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The white man's burden by William Easterly

The white man's burden (2006)

by William Easterly

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Preaching to the choir, alas. William Easterly is a Chicago School economist who worked for the World Bank for many years. The theme of The White Man’s Burden is western aid efforts to Africa (and, to a lesser extent, other impoverished areas) are doomed to failure because the aid agencies are going about it in the wrong way. Easterly divides the aid groups into Planners and Searchers – presumably to avoid using “socialists” and “capitalists” but it’s fairly obvious that’s what he means. Planners go for utopian aid schemes, trying to forcibly lift a nation out of poverty; Searchers try to find small scale useful things to do. The basic ideas are:

*Aid agencies are not accountable to the people they are supposedly aiding; instead they are accountable to their host bureaucracies. They do not get feedback from the people they are ostensibly helping and they do not try to determine what those people actually need.
*Aid agencies favor grand schemes because they are easier to sell to their host bureaucracies, instead of looking for incremental projects; it’s easier to sell a five year plan to dramatically end poverty in Upper Revolta than a project to get new textbooks to Upper Revolta schools.
* It’s necessary for poor countries to have good government first, particularly rule of law and property rights. (Easterly notes that “good government” does not necessarily mean “democracy”, citing the example of Singapore, but it’s much more likely to result from democracy). Otherwise aid programs simply transfer money from the middle class in developed nations to kleptocrat dictators in poor nations.
* Some Third World countries just need to be abandoned; repeated infusions of aid will just make things worse. Places like Haiti and Angola probably can’t be saved without divine intervention.

It might be suspected Easterly is a heartless conservative, nostalgic for the age of colonialism (his choice of a title might seem to suggest that, but it’s actually irony). To the contrary, Easterly has harsh criticism for both colonialism (which he documents as destroying existing government structures in the colonized countries and putting petty despots in power since that made it easier for the colonizers) and “nation building” through military intervention. He doesn’t care much for “peacekeeping” efforts either, pointing out that these are usually attempts to forge some sort of coalition government between rival groups while historically the usual way that situation stabilizes is when one group massively defeats the other(s).

Easterly’s description of aid agency procedures remind me a little bit of the Allies in World War One; generals kept saying well, our last offensive was a hopeless failure, let’s try the same thing again and spend even more blood and we’ll break through to the green fields beyond. Similar the attitude of aid agencies seems to be, well, our last attempt was a hopeless failure; let’s try the same again and spend even more money this time and we’ll break through to prosperity beyond. Easterly has particularly harsh words for Jeffrey Sachs; I gather the two have a history in the economics and aid journals. It does seem that Sachs exemplifies the attitude Easterly describes; Sachs’ prescription for ending poverty is doubling foreign aid, and he’s stated that good government will come after poverty is ended, not before.

Easterly has numerous graphs and tables illustrating his points; most are as poignant as you can get with lines on paper; the one showing a dramatic inverse relationship between aid to African nations and their per-capita income is particularly grim. Anecdotes and examples are interspersed with the graphics; a particularly depressing example is Easterly’s contrast between how he gets a pothole fixed in the road to his house – he calls his city council representative and complains – versus what happens in Tanzania:

*The Tanzanian with the pothole addresses their local “civil society representative”. So far, so good.

*Since the Tanzanian government has no money for road repairs, they have to turn to an aid organization. They solicit a “Poverty Reduction Support Credit” from the World Bank (particularly that subunit called the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) and or a “Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility” from the International Monetary Fund.

*In order to get money from either of these agencies, Tanzania has to submit a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PSRP), with input from other donors and creditors, including the United Nations Development Program, The African Development Bank, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, the European Union, the United Nations Children’s Fund, plus other NGOs and national aid agencies from Austria, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

*The aid agencies put together a Country Assistance Strategy, which involves a pre-appraisal mission to Tanzania, an appraisal mission to Tanzania, and negotiations and approval by the Board. (This is all done in accordance with the Comprehensive Development Framework, the Operational Directives, Operational Policy, and Interim Poverty Reduction Strategy guidelines and the Enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative.

*The aid agencies and the government of Tanzania conduct a Debt-Sustainability Analysis, a Public Expenditure Review, and implement a Financial Information Management System. The use of the aid money must conform to Millennium Development Goals for poverty, hunger, infant mortality, primary education, clean water, contraceptive use, AIDS, gender equality, and the environment.

*If all this works out, money is granted to the Tanzanian government which might then pass some down to the provincial government which might then pass some down to the local government which might use it to fix the pothole.

The immense amount of paperwork generated by all this does allow for one growth industry in poor countries: bureaucrats who can write reports and “white papers”. (Although Easterly doesn’t mention it, it also gives those bureaucrats an incentive not to make things work better – they would be out of a job if they did).

This segues into another of Easterly’s themes; aid agencies, because they like showy projects for the folks back home, are much more likely to commit money to capital expenses than to repair and maintenance. A ribbon cutting for a new road or the dedication of a new school building will turn up as a picture in the annual reports; however the fact that in a few years the road will be impassible and the school will have no textbooks do not.

Easterly does cite cases where foreign aid has worked. These are mostly things that fit his point that aid needs measureable results to be effective; for example, health outcomes. Death provides a good data point. Education is another area where aid agencies have apparently succeeded; school attendance in many of the poor countries has increased (Easterly’s comment about lack of textbooks, though, does make me wonder if the students are actually learning anything).

To his credit Easterly does not have a dramatic solution; in fact he comments that if the readers are expecting a dramatic solution they haven’t been paying attention. Interspersed among the graphs and charts are little anecdotes where things have worked, usually by various impoverished Third World residents taking things into their own hands and developing businesses. These are heartening, but they have the problem with all anecdotal evidence; you can’t tell if they are rare exceptions or routine (i.e., are there lots of people that attempted to be entrepreneurs and failed miserably). They do support Easterly’s argument that increment improvements that address actual needs and have measurable results are the only things that will work.

Despite the tragic subject matter, Easterly’s style is generally light, often skating on the thin edge of sarcasm. I don’t like the way the book is laid out – a couple of paragraphs of text, then a big font headline for the next section; it’s distracting. Perhaps he thought it would be more accessible to the bureaucrats that need to read it if it were fed to them incrementally. His repeated use of “Planners” and “Searchers” – always capitalized – gets old after a while, too. Worth a read, you’ll be mad at Easterly every once and a while but by and large find yourself agreeing with him. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 31, 2017 |
This is surely one of the worst-written and most flawed books I have ever read that was authored by an actual university professor. I have read many books usually labelled as pseudoscience that are much more coherent and make less basic mistakes than this rubbish.

Easterly starts out by repeatetly creating ridiculous analogies, Harry Potter and the Kentucky Derby being his strongest influences. J.K. Rowlings hit is mentioned almost a dozen times in the first 30 pages, pretty surprising for a book that is supposed to be about foreign aid. I am not making this up by the way.

The point Easterly is trying to make throughout the book is the distinction between "Planners" and "Searchers". Examples for the "Planners" are Bob Geldof, Jeffrey Sachs (his favourite target), the IMF and World Bank and other people or institutions that promote foreign aid and/or pass as liberals. "Searchers" are people like Mohammad Yunus of microcredit fame or Dr. Zaf, a Bangladeshi doctor that treated the poor and had the novel and creative idea of charging money for that. I'm not making any of this up. This is the dichotomy that drives the main point for Easterly's argument. He is comparing people planning help to people actually being inside countries and doing the help, and trying to pass it off as some kind of socialism vs capitalism arguing free market would be the best thing.

Hidden between heavily referenced passages, numerous claims are being made without any reference, the worst being on page 41: "in a previous book i gave an example..." without any reference or even title of the previous book in question or the example being given. I am not making this up.

The book reaches a new low point in the chapter "You Can't Plan a Market" with a series of graphs that goes from noninformational to completely incoherent, all while ignoring common rules about tables and graphs. To make his point that IMF and World Bank loans are bad for the economy, he lists the top recepients in Africa in a table. So far so good. The first column is the number (not amount or anything meaningful) of separate loans from the World Bank. The second one (which he inexplicably picks to sort the whole table) is per capita growth, the last one is inflation. None of the other two columns show any correlation to the growth rate, a comparison to countries that received less loans is also not given. The point he is trying to make remains a mystery.

It gets worse however. Graphs become more and more unnecessarily complicated, graphing completely worseless values towards each other. Figure 4: "Growth Trajectory in 1990s of Intensive Structural Adjustement-Lending Ex-Communist Cases" is a high point in incoherence, showing a time line from 1990 to 1999 on the x-axis and "cumulative percentage change in 1990s" as y. What exactly he is trying to graph here again remains a mystery, and the feeling is growing that he is just pulling graphs out of nowhere to say whatever he wants, masking that by being overly complicated.

In the next graph, he graphs a "widely used index" (without reference) called "Latin American Freedom Index". It is apparently so widely used that a quick google search gives me exactly a single search result, the known scam site "docstoc.com". Again, I am not making any of this up. From this nonexistent Index he chooses to present the median on a scale from 4-7 for a index with a 0-10 range, trying to show anything, any graph where a line goes in some direction or bar graphs increase or decrease in size, not making any sense.

Every single graph gets more ridiculous. The next one's y-axis is labeled "Logarithmic scale (each unit increase represents a doubling of per capita income)", and is shown on a scale from 1 to 4, the only section being at 2. Again I feel I should stress that I am not making any of this up. He actually chooses to make a logarithmic scale with no actual values instead of just graphing the actual per capita income, to try to get some kind of graph to back up his argument. Again and again it feels like he thinks his readers will not look at the graphs anyways, skip the hard parts, read the Harry Potter analogies and emerge with reinforced opinions about how good free markets are.

I could go on and on, almost every single paragraph in this book could be picked apart, passages that try to explain complicated things in simple terms by using (mostly wrong) analogies alternate with passages that are intentionally complicated as to mask that they contain no real information.

To sum it up, this book is horribly written to the point of being incoherent at times, misses the point completely and (intentionally?) tries to blind readers with overly complicated and mislabeled graphs that have no meaning.

The depressing fact that the author is a well-renowned economist makes me question that profession once again. Even for "academic" economy literature, this book sets a new low standard. But then again, as Paul Krugman once pointed out - "anyone who has seen how economic statistics are constructed knows that they are really a subgenre of science fiction"

I doubt most people that read this actually tried to follow his argument instead of just reading something in order to reinforce their own opinion and to feel good. I also doubt many people critical of liberal economics theory actually read this, otherwise somebody would have already have picked it apart. ( )
1 vote summerloud | Jan 12, 2017 |
Easterly explains the problems of international aid in terms of economics. He argues that "planners," experts who tend to make large, unmeasurable goals and all-encompassing programs without accountability for results not only does not lead to "development" of countries receiving aid, but often supports poor governance and at the least is a waste of money. He argues for smaller scale, recipient directed projects with clear accountability. Helped me understand better how poor governance causes underdevelopment. For example, how poor protection of property rights leads to lack of a credit system that might help the poor develop business. The author has a more faith in the absolute good of free markets than I do, but his points are well supported with citations and examples. ( )
  kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
This book examines one of the latest manifestations of an age old human folly, what [a:Hayek|8479861|Hayek Friedrich a Von|https://s.gr-assets.com/assets/nophoto/user/u_50x66-632230dc9882b4352d753eedf9396530.png] called 'The Pretense of Knowledge'. [a:Easterly|18855|William Easterly|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1245028381p2/18855.jpg] argues convincingly that we see this pretense in the failure of $2.3 trillion of aid to the third world to achieve its goal of ending poverty. This failure stems from the fact that the push was led by Planners in the rich world dreaming up their plans and enforcing them on the poor. As the opposite of the Pretense of Knowledge is the utilisation of the knowledge diffused throughout society which only the discovery of the market process can tap, enabling this process in the third world presents the best hope for the world's poor. ( )
  JohnPhelan | Nov 9, 2015 |
This book started out so strong that I was already thinking ahead to giving it 5 stars, and then he started talking about how free markets solve everything, and it went downhill from there.

A lot of economists don't seem to understand human nature or human behavior at all. Which makes sense since their economic theories often contradict reality, yet they cling to the theories, insisting they are correct. ('Invisible hand', 'trickle-down' theory, etc.)

Centralizing is only good for a few things, not most things. Most things work better when local conditions are understood and dealt with on the spot. It's not surprising, though, that rich people from somewhere else don't want to do the hard work that a local approach needs. Especially because to understand what would work, the rich people would have to stop talking, and start listening. And realize that the answers they want probably won't work (because they won't fit the locale and history and culture).

Overall, this book was interesting, and I learned some stuff. ( )
  fiadhiglas | Apr 11, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
"The White Man's Burden," like "The Elusive Quest for Growth," is an important book. Easterly asks the right questions, combining compassion with clear-eyed empiricism. Bono and his devotees should heed what he has to say.


» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Easterlyprimary authorall editionscalculated
冨田陽子翻訳secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
啓介, 織井翻訳secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
裕久, 小浜翻訳secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Perez, JosephCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pyka, PetraÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143038826, Paperback)

From one of the world’s best-known development economists—an excoriating attack on the tragic hubris of the West’s efforts to improve the lot of the so-called developing world

In his previous book, The Elusive Quest for Growth, William Easterly criticized the utter ineffectiveness of Western organizations to mitigate global poverty, and he was promptly fired by his then-employer, the World Bank. The White Man’s Burden is his widely anticipated counterpunch—a brilliant and blistering indictment of the West’s economic policies for the world’s poor. Sometimes angry, sometimes irreverent, but always clear-eyed and rigorous, Easterly argues that we in the West need to face our own history of ineptitude and draw the proper conclusions, especially at a time when the question of our ability to transplant Western institutions has become one of the most pressing issues we face.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:07 -0400)

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"The White Man's Burden is about what William Easterly calls the twin tragedies of global poverty. The first is that so many are seemingly fated to live horribly stunted, miserable lives and die such early deaths. The second is that after fifty years and more than $2.3 trillion in aid from the West addressing the first tragedy, there is so shockingly little to show for it. We'll never solve the first tragedy, William Easterly argues, unless we figure out the second." "So what's going on? The ironies are many: We preach a gospel of freedom and individual accountability, yet we intrude on the inner workings of so-called developing countries through bloated aid bureaucracies like the IMF and World Bank that are accountable to no one for the effects of their prescriptions. We've cheered our victory over communism, but seven decades after Stalin's five-year plans, we're still imposing five-year plans of our own on the wretched of the earth. We take all the credit for the economic success stories of the last fifty years, like South Korea and Taiwan, when in fact we deserve very little of it. We deny all accountability for the fact that despite more than half a trillion dollars poured into Africa and other regions, and one "big new idea" after another, the majority of places in which we've meddled the most are in fact no better off or are even worse off than they were before. Could there be a connection? Could it be that we don't know as much as we think we do about the magic spells that will open the door to the road to wealth?" "Absolutely, William Easterly thunders in this sometimes angry, sometimes irreverent, but always clear-eyed and rigorous book. He argues that we need to face our own history of ineptitude and draw the proper conclusions, especially at a time when the question of our ability to transplant Western institutions onto foreign soil so that they take root has become one of the most pressing issues we face."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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