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.