books development economics poverty wealth

The White Man’s Burden, by William Easterly

This book was recommended to me by a Conservative MP, and was voted on the best books of 2006 by both the Financial Times and the Economist. All of which led me to expect a repudiation of aid in favour of the free market, so I approached this book with the ‘every once in a while, read something you’ll disagree with’ attitude. As it happens, it’s only half of what I expected, and I do agree.

‘The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good’ poses two fairly simple questions. First of all, how have the rich countries managed to give away $2.3 trillion over the last decades and still see people dying of malnutrition and entirely curable diseases? And secondly, why can the free market deliver millions of copies of a new Harry Potter book to children around the world all on the same day, but can’t deliver a life-saving vaccination programme?

His conclusion is that aid has failed, from a mixture of corruption, overambition, and incompetence. “Poor people die not only because of the world’s indifference to their poverty, but also because of ineffective efforts of those who do care.” He then draws a distinction between ‘planners’, and ‘searchers’. Planners are the big thinkers, the ‘big push’ schemes like the Millennnium Development Goals, or Make Poverty History. These are top-down plans with large-scale strategies. They have dominated aid for decade, says Easterly, and they are utopian and misguided. It’s also what the author means by ‘the white man’s burden’, the idea that we, the rich/west/whites of this world must fix the rest – “our generation’s challenge” as Jeffrey Sachs says, or to quote Bono: “it’s up to us”.

In fact, there is plenty of ambition and innovation in poor countries, and the best solutions are the ones that are home-grown – small-scale, “effective piecemeal” approaches that start with the poor and work out their needs and how to meet them. These are the ‘searchers’, who are concerned with what works rather than big and noble ideals.

There are several reasons why aid doesn’t work. For one thing, because the goals are so big, the aid agencies have to work with the governments of poor countries. That means bureaucracy, which means corruption and misappropriation of funds. The history of aid over the last decades shows some spectacular misappropriation, from the $20 billion given to Zaire during Mobutu’s reign, to the $421 million given to oil-rich Angola in 2o02. If aid agencies worked with smaller, more local projects, they could bypass governments and work directly with the people.

Another problem is that Western governments want to use aid to transform poor countries. As well as easing poverty, they want to spread democracy, and more importantly, free markets. This is a problem, says Easterly. Democracy is good, but it must grow organically, through movements, parties and institutions. “Democracy works, but imposing democracy from the outside doesn’t.” Likewise, markets can only develop through local networks, trust, banking, contract law, property rights and regulatory institutions, all of which have to grow from the ground up over time. “Free markets work, but free market reforms often don’t.”

Another crucial factor is accountability. Because the aid agencies are unaccountable, it doesn’t matter how much money is wasted, or whether their initiatives work. In a market economy, businesses must deliver the goods or they will lose their customers and go bankrupt. An aid agency can fail to deliver services to the poor for decades, and never lose either its funding or its mission. There is therefore a need for more private businesses to be involved in aid – rather than using aid workers who have no interest in whether something succeeds or not, projects could be given to private companies to deliver. The services could be subsidised and still be free to the end user, or at low cost, but the company giving out the medecines or the food would have to be effective, or the contract would be given to someone else.

In his conclusions, Easterly basically calls for a smaller scale approach, with genuine feedback and accountability, even putting the poor in charge of development. He calls for humility in our aid programmes. We also need to think more creatively, and he recommends as an interesting example of new ways of brokering funding. Another suggestion is to rate aid agencies – who’s best as delivering programmes that work, UNICEF, DfiD, USAID, or the World Bank? If the agencies were independently rated and ranked, the ones that worked best would get the support and the funding, and the ones that didn’t would have to improve or quit. Or what about giving the poor ‘aid vouchers’ – instead of deciding for them what they need, let them choose what they need and who they want to provide it for them. He also suggests that activists stop calling for more money, and focus much more on making sure that money reaches those it is intended for.

There is a danger that some will read this book and use it to justify cutting aid budgets. That isn’t the author’s intention. Politicians need to recognise that “a negative evaluation is a learning opportunity, not an excuse to cut foreign aid”. Rather, we need to be realistic about what aid can and can’t acheive. “Aid won’t make poverty history, which Western aid efforts cannot possibly do. Only the self-reliant efforts of poor people and poor societies themselves can end poverty, borrowing ideas and institutions from the West when it suits them to do so. But aid that concentrates on feasible tasks will alleviate the sufferings of many desperate people in the meantime. Isn’t that enough?”


  1. I think very often we want to help people, but don’t want to listen to how they need to be helped. So it becomes a matter of throwing funds at something, which can often only make the gap between wealthy and poor even bigger. There’s an awful lot of money in the world to be thrown around, if people could sacrifice some time and attention, maybe things would improve in some places..maybe…

  2. What I believe would help is ongoing sustained and constructive support. Someone to be there to help and encourage to build the community, maintain relationships on a long term basis even when they are established. I agree with other comments that most of us feel that we are doing our bit by giving money no matter how much, but if it is not used appropirately then it is a pointless exercise.

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