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Thursday, November 22, 2007

The White Man's Burden

William Easterly's The White Man's Burden – Why The West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good in some regard is a response to Jeffrey Sachs' The End Of Poverty. I had to choose one of them for an in-class assignment, but I felt that in order to get the full picture I should read both.

As so often with judgement calls it is hard to decide who is right and who is wrong, even when Easterly so clearly and openly disagrees with Sachs and it seems inherently necessary to choose a side. Just as a reminder, Sachs claims that an increase in financial aid will allow countries to escape the poverty trap in which they currently are stuck (this is obviously a very simplified and condensed version of his argument). Easterly on the other hand is of the opinion that no general blueprint provides a solution for a disparate group of poor countries. Instead of so-called planners trying to solve all problems at once – something that according to Sachs would be necessary, as partial solutions would not suffice for countries to escape the aforementioned poverty trap – he wants more searchers, knowledgeable locals who offer creative (or simple) solutions for small and specific problems. These searchers would allow market principles, trial and error, to create development, instead of relying on inefficient international institutions and aid agencies or corrupt local governments.

Easterly strongly criticizes Sachs for his belief in broad national plans that provide the big push needed for poor countries to start developing. Easterly is of the opinion that this does not work, because of bad governance and inefficient aid agencies whose activities are not evaluated by anyone but themselves. What he does not take into account is that Sachs actually agrees with him here to some extent. Sachs' national plans require a stable government only limitedly corrupt in order to have any chance of success. While he himself does not point this out, it is thus clear that failed states or highly instable countries are incapable of taking part in his plan to end extreme poverty by 2025. Furthermore, Easterly does not refute the poverty trap, assuming that this trap exists for certain countries his method of market forces combined with aid would not be sufficient for truly sustainable growth.

Finally, I believe that Easterly and Sachs are not as incompatible as they seem to think. Easterly admits himself that the current levels of financial aid are low per capita even if not in absolute numbers. They accordingly agree on a required increase in aid. Sachs' approach could be used for a strictly limited number of countries, those inherently limited by their geographic and medical conditions, while Easterly's approach of independent evaluation and more customer-orientated aid could be used for the rest. This especially, as his approach would restrict national governments misuse of financial aid through the dispersal of money of a local project level.

Easterly's book, while a very worthy read, especially after Sachs' glowing optimism, has to be faulted in that it is clearly written by an economist. His arguments are good, his examples as well, his writing style is not. Basically, what he does in large parts of the book is recount examples of what worked or did not. These examples and statistics individually might be very interesting – and are to a large extent – assure that the book never develops any kind of flow. It does thus not offer a very fast or pleasant reading, even when it provides for a very interesting argument.

1 comment:

Thomas Oatley said...

I would even go so far as to suggest that they two offer identical portraits of the "problem" of poverty: clinical economics and Easterly's call for more local-specific knowledge amount to the same thing. They both advocate similar solutions--develop policies and practices that work well in the context of specific local conditions.

They seem to differ primarily in the degree to which we can engineer these solutions.