Acid-free, but lacks the bite to move things along

The White Man's Burden
February 2, 2007

William Easterly was an economist at the World Bank for 16 years. Now he is a professor at New York University. In The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good , he canters through the conventional arguments against big aid programmes, claiming that much aid has been wasted or lost to corruption.

We are whisked through a few case studies of failure by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and treated to a short chapter on the evils of colonisation and, for good measure, decolonisation.

Is that it? Well, more or less. There is a kind of alternative prescription, which calls for all aid planners to be replaced by "Searchers". This appears to involve a bottom-up approach to development, based on the promotion of free markets, the encouragement of social entrepreneurs and the issue of "development vouchers to target groups of the extreme poor, which the poor could redeem at any NGO [non-governmental organisation] or aid agency for any development good they wanted". The practicalities of this proposal are not further explained.

There is a place for books that make these arguments. Anyone who tweaks the tails of Jeffrey Sachs and Gordon Brown, as Easterly does, cannot be all bad. But since the arguments he advances are conventional and based on a contentious selection of secondary material, it is reasonable to focus on how effectively the case is deployed. In other words, if you like this sort of thing, is this the sort of thing you might like?

My answer is no. As roughly the same types of argument are advanced on every page. Let us take just one: on page 142 we are treated to an argument about consumer choice and representative democracy. First, we hear that "market Searchers" (he loves the upper case), with no bureaucratic help, can find an air ticket from New York to Los Angeles for $299 (£150) any day of the week. He admits that, even in rich countries, goods are provided by bureaucracies but, we are told, "the bureaucracy in rich countries works better than the bureaucracy of aid agencies for the poor".

As proof of this challenging point, he offers an exciting anecdote: "I once had a pothole in front of my house. I got the city bureaucracy to fix the pothole in three easy steps: (1) I called my city councilwoman and asked her to please have the city repair the pothole; (2) the next day, the Park Public Works bureaucracy was out there filling the pothole; and, actually (3), there was no third step." He then goes on, in a remarkable leap, to tell us that "the tragedy of poverty is that the poorest people in the world have no money [Go on or political power to motivate Searchers to address their desperate needs".

What possible value does this story add? How can Easterly imagine we are interested in his potholes? Could anyone conceivably think that the "point 3" gambit is funny? The White Man's Burden is full of this kind of verbiage. Indeed there is little else. I simply cannot imagine why Easterly or his publishers think this kind of style will win friends or influence anyone.

Was my selection of page 142 unfair and prejudicial? Judge for yourself or, rather, don't. I could have quoted one of the ten references to Harry Potter in chapter one, none of which tells us anything at all, except that he has 12-year-old street cred.

There is just one point to be logged in the book's favour. It is printed on acid-free paper.

Howard Davies is director, London School of Economics.

The White Man's Burden

Author - William Easterly
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 353
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 19 921082 9

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