Sunday, September 7, 2008

The White Man's Burden

William Easterly, 436 pp.

I should begin by mentioning that I did not read The White Man’s Burden all at once. At one low point in my life (last summer), I thought the extra inch it added to my embarrassingly thin bookshelf was more valuable than any benefit I might have gotten from continuing to read. For this reason, my memory of the first portion of the book is not great. I’ll talk about it anyway.

In The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly offers a scathing critique of Western attempts at international aid. The subtitle alone—Why the West’s Effort to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good—gives pause to most of us, who read regularly about international summits and conventions on international aid and poverty. Easterly does not hesitate to cast aspersions on a number of major players in the international aid community, including Bono, George W. Bush, and, most notably, his NYU colleague Jeffrey Sachs. Despite at times being long-winded, Easterly presents a fearless analysis of the foreign aid system in the West.

Early in the book, Easterly introduces the notion of Planners and Searchers. A Planner is a person who seeks to implement aid from the top down. Due to limited accountability, the Planners’ goals are often vague utopian ideals. A Searcher, on the other hand, is one who searches for bottom-up and generally market-based reforms for which there is consumer feedback. The Searchers’ goals are more modest and thus more attainable. This distinction feels natural, particularly considering the sheer number of aid (and AIDS) concerts and international summits since the turn of the century. His points are good, but Easterly tends to be long-winded, hammering home the same points for pages. Despite this shortcoming that led to my yearlong break, the first section of the book is valuable, as it lays the groundwork for Easterly’s arguments throughout the remainder of the book.

I decided to give Easterly a second chance while in a post-Joose induced stupor one morning this summer. My frail mind, not in a state to bear any heavy literary loads, would not have been able to take anything less than a thrilling read. And a thrilling read it was. Easterly illustrates the failings of utopian schemes and Western intervention through both anecdotal and statistical evidence. His breadth of knowledge is impressive and his attacks are pointed. Despite all of his cautionary tales about the IMF and World Bank, Easterly is an Economist at heart. He ends one paragraph halfway through the book with the question, “But is [$1200] too high to justify giving a person another year of life?” Such questions are uncomfortable and difficult to answer, but that doesn’t stop Easterly from making a well-founded point. He goes on to describe children with “intestinal worms, which spill out from [their] noses” whose parents ”in desperation [to save their children] pour kerosene down the children’s throats.” These children aren’t getting the extremely inexpensive treatment that would save them because AIDS is in vogue in the aid community. The cost-benefit analysis is not so cold and lifeless in Easterly’s hands. At many points throughout the book, skepticism about aid comes across in a more humorous light. Easterly sums up the silver lining of the American intervention in Ethiopia against Somalia in the following Onion-like passage:

“Live Aid concert to help Ethiopia in 1985 gave valuable experience to Live 8 musicians to help Africa twenty years later.”

The examples of how the West has failed, and in many cases, flat out wronged “the Rest” are abundant, and serve to bolster the case against top-down reform in the new age of Imperialism.

I recently spoke with the father of one of my co-authors-to-be about William Easterly and The White Man’s Burden. He said that many of Easterly’s points are good, but that he is too extreme in his criticism of Economics. As I see it, however, this book is a testimonial to the value of economic theory and analysis, not a condemnation of it. The fundamental criticism that Easterly offers is that humanitarian aid is not true to economic principles. Rather, aid comes from a paternalistic and myopic West that refuses feedback and does not embrace the market. And herein lies the fundamental irony. We live in a society that bends over backwards to promote democracy and capitalism, all while we are investing billions and billions of dollars in a system that is the foreign aid equivalent to the Soviet Union—Lenin style.

An online review of The White Man’s Burden suggests that Easterly is not constructive in his criticism of the aid community. The last section of the book, however, addresses this issue directly. Easterly acknowledges that nobody, not even he, has one simple answer, because it does not exist. He goes on to offer a number of examples of reforms to the aid system that have succeeded. My personal favorite is a website designed by a husband and wife in DC. They have created a market-based system—much like eBay—for international aid. I won’t attempt to do justice to what they have accomplished here, but you can see it for yourself at

In summary, I would highly recommend this book to pretty much anybody. Bear with the first hundred pages—at times it’s slow, but it’s a price well worth paying. I learned a great deal, and my perspective on the IMF, international aid and U2 has been greatly altered (although I never held U2 in particularly high regard in the first place).

-F. Darcy

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