few pages long. It can also be rather repetitive. Sometimes, Easterly’s points of rebuttal are glib or unconvincing, delivered in an offhand way without a great deal of logical or empirical justification. That being said, his overall conclusions are well supported by a great deal of statistical, historical, and anecdotal evidence.

In the end, the book is one that ought to be read by all those with a serious interest in international development, and the relations between the developed and developing world. While it is not universally convincing, it is a useful contribution to the overall dialogue and a sensible rebuttal to the excessive idealism (even utopianism) or some plans and political positions. The book is also interesting insofar as it considers what elements produce stable and prosperous societies, and which characteristics lead to misery and stagnation. Those are lessons that can be sensibly applied even within the states which already consider themselves to be fully developed.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

14 thoughts on “The White Man’s Burden

  1. What do you think about the argument that people will only get tested for AIDS if they know there is some treatment available? Does that not partially counteract the argument that all funding should go to prevention and less expensive to treat illnesses?

  2. A Modest Proposal

    Reviewed by William Easterly
    Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page BW03


    Economic Possibilities for Our Time

    Jeffrey D. Sachs’s guided tour to the poorest regions of the Earth is enthralling and maddening at the same time — enthralling, because his eloquence and compassion make you care about some very desperate people; maddening, because he offers solutions that range all the way from practical to absurd. It’s a shame that Sachs’s prescriptions are unconvincing because he is resoundingly right about the tragedy of world poverty. As he puts it, newspapers should (but don’t) report every morning, “More than 20,000 people perished yesterday of extreme poverty.”

  3. 54% increase in number of people affected by climate disasters by 2015 could overwhelm emergency responses
    April 21st, 2009 at 12:01 am.

    Embargoed 21 April, 2009 00.01 BST

    Humanitarian system a ‘post-code lottery on a global scale’ that needs ‘re-engineering’

    In six years time the number of people affected by climatic crises is projected to rise by 54 per cent to 375 million people, threatening to overwhelm the humanitarian aid system, said international agency Oxfam today.

    The projected rise is mainly due to a combination of entrenched poverty and people migrating to densely populated slums which are prone to the increasing number of climatic events. This is compounded by the political failure to address these risks and a humanitarian aid system which is not ‘fit for purpose’. In its report, The Right to Survive, Oxfam says the world needs to re-engineer the way it prevents, prepares for and responds to disasters.

  4. Out of Africa?
    Foreign aid is part of the problem, but so is corrupt politics.
    By Francis Fukuyama
    Updated Monday, May 4, 2009, at 6:47 AM ET

    Between 2002 and 2008, sub-Saharan Africa started growing again, buoyed like much of the rest of the world by the global commodity boom and Chinese investment. Thus ended one of the most dismaying periods in the continent’s recent history, a generationlong stretch during which most countries in the region saw per capita incomes fall, sometimes to levels not experienced since the end of colonialism.

    The turnaround signals the possibility of new opportunities for Africans, yet the past year’s astonishing drop in commodity prices as a result of the global recession suggests how fragile that upswing is. Nor is it clear that a political corner has been turned. The growth years have seen the outbreak of a horrific war in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has claimed more than 5 million lives, another smaller but equally devastating conflict in northern Uganda, a humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, and the continuing tragedy of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

    In the West, the causes of and remedies for Africa’s development failure have mostly been debated by white men like Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly, who have argued for and against massive outside assistance, respectively. Sachs has gotten help from celebrity advocates like Bob Geldorf, Bono, and Angelina Jolie. So it is refreshing to have some fresh analysis from two African women, Kenyan Wangari Maathai and Zambian Dambisa Moyo.

  5. Jeffrey Sachs criticises William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo over foreign aid.

    “The big opponents of aid today are Dambisa Moyo, an African-born economist who reportedly received scholarships so that she could go to Harvard and Oxford but sees nothing wrong with denying $10 in aid to an African child for an anti-malaria bed net. Her colleague in opposing aid, Bill Easterly, received large-scale government support from the National Science Foundation for his own graduate training.”

    Fight, fight, fight! Mr Easterly and Ms Moyo respond. Mr Easterly responds again.


    William Easterly

    Working Paper 14363

    In the new millennium, the Western aid effort towards Africa has surged due to writings by well-known economists, a celebrity mass advocacy campaign, and decisions by Western leaders to make Africa a major foreign policy priority. This survey contrasts the predominant “transformational” approach (West saves Africa) to occasional swings to a “marginal” approach (West takes one small step at a time to help individual Africans). Evaluation of “one step at a time” initiatives is generally easier than that of transformational ones either through controlled experiments (although these have been much oversold) or simple case studies where it is easier to attribute outcomes to actions. We see two themes emerge from the literature survey: (1) escalation. As each successive Western transformational effort has yielded disappointing results, the response has been to try an even more ambitious effort. (2) the cycle of ideas. Rather than a progressive testing and discarding of failed ideas, we see a cycle in aid ideas in many areas in Africa, with ideas going out of fashion only to come back again later after some lapse long enough to forget the previous disappointing experience. Both escalation and cyclicality of ideas are symptomatic of the lack of learning that seems to be characteristic of the “transformational” approach. In contrast, the “marginal” approach has had some successes in improving the well-being of individual Africans, such as the dramatic fall in mortality.

  7. Ex-envoy urges government to abolish CIDA

    Liddar claims agency has created culture of dependence

    By Jennifer Campbell, The Ottawa Citizen
    September 29, 2009

    Diplomat Bhupinder Liddar is fresh off a political appointment in Kenya and, being no longer bound by the Foreign Affairs Department’s strict communications policies, he has decided to speak his mind.

    The one-time Parliament Hill staffer and journalist was in town briefly, on his way to Goa, India, and held a press conference on Parliament Hill in which he called for the abolition of the Canadian International Development Agency.

    “It’s not the lack of diplomats, but it’s the lack of policy from the government,” Liddar said. “There are plenty of diplomats sitting around, but they are looking for direction and one of the areas in which they’re looking for direction is overseas development assistance.”

    In Africa, he said, CIDA has created dependence and has failed to develop the “know-how and capacity-building” that is required.

    “What is the solution? I would strongly suggest that CIDA be abolished. Because at this stage, all we are doing is funneling money into countries that is not really seen,” he said. “We saw tons of examples of dependencies created.”

  8. China International Fund

    The Queensway syndicate and the Africa trade

    China’s oil trade with Africa is dominated by an opaque syndicate. Ordinary Africans appear to do badly out of its hugely lucrative deals.

    Aug 13th 2011 | from the print edition

    WHEN the man likely to become China’s next president meets an African oil executive, you would expect the dauphin to dominate the dealmaker. Not, though, with Manuel Vicente. On April 15th this year the chairman and chief executive of Sonangol, Angola’s state oil firm, strode into a room decorated with extravagant flowers in central Beijing and shook hands with Xi Jinping, the Chinese vice-president and probable next general secretary of the Communist Party. Mr Vicente holds no official rank in the Angolan government and yet, as if he were conferring with a head of state, Mr Xi reassured his guest that China wants to “strengthen mutual political trust”.

    Angola—along with Saudi Arabia—is China’s largest oil supplier and that alone makes Mr Vicente an important man in Beijing. But he is also a partner in a syndicate founded by well-connected Cantonese entrepreneurs who, with their African partners, have taken control of one of China’s most important trade channels. Operating out of offices in Hong Kong’s Queensway, the syndicate calls itself China International Fund or China Sonangol. Over the past seven years it has signed contracts worth billions of dollars for oil, minerals and diamonds from Africa.

  9. New sources of aid

    Charity begins abroad

    Big developing countries are shaking up the world of aid

    Aug 13th 2011 | BEIJING, BRASILIA, DELHI AND MOSCOW | from the print edition

    BETWEEN 1951 and 1992 India received about $55 billion in foreign aid, making it the largest recipient in history. Now it seems on the verge of setting up its own aid-giving body. A spokesman for the foreign ministry says the government is in “active discussions” to create an India Agency for Partnership in Development (IAPD), an equivalent of America’s Agency for International Development (USAID) or Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID). Bureaucrats in other ministries are dragging their feet but Gurpreet Singh of RIS, a Delhi think-tank, says the government will announce the body within months, and give it $11.3 billion to spend over the next five to seven years.

    India’s switch from the world’s biggest recipient to donor is part of a wider change shaking up foreign aid. Ten years ago the vast majority of official development assistance came from about 15 rich industrialised countries that are members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), a 50-year-old club of the aid establishment. Even today, America remains the largest single donor, dishing out $31 billion in 2010.

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