shaw'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
Oct 28, 2007

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Read in October, 2007

Found this on my friend's bookshelf in Lima. From what I remember of Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point (I read a few chapters at a book store cafe a while back), Easterly has a similar approach of simplifying a complex phenomena by coining terms (here, Planners and Seekers) and employing a ton of analogies (like every other paragraph) to make his argument more accessible to a larger audience. He also repeats/emphasizes his points a lot, perhaps for the same reason..(which I found a little annoying).

As I started reading, at first I had a negative reaction to his choice for the title, to say the least, which references a particular poem. ( ) As much as I sort of understand he's pointing out the West's view of itself as a savior and how that's problematic, I feel that he sees it as a problem only because that approach has proven not to work (for example, in alleviating poverty), but not because it's more than a philosophy but perhaps a reflection of a larger system of blind privilege, racism, classism, etc. that still affects people's living condition today.

Once I got over all that though, I agree with his points -- people trying to do good need to stop coming up with self-conceived change-it-all plans; people know their own lives and communities best (and should be supported in finding their own solutions); clearly defined and achievable goals; accountability and feedback/evaluation. It was refreshing to hear this from the perspective of an economist (who spent 15 yrs at the World Bank). How many economists talk about colonialism? He also takes it right to Jeffrey Sachs and The End of Poverty, in his criticisms. Nice.

I think it's a great reading rec for people involved in policy, aid, and service work, as hopefully a conversation starter or added perspective, especially for those who unintentionally have a top-down approach. It's only a starting point though. It's pretty clear that while Easterly has a great perspective, I don't think he knows how to make his suggested approach a reality, especially being an economist -- eg, how do you determine individual community needs and solutions as proposed by local individuals? what do you do if they are conflicting accounts? and so on.
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