Helping People Help Themselves, by David Ellerman

David Ellerman’s new book, Helping People Help Themselves: From the World Bank to an Alternative Philosophy of Development Assistance, (forward by Albert O. Hirschman) is finally out in affordable paperback. Yay!

“The best kind of help to others, whenever possible, is indirect, and consists in such modifications of the conditions of life, of the general level of subsistence, as enables them independently to help themselves.”

Ellerman begins with this quote from John Dewey. A former economist at the World Bank himself, and assistant to Joseph Stiglitz, he nonetheless devotes most of his book not to the bank, but to the theory of helping. Here’s how he frames the problem:

There is a “helper” and a “doer,” who may be a parent and child, a teacher and student, a supervisor and employee, or a development “expert” and a third-world government. As we all know in the first three cases, if the helper tries to impose answers on the doer-child, student or employee-the effort will backfire. Carrots will produce superficial compliance and passivity; sticks will produce overt or covert resistance. In neither case will the doer learn or take initiative.

Ellerman organizes the wisdom of key thinkers like Albert Hirschman, Paolo Freire and Carl Rogers into five recommendations for successful help, “two Don’ts” and “three Dos.”

1. First don’t: Don’t override self-help capacity with social-engineering.

2. Second don’t: Don’t undercut self-help capacity with benevolent aid.

3. First do: Start from where the doers are.

4. Second do: See the world through the doers’ eyes.

5. Third do: Respect the autonomy of the doers.

This all seems pretty simple, almost obvious. Yet it is fiendishly difficult to carry out, and for large organizations like the World Bank, impossible. For the Bank necessarily relies on carrots and sticks, that is, it lends money and expects “results.” Bank projects inevitably do more harm than good-even with enlightened and well-intentioned leaders like former World Bank President, James Wolfensohn. Ellerman describes the preposterous privatization-by-voucher imposed on Russia that sent its economy into a tailspin, at the same time that China was taking off by careful local experimentation.

I was struck, as I read the book, by how much that’s going wrong around us results from failure to follow the dos and don’ts. Rumsfeld, intent on slimming down the bloated military, sent insufficient and ill-equipped troops to Iraq. Then, as detailed by Naomi Klein in Harper’s, Bremer set out to “privatize” the Iraqi economy by fiat, creating massive unemployment. ( And at home, there’s “No Child Left Behind,” a program of testing guaranteed to demoralize teachers and to kill children’s interest in learning.

Next on my reading list is William Easterly’s new book, The White Man’s Burden Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. This book promises more detail on how official aid has gone wrong, and on how small-scale, networked, bottom-up projects can and do succeed.

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