Frank Stein's Reviews > The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good

The White Man's Burden by William Easterly
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Jun 15, 2011

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Overall a pretty disappointing sequel, of sorts, to his earlier "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics." The latter remains one of my favorite books, examining as it does the long, convoluted history of economic thought on development and how different theories, from Rostow's "Takeoff" to a singular focus on population control, or education, have, when implemented, failed to lift the Third World out of poverty. It was both a wonderful intellectual history and a history of how ideas have real, though in this case unfortunate, impacts on policy.

This book is messier. It veers all over the place, briefly discussing things like radios and TVs per capita in Africa only to start talking about safe drinking water programs. It makes a too pat division between aid "searchers," who try to find small solutions to poverty, and aid "planners," who seek to deal with macro problems. He says all successful foreign aid is premised on small solutions and all attempts to change the economic policy of poor countries are doomed to fail. He is on to something here, and his discussion of how policy prescriptions that ignore the domestic conditions only provoke backlash, like IMF loans that further alienated Bolivian indigenous workers and led to five violent uprisings in that country in the early 2000s, is convincing. He relates this modern reformist impulse to both the 19th century imperialist "White Man's Burden" and modern nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. In his universal condemnation of reform, though, he veers uncomfortably close to a sort of policy agnosticism, where there is nothing that poor countries could do on a macro level that would seriously alleviate poverty.

There are a few real, important takeaways from this book though. One is that the "poverty trap" thesis of people like Jeffrey Sachs (that some countries are just too poor to "afford growth") is just plain wrong. For instance, the GDP growth per capita of the poorest fifth of countries from 1950 to the present was about the same (1.7% per annum) as the world average, and a slowdown since 1985 (often used as proof of the trap thesis) actually proves problems with measurement, since the poorest countries in 1985 were not the same as in 1950. They weren't trapped, they became poorer because of bad policies (often demanded by the West). The other big point here is that there is little long-term impact of any aid policies on poverty reduction. Starting with the 1996 paper by LSE economist Peter Boone, there is abundant evidence that aid does not finance increased investment or growth. Even the most pro-aid, pro-planning studies admit that after aid reaches about 8% of GDP there is a negative impact on growth as governments get divorced from their own people (aid has been shown to promote even more anti-democratic tendencies, dollar for dollar, than oil). With aid in Africa now at around 15% of GDP, Easterly is right to point out that simply shoving more money and more big plans at these countries will not solve their problems.

So there is some worthwhile stuff here, despite the disorganization, and the book serves as a useful reminder that small, local solutions to poverty should not be dismissed by focusing only on the so-called "Big Picture."
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message 1: by Paul (new)

Paul Interesting. But doesn't the 20th century have so many test cases where poor countries indeed effected huge policy changes to kickstart growth to bring people out of poverty? The entirety of Southeast Asia and some of South America, especially Brazil, comes to mind. Does he deal with these? Is the difference that the policy changes came from inside, not imposed by richer countries?

Speaking of small bore solutions, have you heard of "Poor Economics" by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo? (Duflo was featured in a New Yorker article a year or so ago.) They take an experimental approach to different aid strategies, figuring out which ones work and which don't.

Frank Stein I read that New Yorker article on Duflo, and my favorite podcast Econtalk just had an interview with Banerjee,, and though Easterly doesn't mention her in the book, Duflo's exactly the sort of aid "searcher" that he loves. He's probably a little more suspicious on how those randomized trials Duflo tries could actually be brought to scale in most countries whose governments aren't very interested in poverty reduction, but its the same idea.

About the big picture, like I said, Easterly seems sometimes to be pretty equivocal about what works for countries, but in an interview Easterly was open that the basics of growth are pretty clear, rule of law, stable property rights, free trade, all of those things that unfortunately got titled the "Washington Consensus." When implemented they work, but Easterly is suspicious that they can be forced (I think the Millennium Challenge Corporation, created by Bush in 2004 but vigorously supported by Obama, actually offers some promise by incentivizing instead of forcing change). But beyond the basics, almost nothing else seems to correlate much with poverty reduction or growth, education and health care are objective goods, but no one has found what level of investment, or what type, is appropriate for different countries. Population control, once an aid focus, has almost no correlation with economic growth. As he points out the World Bank has a chart of what creates growth that involves something like 130 variables that supposedly encourage it, but we have little to no evidence if any of that actually works.

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