The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good
by William Easterly
Penguin Press, 2007
436 pp., $16.00 (paperback)
Virtually everyone in the developed world is at least vaguely aware of how vastly worse living conditions are in the developing world. Only when explicit comparisons are drawn does the magnitude of the disparity come into sharp relief. Indeed, it almost seems as if humankind inhabits two separate planet—one modern and prosperous, the other primitive and impoverished. On one planet, people think nothing of spending many thousands of dollars per year on entertainment; on the other, people suffer agonizing deaths for lack of medicines that cost 12¢ per dose. On one, childhood obesity is a serious and worsening healthcare concern; on the other, one-third of all children suffer stunted growth as a result of malnutrition. On one, able-bodied adults look forward to weeks of paid vacation from work that requires them to lift nothing heavier than a pen; on the other, children toil at backbreaking labor, day in and day out, with no relief in sight. It is the great scandal of our age that such deprivation can exist amid such affluence. The conscience recoils: why is nothing done?
In fact, an incredible amount already has been done. Over the past 50 years, the developed world has given an estimated $2.3 trillion to the developing world. That staggering sum of money has come in many forms: official developmental grants, debt forgiveness programs, subsidized loans and, not least, private philanthropy. In addition, hundreds of international, national and non-governmental organizations have devoted billions of man-hours to the cause of international poverty relief. And yet despite this massive funding and relentless effort, children today continue to die because they cannot afford 12¢ medicines.
This tragedy of wasted effort is the subject of William Easterly’s widely praised new book, The White Man’s Burden. Easterly, a professor at New York University, is an expert in the field of developmental economics. Six years ago, he published his first book, The Elusive Quest for Growth, which detailed the long succession of misbegotten economic theories that have guided decades of international anti-poverty programs. (The book also precipitated Easterly’s departure from the World Bank, where he had served as a senior research economist for 16 years.) In The White Man’s Burden, Easterly brings a sharp eye and piercing wit to an examination of contemporary approaches to international humanitarian aid. Of each, he insistently asks: how well does it serve the poor?
Success, Easterly concludes, is closely associated with institutional attitude. He sidesteps conventional categories—liberal or conservative, protectionist or globalist—and proposes instead that the real divide over international aid exists between what he calls Planners and Searchers.
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Planners dream big. Their goals are noble and ambitious; they aspire to end wars, restructure governments and eradicate poverty, across the face of the globe, and on a deadline. To achieve these herculean tasks, they envision massive, coordinated efforts that will impose comprehensive reform in foreign lands. Planners believe that their expertise can create the conditions necessary for peace and prosperity, and they do not hesitate to address multiple deep, structural problems simultaneously.
Planners come in many varieties. Some are activists, committed to the idea that enormous infusions of cash and technology will lead developing countries to break out of the “poverty trap.” Some are economists, infatuated with free markets and eager to see them immediately implemented everywhere as a form of capitalist “shock therapy.” Others are project managers at the I.M.F. and the World Bank, convinced that their conditional loans will entice brutal and corrupt regimes to adopt transparency and the rule of law. Still others are statesmen, assured of their ability to impose liberal democracy through military force. But what unites all Planners is a serene confidence in the power of totalistic solutions.
Planners can be smart and serious people, of course, but they are almost never successful in improving the lives of the poor. As Easterly makes clear, they fail for all the reasons that large-scale social engineering projects usually fail. No set of top-down reforms, however well-intentioned, can ever adequately factor in all of the innumerable complexities on the ground. The problem is only compounded by the fact that Planners are essentially unaccountable to the people they purport to serve. Nobody at the U.N. has ever lost a job because poverty failed to disappear on time.
None of these observations are particularly novel. Economists from Friedrich Hayek to Peter Bauer—to say nothing of political philosophers from Edmund Burke to Karl Popper—have detailed the inherent flaws in the Planners’ approach. Nor does the book seriously address the two most prominent instances of successful large-scale, top-down planning: the post-bellum reconstruction of Germany and Japan. But these minor reservations aside, Easterly’s indictment of the Planners is thorough and accurate—and for that reason, all the more devastating.
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Searchers, by contrast, are practical. They keep their expectations modest, limiting their efforts to certain, specific problems. They react to local needs, adapt to local conditions, and seek feedback from the locals they are trying to help. They learn by trial and error, shifting tactics as they discover more efficient ways to handle their particular tasks. Searchers realize that poverty is a deeply complicated phenomenon, a tangled web of history, culture, politics and economics. But, crucially, they also realize that the poor have fairly straightforward needs—food, clothing, health care and education—and that, taken individually, these needs are relatively easy to address. Focus is the characteristic method of the Searchers; humility, their defining virtue.
Easterly illustrates his meaning with many detailed portraits of Searchers in action. In rural Mexico, for example, subsistence farmers often pulled their children out of school and put them to work in the fields. The predictable result was illiteracy, malnourishment, and continued poverty. In cooperation with non-governmental organizations, the Mexican government implemented a program that gives cash grants to mothers—provided they keep their children in school, attend health education classes and make regular visits to local health clinics. The stipend compensates for the lost labor, incentivizes continued education, and has led to better health for both children and parents. It has not eliminated rural poverty, to be sure, but it has considerably improved the quality of life among impoverished Mexican farmers.
Similar inventiveness characterizes the work of Population Services International (PSI) in Malawi. Malaria has long been a major health threat there, particularly among pregnant women and children under the age of five. Insecticide-treated bed nets offer effective protection against the disease, but attempts to distribute them for free have mostly failed. (More often than not, local administrators diverted the bed nets to the black market, to be sold as wedding veils and fishing nets.) PSI devised a program to sell deeply discounted bed nets at rural prenatal clinics, with local nurses receiving an 18 percent commission on each bed net sold. Within four years, the nationwide average of children sleeping under netting rose from 8 percent to 55 percent. Better still, the program pays for itself; in the wealthier cities, the price is higher, with the profits subsidizing the discounts for poorer areas.
Easterly offers dozens more examples. In India, a soap company underwrote a program to educate struggling rural villages about hygiene and health; sales took off, and deaths from infectious disease and diarrhea declined. In Uganda, a chemistry professor developed a high-protein biscuit from local staples to supplement the protein-deficient diet of the poor; malnutrition has dropped, and sales of the biscuit have funded the construction of a private high school. In Bangladesh, a doctor set up a chain of private health clinics; in exchange for modest fees, poor patients receive dramatically better service. All of these Searchers share an instinctive appreciation of incentive structures, a willingness to experiment with new techniques, and a narrow focus on improving some particular aspect of the lives of the poor.
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But, as Easterly makes clear, poor people around the globe need not wait for the partial relief offered by Searchers. Over the past 50 years, the world has witnessed compelling proof that there is, in fact, a powerful, long-term, comprehensive solution to poverty. The solution, quite simply, is economic growth.
Ideally, such economic growth is born of homegrown development, with free and open markets facilitating the production of goods for foreign export and domestic consumption. Latent within many developing countries is the untapped creative power of many thousands of entrepreneurs. Unleashing that creativity is a complicated affair, as conditions vary profoundly from nation to nation. Apart from a few obvious principles—no gross violations of free market principles, no psychotic dictators—there is no single template for homegrown development. And since homegrown development is so deeply conditioned by local circumstances, it simply cannot be imposed by outsiders. It is spontaneous rather than planned; it is generated from within, rather than imported from without.
When homegrown development occurs, however, its benefits are extraordinary. By combining the Planner’s transformative ambitions with the Searcher’s fixation on results, homegrown development can greatly improve the quality of life among a nation’s poor. China is an especially good example. As recently as the early 1970s, the country suffered a major famine that left hundreds of thousands dead. A few years later, China instituted free market reforms. As a result, hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens have escaped desperate poverty, and China’s growth rates are the envy of the world.
China is not alone, of course. Similar examples can be found in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The adoption of free market reforms, along with the return of democratic government, has vastly increased per-capita income in Chile. Botswana, with its massive diamond reserves, has avoided the fate of many of its resource-rich African neighbors; through careful investment in education, manufacturing, and cattle ranching, Botswana has enjoyed one of the world’s fastest growth rates over the last 40 years. Singapore, Hong Kong, Turkey, South Korea, India, Taiwan and Japan all offer further evidence that homegrown development provides the poor with their best hope of lasting relief.
Yet homegrown development takes time, and while it is underway, poor people will continue to suffer. That is the reality, and we must be honest about it. More importantly, we must be honest about our limited ability to do much about it. We simply cannot force prosperity onto others; they must create it for themselves. But once we accept our limitations, we can direct our resources where they will do the most good. What we need—and what the world’s poor in particular need—are fewer Planners and more Searchers. In making this truth abundantly clear, William Easterly has done us a great service. And if the international aid community heeds his advice, he will have done the world’s poor a far, far greater service.
Christopher Levenick is a writer in Alexandria, Virginia.