The White Man’s Burden, by William Easterly

“Who got the most standby [credit]s from the IMF over the last half century? The answer is Haiti, with twenty-two. And not just Haiti, but the Duvalier family (Papa Doc and Baby Doc), under whom Haiti got twenty of the twenty-two standbys from 1957 to 1986.”

“The politics were bad, but the Duvaliers made up for it with even worse economics. The income of the average Haitian was lower at the end of the Duvalier era than at the beginning…” p 147

In his well-written, passionate and witty new book, The White Man’s Burden (from the Kipling poem), development economist William Easterly explains “Why the West’s efforts to aid the Rest have done so much ill and so little good”:

First, third-world poverty does not arise from lack of capital, or incapacity of local populations. It arises from bad government, or more colorfully, government by “gangsters,” “warlords” and “kleptocrats.” Often, that bad government is a colonial legacy. The wealthy French slave colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, ended in the rebellion of 1791-1804–leaving perpetual war between former slaves and a mulatto elite. Colonials drew arbitrary straight lines on a map–creating national boundaries that put together slave raiders and their victims, like the Northern and Southern Sudanese, or separated coherent groups like the Kurds. Then, as a strategy for control, the colonials pitted groups against each other, such as Tutsis versus Hutus.

Second there is the utopian arrogance of “Planners” as Easterly labels them: academics like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia, or officials and staff of the IMF, the World Bank, the UN, or Western governments. Planners create grandiose programs, eg. to “end poverty,” without investigating conditions on the ground or obtaining advice, requests, or feedback from intended beneficiaries. Then, they provide the assistance to and through those same bad governments–which they may try to “reform” by imposing complex conditions and detailed reporting. When the assistance doesn’t produce results, the conditions aren’t met and the reports don’t arrive–the Planners claim “progress” and continue the program.

Joseph Stiglitz and others criticize the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for imposing cruel conditions on third-world beneficiaries. There are widespread calls for third-world debt relief. Easterly goes further: Much lending is worse than wasted. Not only does it fail to reach the poor, but it helps bad rulers retain power, repeatedly bailing out the likes of the Duvaliers and Mobutu.

Aid also reflects Planners’ economic and ideological priorities, not those of recipients. (Surprise!) It’s not just aid in the form of subsidized cotton exports or engineering contracts with multinational corporations. Easterly fulminates at AIDS assistance directed to treatment instead of prevention. Resources to treat one HIV-infected individual could avert thousands of infections if spent on condoms or on inexpensive medicine to stop virus transmission from mothers to newborns.

Throughout the book, Easterly highlights successful small projects of enterprising locals, whom he calls “Searchers.” Unlike Planners, Searchers carefully check out their “customers” and experiment with ways to deliver what the customers want. Successful outside aid is aid that supports such narrow local initiatives, primarily in health and education, where success can be measured. In Bangladesh, the “People’s Clinic” trains teenage girls as bicycle paramedics. In Ethiopia, a British NGO enables Ethiopians to pipe clean water to poor villages. Born poor in Ghana, Patrick Awuah had the luck to win a scholarship to Swarthmore, where he studied engineering and economics, and the further luck to become a Microsoft millionaire. He returned to Ghana to found a private university, providing free tuition to poor students.

As for you and me, Easterly recommends a website, Here, Searchers can post their projects, and we can browse for projects by type and area of the world, and read about other contributors’ experience with particular projects. I just contributed to a Lebanon relief fund.

Along with Helping Others Help Themselves by David Ellerman (which I discussed a few months back) The White Man’s Burden belongs on the reading list of courses on third world economics or politics.

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