Ryan'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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Feb 11, 2011

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This first quarter or so is reasonably interesting and brings a sort of political economy approach to understanding why development is often ineffective. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the book is a series of cherry picked positive and negative examples designed to support the thesis. They're not wrong, per say, but pointing out one Ghanian who has made good in life without development assistance doesn't really prove that development assistance doesn't help anyone.

Easterly acknowledges that his searcher-based approach to development will not be easy and has it's own limitations, but doesn't ever really explore these issues in any detail. It would be helpful if he did because his general idea has merit. What he fails to address is that development organizations often do things the way they do precisely in order to avoid some of the problems associated with his approach. The, admittedly, hidebound aid bureaucracy didn't get to be the way it is for no good reason. Failure after failure and billions of lost dollars have come from simply supporting searchers, and the crazy cost controls frameworks and vast networks of foreign consultants are, at least in part, a response to that.

Contray to Easterly's suggestion. Aid agencies spend an enormous amount of money track their results, and are often criticized for spending too much on surveys instead of doing "real work". The problem is not that monitoring doesn't exist, but that monitoring outputs (e.g. number of kids attending school as a result of a program) doesn't tell you much about outcomes (e.g. quality of life improving as the result of said education program). Virtually all aid agencies throughout the world are grappling with this problem, and it should be pointed out that Easterly's approach would not, in and of itself, do anything to solve it.

Easterly could greatly strengthen his argument by acknowledging the risks and limitations associated with his approach (less coherence in disbursement of funds, unmeasurable impacts, increased losses of funds due to corruption, etc.) and talking about ways to address them.
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