Matt'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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's review
Apr 04, 2012

really liked it
Read from April 04 to 29, 2012

"It is the job of economists to point out trade-offs; it is the job of politicians and Planners to deny that trade-offs exist." -William Easterly

This famous book decries the current state of Western aid agencies by emphasizing how inefficient these are at actually helping the poor. The book begins by establishing the terms Planners and Searchers. The Planners are most aid agencies, with big dreams and unrealistic expectations, that favor the idea of the Big Push. Proponents of the Big Push believe that top-down agencies can actually involve investments and projects to address all the constraints to development all at once, after which the poor countries will experience a takeoff -- in other words they will reach the first rung on the ladder of development and move up to self-sustained growth.

The book of course rejects this idea of the Big Push and instead emphasizes the benefit of Searchers -- grass-roots workers who find solutions to local problems and know first-hand when something works or when it does not. Through his emphasis on local homegrown solutions, the author underlines the advantages of feedback and accountability, often in the form of free markets. However, the author clearly states his finding: free markets work but free-market reforms often don't. p.60 The market is simply a tool to bring feedback and accountability. These are the goals to strive for through graduals improvements led by local Searchers.

Feedback is a major theme. To make sure that an aid agency is actually helping, it is important to make the results of projects visible and to actually ask the poor -- the target audience -- if they are actually better off after a given experiment. "Aid agencies are rewarded for setting goals rather than reaching them, since goals are observable to the rich-country public while results are not." p.185

Aid agencies are too often measured by the size of their budget rather than by the outcome of their projects. Bringing visibility into how money is spent and what results occurred is a good way to help Searchers and hinder the Planners. Invisibility shifts power away from the Searchers and on to the Planners. p.170

In order to improve the effectiveness of aid, it will take "political courage to admit that doing everything is a fantasy. The rich-country public has to live with making poor people's lives better in a few concrete ways that aid agencies can actually achieve. p.188

Further, aid agencies are often biased towards projects that are easily visible. Marketable results are preferred to more useful but less sexy outcomes.

Among other misconceptions coming from the Planners, the author rejects the poverty trap idea on the following grounds:
- Historically, poor countries have been moving in and out of poverty. Today's poverty-trapped countries are different than yesterday's. In that case, it can't be much of a trap. p.41
- There exist examples of countries who went from poor to rich without external assistance. p.41
- There is no evidence that poverty is a trap if one controls for good government. There might be a bad government trap, but not a poverty trap. p.44

Noting that the only Big Answer is that there is no big answer, the author proposes the following simple principles:
(1) Have aid agents individually accountable for individual, feasible areas for action that help poor people list themselves up. (2) Let those agents search for what works, based on past experience in their area. (3) Experiment, based on the results of the search. (4) Evaluate, based on feedback from the intended beneficiaries and scientific testing. (5) Reward success and penalize failure. Get more money to interventions that are working, and take money away from interventions that are not working. Each aid agent should explore and specialize further in the direction of what they prove good at doing. (6) Make sure incentives in (5) are string enough to do more of what works, then repeat step (4). If actions fails, make sure incentives in (5) are strong enough to send the agent back to step (1). If the agent keeps failing, get a new one. p.382

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