Monday, June 12, 2006

White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good by William Easterly

The subtitle of The White Man's Burden by William Easterly sums up the topic of this hefty book very well. Easterly reviews foreign aid campaigns of the past sixty years to show how usually well-intentioned efforts have been dismally ineffective. The problem as he sees it is that rich Western powers look at the rest of the world paternally and try to dictate reform and development. They are 'planners" who often give tons of money to willing governments, never asking the poor themselves what would really help them. The aid rarely trickles down. Another problem is that the West schemes to fix problems globally instead of studying local problems and fixing them one by one. Easterly argues that donors should be "seekers" who look for real ways to help to help at a grass roots level.

While Easterly is an economist and his book includes many statistics and tables, White Man's Burden is conversational in tone and very readable. The title comes from the old colonial idea that the West needed to convert the undeveloped world to Christianity and democracy. With the duty came many privileges for profit and comfort, permitting exploitation with clear conscience. Easterly includes some colonial history to preface his discussion, but most of the text deals with post-World War II developments.

Easterly contradicts conventional development rhetoric. For instance, on page 124 the author explains why the discovery of oil in third world countries does not often help the poor. When there is great wealth for exploitation, international corporations and the leaders in the countries concerned lock up the funds. No middle class ever develops. Contrary to promises made by Western leaders, democracy does not follow. Poor countries without mineral wealth have a much better track record of developing democracy and feeding the poor than those with oil reserves.

Plans made by the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund often hurt the poor that are supposed to be helped. Easterly tells a story on page 194 about Western powers building a road to help poor farmers in Lesotho send their crops to market. The road actually let cheaper goods into the isolated area, which undercut the farmers and put them out of business.

Chapter Nine tells about the failures of Western military action to set things right in third world countries. Nation building has failed for over 150 years. Easterly discusses Haiti, Nicaragua, and Angola in detail.

Chapter Ten shows how countries that have not gotten Western aid are more democratic and economically healthier than those who have. Of course, the countries not receiving aid were usually more developed anyway, but nothing the West has done has brought the poorer countries up to them.

The author finishes the book with recommendations for reforming the way aid is distributed, bypassing corrupt governments and letting the poor choose and earn their aid. He describes, which he says works like an eBay for international aid, matching aid seekers with prospective donors.

White Man's Burden is an interesting book that should be widely discussed.

Easterly, William. The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. ISBN 1594200378

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