Wednesday, 22 December 2010

WHITE MAN’S BURDEN by William Easterly (Contd)

You thought I had forgotten this one! But I haven’t. It was bubbling away nicely on the back burner.

Easterly delivers a damning indictment of aid to the developing world. He points out that:
-most aid is not properly evaluated. There is virtually no high quality independent evaluation of most aid spending. No one really knows what projects are actually succeeding.
-most aid organisations have insanely large and vague missions (eg: end global poverty). So even if there was evaluation, it would be hard to know exactly what one was evaluating.
-because the missions are so grandiose, no one really expects any success
-most aid is driven by what the funders want, or on what looks good to the public in the rich world, not what the poor actually need
-too much money is spent on conference after report after paper after project, which gives an impression of activity to very little real effect.
-too much power is given to central planners with little realistic grasp of what can work, which Easterly believes can only be solved on a small scale, case-by-case basis

In short, he seems to be saying what many suspect: that the EMPORER HAS NO CLOTHES ON. Nothing much is being done, but at great expense.

I think a great deal of what he says is very accurate with regard to the pitfalls of aid. His solutions are however not all terribly convincing. Some ideas are excellent, and I don’t really understand why they are not already in place (eg. independent evaluation; aid workers staying based in one country, not moving around - I totally agree with that! etc). Some are rather more dubious. He bangs on about how there ought not be too much top down planning, but rather that the poor ought to be able to say what they want. This sounds very good, and I feel rather guilty opposing it, but let’s face it: sometimes what the poor want is to cut off little girls’ bits. Yes, alright that’s a bit flip. But my point is, if you don’t know germs are causing your baby’s diarrhoea, then how can you demand anti-bacterial soap?

Mr Easterly seems to have a somewhat naïve faith in the markets, with the idea that the poor, if allowed to function as consumers (which is apparently our natural state) would soon put themselves to rights. I found the whole book to be written with a staggeringly splendid degree of pre-credit crunch confidence.

One favourite part includes a long list of the IMF’s successes. Then he admits that elsewhere, the IMF has had ‘more mixed success.’ That’s one way to put it.

(His blog, if you are interested, and it is interesting, is here)


  1. Sara- check out Jeffrey Sachs "The End of Poverty" and "The Life You Can Save"...both are a counterpoint to Easterly, whom I read a while back. Sachs says we need to get people to give .50 a person in developed countries, if I recall correctly...anything else is "putting out a forest fire with a garden hose", and that is why previous ideas have not worked...He thinks large scale, rather than small...He is an economist from the Chicago school...The other book is a short philisophical reasoning on the fact that the 1st world OWES the 3rd world a lot...for fishing out their waters, etc...he is an Auzzie teaching at Princeton...

  2. Oh very interesting. I've never heard of THE LIFE YOU CAN SAVE, so I must look it up, though I did read THE END OF POVERTY. I find it very hard to judge really, who's 'right' - if anyone! They both have mountains of statistics, and I feel like I don't know enough about it to reach a solid conclusion. Probably as with everything there's truth in both and the answer is somewhere in the middle!