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The White Man’s Burden – a dangerous and dishonest book

2006 April 20
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by Paul Vallely

The White Man’s Burden

William Easterly

OUP £16.99

This is a deeply intellectually dishonest book. But The White Man’s Burden has been very warmly embraced by right-wing salons and think-tanks, most particularly on the other side of the Atlantic, where many of the key decisions about international development are taken. It is, therefore, not just a dishonest book but a dangerous one.

The heart of its deceit lies in the fact that it sets out a grand theme, and then produces evidence which not only fails to support it but, in places, even contradicts it. The theme is clear from the book’s subtitle: “Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”. Its argument is that international aid is doing unmitigated harm because it consists of grand plans which are part of the problem not the solution.

This is because it is run by Planners who have huge optimistic goals – like “halving world poverty by 2015”. Planners come up with high-minded ideas like the Millennium Development Goals but are always unable to translate their good intentions into effective results. This is because Planners create structures which allow no accountability to those they purport to serve – and not do enable feedback from the poor who need the aid. Indeed the only constituency they have to satisfy is that of do-gooders in the rich world who insist that “something must be done” but don’t much concern themselves with what is actually done, nor how effective it is.

By contrast, Easterly argues, those who do have limited success are not top-down Planners but bottom-up Searchers who find out what local people want and supply it, using the mechanisms of the market.  Searchers adapt to local conditions and keep the customer satisfied. They respect context and empower individuals. They understand incentives and accountability.

This all sounds pretty facile and simplistic, which rather suits Easterly’s tone. He is full of dismissive sneering about Jeffrey Sachs, Gordon Brown, Bono and any other economist, politician or campaigner who feels the affluent have a moral responsibility to help the poor.  Indeed there is a rather nasty tone of playground abuse in Easterly’s aid-bashing.

More seriously there are grave deficiencies in both his philosophical approach and his use of data. Government is always the problem and the market always the solution. That means he is good on exposing the deficiencies of planning and on setting out what the market can do best. But he ignores the areas in which planning is essential, such as improving aid co-ordination, and says almost nothing on market failures – the dangers of monopoly, social exclusion or on successful initiatives to supplement the market. Nor does he take much account of the public goods – stable economic policies, law enforcement, property rights, good public financial management systems, predictable and transparent taxation etc – and the roads, power stations and other infrastructure that entrepreneurs need before markets can work. Indeed he sets up false dichotomies, as when he praises an NGO in Malawi for creating incentives to spread the use of malaria nets – the local nurse gets 9 cents per net to keep for herself, so the nets are always in stock – but utterly ignoring the “top-down planning” of the NGO bosses who set the wider strategy.

His use of data is dodgy too.  Easterly relies significantly on large-scale cross-country statistical analysis. But his highly selective use of data gives the impression of someone who spends a lot of time running regressions on his computer, changing the economic variables until he lights on those that debunk aid effectiveness, and ignoring the ones that don’t suit his argument, even if they are in the majority. He is cavalier with causal links too, often ignoring the possibility of simultaneous causation, and assuming that if a country has high aid and low growth the problem must be that the aid is too high rather than not high enough or something else entirely.  At the other end of the scale his book is rich in anecdote. But in between he is short on serious country studies.

He is fond of setting up aunt sallies and then bombarding them with half-truths and cheap rhetoric. He is scathing about the idea that the poorest countries are in a poverty trap from which they cannot emerge without an aid-financed Big Push. He caricatures the report of the Commission for Africa on those grounds, ignoring all it said on the importance of taking account of local culture, on the need for peace and security – a subject on which Easterly has very little to say – and on economic growth and non-aid barriers to development. The Commission did not deal with aid until Chapter Nine of a report which, incidentally, looked at country case studies of what works and what doesn’t first and considered regressions only where they spoke to on-the-ground experience. The Commission was, unlike Easterly, also big on the checks and balances provided by public auditing, active parliaments, free press, and peer review between African countries – all of which are essential in the good governance of which this book is so disdainful. Nor does he acknowledge that development is far more than aid. He says little on remittances or foreign direct investment. And he is silent on the distorted trade policies of rich nations that help keep poor countries poor.

Instead he offers bombast. “There was no Marshall Plan for Harry Potter, no International Financing Facility for books about underage wizards. It is heartbreaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children.”  This is cheap-shot stuff, unless Easterly really cannot see the difference between supplying something to people who have purchasing power and those who are too poor to have any economic power at all.

Why after 50 years of aid totalling $2.3 trillion, he asks, are there still children dying for lack of twelve cent medicine? Again this is disingenuous.  For a start, $2.3 trillion over five decades works out at less than $9 per capita per year for the world’s 3 billion people who live on less than £1 a day. Not a huge sum. Moreover Easterly’s constant agglomeration of 50 years worth of aid money ignores two key facts. First, that for the first three decades, until the end of the Cold War, aid was not primarily given for poverty-alleviation but to support dictators who took the right side in the super-powers’ proxy wars. Second, it assumes that no lessons have been learned over the years on how aid is well and badly spent – which is the opposite of the truth, for aid is far better spent now than it was even a decade ago. Many of the achievements of the last three decades – cutting  infant mortality and chronic malnutrition and increasing life expectancy and literacy –were significantly assisted by aid.

The pity is there is some good material in The White Man’s Burden, despite the tasteless irony of its title. It sets out well the debilitating long-term legacy of colonialism. It is cutting about the neo-colonialism of IMF structural adjustment programmes and the excuses it and the World Bank – where Easterly once worked – were adept at finding for why their earlier strategies didn’t work. He shows well how the concept of participation has been undermined by bureaucrats. He is good on how aid works best when it provides incentives for change, such as the Mexican scheme to pay families to keep their children in school. He is right about the need for improved external evaluation of aid efforts and the need for the aid industry to reform.

The trouble is that none of his thinking is particularly new – in Europe at any rate. And what he advocates – more use of the market, giving vouchers to individuals that they can redeem for services provided by aid agencies, more independent evaluation – hardly adds up to an alternative.

The tragedy of this book is not that William Easterly exaggerates to make a point. It is that the superficial plausibility of his Big Idea – and his smirking style of writing – give comfort to those who want to cut aid budgets rather than assistance to those who want aid to get better.  That is what makes this book so pernicious.

“The right plan is to have no plan,” is William Easterly’s reductive slogan.  Would that he had taken his own advice; doing nothing in his case would have been a distinct improvement.

Paul Vallely was co-author of Our Common Interest, the report of the Commission for Africa


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