Book review: The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly

Written by a former World Bank economist and author of a few development books and papers, Easterly asks the question we all ask: does foreign aid work? The book provides no easy answers and each page got me more and more frustrated at big aid institutions, aid itself as well as Easterly’s writing style. No doubt he’s a great economist and raises very important issues but the book has a little too much of critique of some of his colleagues to my taste!

Key questions asked by Easterly is what many of us wonder – what is our motivation with global aid? Focusing on a distant horizon and big plans with grand slogans are we not missing out on what would actually help the extremely poor Africans?

Easterly divides the people and organisations working in development into ‘Planners’ who promote grand plans to save the world with a bang; and ‘Searchers’ who seek solutions to concrete problems that actually can be solved. Let the foreign aiders forget about their utopian blueprint plans to fix the third world. Collective responsibility for multiple goals for each agency doesn’t pave the way for a focused and country-tailored approach that will help the poor. Conditional aid won’t change their bad governments either (for examples and detailed analysis please refer to the book). Let’s stop invading other countries, trying to fix governments and wasting time on meetings and summits. Homegrown development and hard work of local individuals and firms in a free market is more likely to achieve end of poverty. Aid agencies should focus on channeling the aid to to get the poorest people the basics: vaccines, food supplements, roads, fertilizers, boreholes, textbooks and such. It is giving people health, nutrition, education and other tools so they can themselves seek their way out of poverty.

These are more less key messages from the book. They are supported by somehow thorough historical context and examples from various countries since the Cold War. Bear in mind that as with most development books, some of the data here is hotly contested. I found another study telling the opposite outcomes of one of the experiment brought up in Africa but this isn’t uncommon.

 A Ghanaian economist Yaw Nyarko was quoted saying: ‘foreign aid distorts incentives’ as ‘it makes people look to others to solve their own problems’. I agree with this statement. Giving billions of dollars in aid whether through bilateral or multilateral agencies does not guarantee country’s development, and often the conditionality of it and corruption prevents it creating a dependency which is counteractive.

As the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it pretty much sums up William Easterly’s book. I am mostly on board with his critiques of some of the big agencies and I really like his ideas about bottom-up development and the importance of accountability in development work. I did have some frustrations with the book too – for example, his failure to critique multinational corporations with the same incisiveness that he critiques international financial institutions and governments.

Overall opinion: worth reading to understand why aid hasn’t eradicated poverty yet and why should we focus on doing rather than planning. 

 

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