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.