EasWhit 08-07-95 

The White Man's Burden

Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest have Done so Much Ill and so Little Good


William Easterly

Penguin Press, 2006, 436 pp., ISBN 1-59420-037-8



William Easterly is a professor of economics at New York University and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.  He was a senior research economist at the World Bank for more than sixteen years.  He has worked in many areas of the developing world.


This book argues that the large aid agencies fail because they attempt utopian goals and develop large scale top-down plans with little input or accountability from those they desire to help.  To be most helpful to the poor requires understanding the culture on the ground, working from the bottom up, providing what the poor need and want, and insisting on accountability as evaluated by effectiveness.  Much of this kind of thinking applies to mission organizations that desire to help those in other nations.


Chapter 1.  Planners versus Searchers


"…the West spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths." By contrast the global society can deliver 9 million copies of a Harry Potter book to customers on a single day. (4) 


The traditional approach to aid is run by "Planners."  The Harry Potter book distribution works by a "Searcher" approach.  The free market mentality of "Searchers" can be a guide to foreign aid. (5) 


"In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don't motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward.  Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions.  Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand.  Planners apply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to local conditions.  Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom.  Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; Searchers find out if the customer is satisfied." 

       "A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve.  A Searcher admits he doesn't know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors.  A Searcher hopes to find answers to individual problems only by trial and error experimentation.  A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions.  A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown." (5-6)


"Poor people die not only because of the world's indifference to their poverty, but also because of ineffective efforts by those who do care." (7)


"Big plans will always fail to reach the beautiful goal." (11) 


"Setting a prefixed (and grandiose) goal is irrational because there is no reason to assume the goal is attainable….  "Searchers ask the question the right way around; What can foreign aid do for poor people?" (11)  "Setting goals may be good for motivation, but it is counterproductive for implementation."  "Business success does not come from setting a prefixed goal and then furiously laboring to reach it.  Rather, successful businessmen are Searchers, looking for any opportunity to make a profit by satisfying the customers.  They evaluate the chance of reaching many different goals and choose the one that promises the highest expected benefit at the lowest cost…." (12)


The economic and political complexity of a society dooms any attempt to achieve the end of poverty through a plan.  (15) 


"Two key elements…whose absence is fatal to plans are feedback and accountability.  Searchers know if something works only if the people at the bottom can give feedback.  This is why successful Searchers have to be close to the customers at the bottom, rather than surveying the world from the top." (15)


"The needs of the poor don't get met because the poor have little money or political power with which to make their needs known and they cannot hold anyone accountable to meet those needs.  They are stuck with Planners." (17)


The rich people paying the bills have very little knowledge of poor people.  They demand big actions, but the big plans at the top are not connected to reality at the bottom. (17)


"Homegrown development does not always work… [but] the poor are more resourceful than Planners give them credit for." (27)


"It is a fantasy to think that the West can change complex societies with very different histories and cultures into some image of itself.' (28) 


"Acknowledging that development happens mainly through homegrown efforts would liberate the agencies of the West from utopian goals, freeing up development workers to concentrate on more modest, doable steps to make poor people's lives better." (29) 


"The only Big Plan is to discontinue the Big Plans.  The only Big Answer is that there is no Big Answer." "People everywhere, not just in the West, can all be Searchers." (30)


Part I.  Why Planners Cannot Bring Prosperity

Chapter 2.  The Legend of the Big Push

According to theory, the poor cannot rise because they are caught in a "poverty trap."  Thus outsiders will provide a financial "big push," whereupon they will escape the trap and begin to develop themselves.


"The recent stagnation of the poorest countries appears to have more to do with awful government than with a poverty trap…." (43)


"The typical African country received more than 15 percent of its income from foreign donors in the 1990s." (45)


Chapter 3.  You Can't Plan a Market

When the "big push" failed, the West recognized one secret is the demand and accountability of free markets.  The planners thus began to make aid conditional to countries adopting a rapid transition to free markets.  However, introducing free markets from the top down doesn't work well.  Markets emerge in an unplanned, spontaneous way, adapting to local traditions and circumstances and not through reforms designed by outsiders.   (60-1)  It took a decade of failure to realize it didn't work. 


"After seven years of 'transition,' 70 percent of the Russian population in 1999 thought the country was headed in the 'wrong direction.'" (65)  "The attempted changes at the top are out of touch with the complexity at the bottom." (66)


"Economic freedom is one of mankind's most underrated inventions, much less publicized that its cousin political freedom." (72)


"This great achievement of markets is achieved through Searchers.  The suppliers search for customers, the customers search for suppliers, and the price adjusts up or down to equate with supply and demand." (73)


"Any visit to an outdoor market in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, or Latin America will quickly convince you that markets are vibrant in poor countries." (74)  


"The hope for the poor depends on the same dual forces this book emphasizes throughout: (1) homegrown, market-based development that will lift up both rich and poor…, and (2) Western assistance for meeting the most desperate needs of the poor until homegrown market-based development reaches them." (77)


"The quest to help the poor has put far too little effort into learning about their informal social arrangements." (87)


"Piecemeal reformers, foreign and domestic, can try to move toward better systems that are sensitive to local conditions and that unshackle the dynamism of individuals everywhere.  The dynamism of the poor at the bottom has much more potential than plans at the top." (108)


Chapter 4.  Planners and Gangsters

Poor countries have bad governments.  (115)  "We don't do the poor any favors by tenderly respecting the sensitivities of bad rulers who oppress their own people." 


When free market reform didn't work, the next step in the escalation was the attempt to transform bad governments into good ones.  But imposing democracy from the outside doesn't work either.  Good government, like free markets, requires feedback and accountability.  "But Planners with no feedback and accountability cannot impose a system of feedback and accountability!" (116)


"The Achilles' heel is that any government that is powerful enough to protect citizens against predators is also powerful enough to be a predator itself." "Democracy's answer to 'Who will watch the watchers?' … is everyone." (117)  "Democracy is a bottom-up system that rewards local, specialized knowledge in a similar way to free markets.  In a democracy, the squeaky wheel gets the grease." (119)


But democracy is not a quick fix for poor countries.  It depends on slow bottom-up evolution of rules of fair play.  "Democracy is an intricate set of arrangements that is far more than just holding elections." (119)  Intimidation and corruption can be big problems, helping majorities to repress minorities.  (129)


Aid agencies have decided to give mostly through governments.  "The top fifteen recipients of foreign aid in 2002, who each got more than $1 billion each, have a median ranking as the worst fourth of all governments everywhere in 2002…."  Donors now aim at transforming government but don't know how to make it happen. (133)  "Bad governments can sabotage even the most well-intentioned aid programs." (136)


"Even humanitarian aid can make political conflict worse rather than better." (144)


"After almost two hundred coups, revolutions, insurrections, and civil wars since independence, Haiti today still has one of the world's most undemocratic, corrupt, violent, and unstable governments." (148) 


Zaire received twenty billion dollars in foreign aid during Mobutu's tenure.  (150) 


"Is money given to a bad government going to reach the poor?" (155)  "Bad government has far deeper roots than anything the West can affect.  To make things worse, the aid agencies need the poor-country government, even a bad government, to fill the role of aid recipient to keep money flowing." (156)  "Today's system of foreign aid coddles (and probably worsens) bad governments." (157)


Part II.  Acting Out the Burden

Chapter 5.  The Rich Have Markets, The Poor Have Bureaucrats

"The foreign aid bureaucracy has never quite gotten it--its central problem is that the poor are orphans: they have no money or political voice to communicate their needs or motivate others to meet those needs." (167) Hence the poor get things they never wanted and don't get things they need. (169)


"When the contribution of the agency to development output [results] is unobservable, the agency planners try to advertise the volume of their inputs to development [how much they spent]." (181)  They work to increase the amount of aid.  (182)  "Aid agencies are rewarded for setting goals rather than reaching them, since goals are observable to the rich-country public while results are not." (185)


Multiple aid agencies are all trying to do everything.  (191)  Organizations should focus on a few things and not do others.  "You would never go to a dentist who was also an auto mechanic and talk show host." (187)  "It will take some political courage to admit that doing everything is a fantasy." (188) 


Aid agencies should focus on narrow, solvable problems.  "Hold aid agencies individually responsible for what their own programs achieve, not for global goals." (205)  "Aid agencies need independent evaluation of the effects on the poor of their programs to motivate them to find things that work." (205) 


"The most important suggestion is to search for small improvements, then brutally scrutinize and test whether the poor got what they wanted and were better off, and then repeat the process." (206)


Chapter 6.  Bailing Out the Poor

Chapter 7.  The Healers: Triumph and Tragedy

"The breakdown of the aid system on AIDS is a good test case of the paradox of evil in foreign aid."  The Western aid community has awakened and moved from inaction to ineffective action. (240) 


"The World Health Organization is working with a figure of $1,500 per year per patient for delivering treatment to prolong the life of an AIDS patient by one year." (250)  Two and a half times as many Africans die from other preventable diseases as die from AIDS, including measles, childhood illnesses, respiratory infections, malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrhea. (251) 


"A well-established public health principle is that you should save lives that are cheap to save before you save lives that are more expensive to save.  That way you save many more lives using the scarce funds available.  Prevention and treatment of these other diseases cost far less than AIDS treatment.  Granting life through prevention of AIDS itself costs far less than AIDS treatment." (251)


"Should the West impose its preferences for saving AIDS victims instead of measles victims just because it makes the West fell better?" (253)


"Many deaths can be prevented more cheaply than treating AIDS, thus reaching many more suffering people on a limited aid budget.  Nobody asks the poor in Africa whether they would like to see most 'new' money spent on AIDS treatment as opposed to the many other dangers they face.  The questions facing Western AIDS campaigners should not be 'Do they deserve to die?' but 'Do we deserve to decide who dies?'" (258)


Part III The White Man's Army

Chapter 8: From Colonialism to Postmodern Imperialism

Since Western aid failed to reform governments, some in the West are suggesting "replacing national government altogether with 'trusteeship' or 'shared sovereignty' for the most extreme failures." (272) 


In the colonial era, "as many problems were created by colonizers' incompetence as by their exploitation." (272)  "Thus Europeans may have actually increased despotism in Africa." (275) 


"The big [development] success stories of the last four decades include a preponderance of places never colonized by Europeans, which tells us a little something about the benefits of escaping the White Man's Burden." (285)


"The income of the average Congolese today is the equivalent of twenty-nine cents a day.  The World Bank has lent $1.5 billion to the Congolese 'government' since 2001."  "After five centuries of European intervention, the DRC is still today contesting the record for worst and longest misgovernment." (289) 


"One thing today's nation-builders could learn from their colonial predecessors: once you get in, it's very hard to constructively get out." (290)


The West has a history of drawing national boundary lines.  "There are three different ways that Western mischief contributed to present-day grief in the Rest.  First, the West gave territory to one group that a different group already believed it possessed.  Second, the West drew boundary lines splitting an ethnic group into two or more parts across nations….  Third, the West combined into a single nation two or more groups that were historical enemies." (291)


"Western intervention in the government of the Rest, whether during colonization or decolonization, has been on the far side of unhelpful." (305)


Chapter 9.  Invading the Poor

"…military intervention is too perfect an example of what this book argues you should not do--have the West operate on other societies with virtually no feedback or accountability." (312)


"Peacekeeping could be good, but just who is willing to be accountable for its success or failure?"  (334)  "The best rule of all for Western helpers is, first, do no harm." (336)


Part IV. The Future

Chapter 10.  Homegrown Development

"The great bulk of development success in the Rest comes from self-reliant, exploratory efforts, and the borrowing of ideas, institutions, and technology from the West when it suits the Rest to do so."  The successful nations do not give a simple blueprint for imitation.  The main unifying theme of success stories "is that all of them subjected their development searching to a market test, using a combination of domestic and export markets."


Chapter 11.  The Future of Western Assistance

"Conditions on aid don't work to change government behavior."  "Discard your patronizing confidence that you know how to solve other people's problems." 


Aim to make individuals better off, not to transform governments.  Aid individuals rather than governments.  Put the focus back on getting the poorest people in the world the vaccines, antibiotics, food supplements, improved seeds, fertilizer, roads, boreholes, water pipes, textbooks and nurses they need.  "This is not making the poor dependent on handouts; it is giving the poorest people the health, nutrition, education, and other inputs that raise the payoff to their own efforts to better their lives." (368-69)   


"Have individual accountability for individual tasks.  Let aid agencies specialize in the sectors and countries they are best at helping.  Then hold the aid agencies accountable for their results by having truly independent evaluation of their efforts." (369-70)  "Aid agencies must be constantly experimenting and searching for interventions that work, verifying what works with scientific evaluation." (374) 


"Aid agencies must let their staff gain experience in a particular local setting on a particular problem, and then let the experienced staff decide on the ground what is working and what is not." (375)


Experiment.  Evaluate, based on feedback from the intended beneficiaries and scientific testing.  Reward success and penalize failure.  Get more money to the interventions that are working and take money away from those that are not.  Make sure incentives are strong enough to do more of what works.  (382)




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