White Man’s Burden.

William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good is, really, kind of a downer. He points out that billions in foreign aid poured into developing countries across three continents have accomplished nothing, that global pledges to end poverty and hunger have epicfailed, and that most if not all foreign aid efforts are built on a foundation of racial and ethnic condescension: The West acts as if the world’s poor people, who are largely dark-skinned, need the help of the educated, advanced, civilized white man. And that is far from the truth.

Easterley’s arguments against foreign aid as we know it are straightforward. One, Big Plans don’t work. If the goal is absurdly large, the project will fail. If the goal is vague, the project will fail. If accountability isn’t possible, the project will fail.

Two, aid projects rarely consider what the recipients want, but instead consider what the donors want. He gives the example of highways in Tanzania built with aid from foreign donors who didn’t provide funding for road maintenance; the roads “deteriorated faster than donors built new ones, due to lack of maintenance.”

Three, aid projects nearly always impose massive costs on recipient governments, both in manpower shifted to dealing with aid projects and in paperwork. In fact, Easterly questions why aid must always go to recipient governments, which, in developing nations, are often corrupt, autocratic, and even cruel (reason four).

And five, the West nearly always attaches stipulations to aid, such as changes to government policies or structures, that inevitably fail and take the aid-related projects with them. Nation-building doesn’t work, whether via military intervention or wholesale importation of another nation’s laws and policies.

Easterly backs up his arguments with anecdotes and analyses of data from the World Bank and the IMF (two of the main targets of his criticisms – he really tears into the World Bank’s penchant for doublespeak). The data are more compelling than the anecdotes, but the anecdotes carry the book along; without them, it would be borderline unreadable. It’s an advocacy book that isn’t written as one; Easterly is telling the story of the data, and given the evident lack of progress in combating poverty, hunger, and AIDS in the developing world, it’s hard to argue. Easterly devotes an entire chapter to the story of AIDS in the developing world, particularly Africa, pointing out, for example, that

For the same money spent giving one more year of life to an AIDS patient, you could give 75 to 1500 years of additional life (say fifteen extra years for each of five to one hundred people) to the rest of the population through AIDS prevention.

Yet Western aid programs are all geared towards getting expensive medications towards the 5% of Africans already suffering from AIDS because that’s what donors want (think of the brain-dead protests against pharmaceutical companies a few years ago). Teaching prevention through condom usage doesn’t make for great headlines, but it’s much more cost-effective and more closely tracks what recipients want.

Easterly points out that countries have developed from the Third World to the First with limited Western aid. Botswana was one of the few African nations to end up with a mostly homogenous population after the Europeans fabricated all sorts of borders across the continent, and through a stable democracy, some smart management of natural resources (mostly diamonds), and lack of interference before and after independence from their colonizers to build one of the fastest-growing nations in Africa. Their economy has even been strong enough to cope with a severe AIDS crisis. Turkey, Japan, and Chile all developed from Third to First World inside of fifty years without much aid or interference from the West.

The most interesting part to me was Easterly’s mention of globalgiving.com, a micro-charity site that aims to connect donors interested in supporting the type of projects Easterly encourages (because they work) with aid workers and local good Samaritans running just such projects. He gives an example of a project that was “so tiny, in fact, that it initially embarrassed” the site’s founder: a request for $5000 to build a separate toilet block for girls at a school in Coimbatore, India. They got the money and built the toilet block, and lo and behold, the dropout rate for girls who hit puberty dropped dramatically. It occurred to me that we might pick a project there as the target for Klawbaiting funds, which I’ll kick off with a $50 donation to cover past times when I’ve been successfully baited by readers. My suggestion would be this project to help disabled Kenyan children attend school. It’s exactly the sort of unsexy project that Easterly complains aid agencies overlook, but that has a higher rate of success and that meets a stated need of the recipients.

Next up: I’m halfway through Faulkner’s Light in August. I usually do a lot of reading in dribs and drabs – five pages here, ten there – but I find that Faulkner is best read in longer sittings.


  1. Keith, I saw a question about Tim Collins in the chat today. His numbers were very good last year in low A, and so far in high A this year they have been the same. What does he project as? Thanks

  2. LiA = Great read but sad too

  3. How did “sad” come up when I thought I wrote “depressing”? Ay caramba.

  4. Light in August is a great transition coming off of reading White Man’s Burden, which is a bit on the sobering side…

    If I know my $5 is going through a properly used philanthropy, then I will have no problem filling up the chat queue with questions about scrappy gamers who just know how to play the game tenaciously, and who step it up in clutch situations.

  5. I’m with Grant. I’ll contribute $50 in advance giving me ten free questions about the greatness of Alexi Ramirez and other similar topics.

  6. I’m looking forward to the Light in August review. It’s on my book shelf waiting to be read.

  7. Easterly makes some good points in The White Man’s Burden but I think it’s a dangerous book. It’s true that foreign aid from Western government is fairly ineffective, but there are tons of charities which like globalgiving.org which do great work and are highly effective. I’m afraid the effect on people reading this book is going to be less support to really excellent charities.

    As I recall Easterly spends an awful lot of time taking Jeffrey Sachs out of context and misconstruing his arguments from The End of Poverty (a magnificent read) when the Millennium Villages project which Sachs directs is exactly the sort of effective charity that is working.

  8. What about Hannity where he said he’d be water boarded for charity? Isn’t a worthy cause?
    Also isn’t this a larger criticism of capitalism as we know it? Africa for example only exports raw materials as there is little to zero manufacturing outisde of developed areas (Cape Town) -which aren’t many. If Africa developed those industry the Wests economic level would deteriorate. Isn’t it in the West’s interest to suppress any development? Wouldn’t “look at me and pat my back” charity be a great cause for mega coporations and politicians? There is clearly vested interest for the charity work to actual do little good to help develop nations. Interesting thoughtful analysis of the book.

  9. Brian you have it backwards. Africa being poor does absolutely nothing to make the West rich. In fact if Africa developed to be as wealthy as the West, it would make us all richer as it would open up new markets, provide new innovations to be shared, and increased division of labor would free up other countries to focus on what they’re more productive at.

    It would also end the piracy problem there, stabilize the region reducing military expenditures, and just generally make the world a better place.

    The only people who are better off for African countries being poor some of the opportunistic leaders there that are keeping them poor. Everyone else is worse off.

  10. Brian: Easterly talks about the development of manufacturing sectors in those countries that did cross the chasm. I don’t see why developing manufacturing sectors in Africa would cause the west’s economic level to deteriorate; the rise of manufacturing economies in east and now south Asia hasn’t hurt the West’s economic level at all, and in fact has improved it. EDIT: And yes, he rips into “look at me” charitable and aid work, and I think his POV is that most foreign aid falls into that category.

    Matt: Have you read WMB? He’s quite clear about the value of aid efforts that are accountable, that have realistic goals, and that meet the stated needs of the target populations. He praises globalgiving and includes anecdotes about other small, local efforts around the world that have yielded positive results.

    Sachs’ work is definitely a major target of Easterly’s, because Sachs is one of the kings of the Big Plan. His “shock therapy” ideas for transitioning command economies to market economies haven’t worked (or at least haven’t worked anywhere near as well as promised), and his stated goals are just the type of grand and impossible utopian visions that Easterly argues are destined to fail.

  11. Even looking at domestic poverty we see failure. $7T over 40 years and nothing has changed. Working for a local aid org in NJ, I’ve seen charitable giving dry up due to the financial crisis. I, personally, view this as an opportunity to provide aid via other means since we don’t really have a choice. However, the “look at me” aid that we receive is viewed internally as a benefit bordering on an entitlement. This is the sort of attitude that breeds ineffectiveness and failure.

    Special Forces soldiers were incredibly effective (and still are) in developing local ties via aid. They don’t give $$$ to locals, instead they train locals to provide for themselves. Need a building? SF shows the locals what materials to use and shows them how to build it. This is a tried and true strategy that works because it is permanent.

  12. Easterly makes some good points in The White Man’s Burden but I think it’s a dangerous book. It’s true that foreign aid from Western government is fairly ineffective, but there are tons of charities which like globalgiving.org which do great work and are highly effective. I’m afraid the effect on people reading this book is going to be less support to really excellent charities.

    If anything, WMB should serve to cast a light on those good charities while exposing the corruption/ineffectiveness of the bad. If I read Keith’s review correctly, this is exactly what the book tries to do, even if it sways into more criticism than it seems you would like.

    But I take offense at the idea that criticism of a subset of a population is going to be necessarily generalized onto the whole population. It’s an incredibly negative and cynical point of view, and even if it is true, I don’t see why it has to be or why we need to avoid intelligent, granular discussion because of an unsubstantiated fear of logical fallacies. When those fallacies render themselves, point them out in the same way WMB is highlighting the problems in West-to-world charities. Through those discussions, we can shed light on errors in both the phenomenon and the analysis.

    I find your apprehension disturbing.

  13. Keith: Yes I’ve read WMB, and as I said it has a lot of good points, but I think he’s overzealous in trying to make his points to the extent that he does more harm to the overall cause than good.

    Sachs’ “shock therapy” ideas aren’t what I’m talking about so much as the Millenium Villages projects, which goes into a single village, works with the villagers to evaluate needs, and works to solve them often in very simple ways. There is nothing Big Plan about it. The only Big Plan attribute it has is that this small scale approach can be replicated independently across multiple villages.

    Sachs’ point, and I think it’s valid, is that while focusing on small scale things like building a separate toilet for girls are great, it really requires a broad solution across multiple areas to generate real improvement, and that requires a bit of coordination.

    As an example, say your goal is to get kids in a village to go to school, and they start from nothing. You can build a school and invite the kids, and maybe they’ll even go, but if they have no food they’ll be too hungry to learn. So maybe you provide a school lunch program, but if a child gets malaria he still can’t go. So you provide a treated bed nets, and now they don’t have malaria, but the family pulls them out of school anyways because they need him to work to help support the family. Sachs’ point is that you really need to solve all of these problems at once in order to achieve the goal you want.

    I’m curious if you’ve read The End of Poverty or intend to. I’m not arguing that Sachs’ solution is the ideal one, but I think it’s pretty good and I think it’s worth an attempt. The issues facing impoverished people are complex and systemic, and I do think it’s worth taking a systemic approach to the problem.

    I’m very much in favor of Easterly’s support of aid efforts that are accountable, have realistic goals, and meet the stated needs of the population. I think the Millenium Villages project is such an effort and I think Easterly got into such an “I’m right and you’re wrong” mindset that he misconstrues or just plain ignores facts that are counter to the thesis of his book.

  14. Isn’t the point of the IMF/World Bank and BIS to essentially help struggling countries with aid? This hasn’t and doens’t happen. They have usuary rates attached to their loans essentially foisting impossible conditions on developing countries. Isn’t that the wests interest taking greator value than developing a nation? A coporation will keep its profit margin at any expense – even its own long term health. Matt and Keith I 100% agree with your critism of how it should be. Japan, Norway or Turkey are the exception, not the rule. Interesting food for thought all around.

  15. Fascinating yet dim view of the Western attempts to link democracy with aid. Does he mention any attempt by the West to also attach any (possibly veiled) religious stipulations with the aid projects?

  16. Brian, you miss the point about bureaucracies like the IMF and WB. They exist to serve themselves.

    With regard to “usuary” rates, the problem isn’t debt servicing. That is a necessary cost – look at the Grameeen Bank and the cost of doing business with them! God forbid you miss a payment. The real issue is that the projects associated with most development loans are abysmal failures!

  17. Thanks for the link to GlobalGiving – it looks like a great resource, and I’m glad for it.

  18. I’d also recommend kiva.org

  19. fq- no no we agree. wb and imf are set up to help. the disgust we feel is in the help they give. there is a lot that is undergirding this entire discussion which creates the interesting nature of it all.

  20. Keith- thanks for this, I’ll have to pick this up and read it.

    Are you familiar with economist Peter Bauer? He died in 2002, but was a strong advocate against foreign aid. Some of his essays are worth a look.

    Another point is foreign aid often destroys the local economy. I believe an essay by Thomas Sowell described how in Kenya, a local market for selling rice had developed. Then the UN showed up with planes of free rice and completely destroyed the market for rice. I really wonder if UN folks care, or if they just need to think they’re helping to fulfill their emotional needs?

    As someone who’s done some serious KLawbaiting, I’ll definitely make a donation.

  21. I just went with a tankless water heater around X-Mas in a 2/3 bedroom condo with 2 full bathrooms. I really don’t know much about them at all so I’m probably little help. I appreciate the extra space but have noticed that it can jump from cold to hot and vice versa based on just a slight adjustment of the temperature handle. With my old water heater, there seemed to be more range within the water temps than I have now.

  22. One plumber who came quoted $4000 for the tankless and $950 for the tank (including all parts). Even with the $300 rebate and 30% tax credit, that’s still an enormous premium to pay for a small improvement in energy efficiency.

  23. You’re right.

  24. For me it was about space as well. It is behind my washer/dryer in a closet that did not have a water drain in case of emergency and barely fits both items.

  25. Energy efficiency? I had no idea that tankless water heaters were used for that. I just like them because if you’re the last one to shower out of 4 people, you’re not stuck waiting for more water to heat up. That said, I have had a few problems with the water temperature changing abruptly, mostly whenever the laundry machine is being used at the same time.

  26. Keith – thanks for the shout-out to GlobalGiving. As you know, we are big believers in the power of “bottom up” change…and believe that the $50 donor(AKA YOU – thank you!) should have as much understanding of how his/her money is being used as the $50,000 donor.
    Thanks again,
    Donna GlobalGiving

  27. One of the problems with tankless coils is that if you have hard water the coil could be about useless in about a year and a half. So durability is an issue.

  28. Jonathan Small

    So what do you propose?? I think it is easy to say the government expenditures do little good (big surprise) but on the other hand what should we do?? Leave third world countries alone?

    In an ideal world, sure, we would just give them what they need out of the goodness of our hearts (by ‘our’ I mean government). Unfortunately, that is not the type of people we elect.

  29. You should also check out “The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier. Another worthwhile read on similar subjects.