White Man’s Burden Summary

William Easterly

White Man’s Burden

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White Man’s Burden Summary

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In his 2006 text, 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 University economics professor William Easterly contends that when large agencies are developed to aid the poor, they are doomed to fail because their goals are utopian in nature and are formulated with little input from those they are trying to help. In order to help the poor, according to Easterly, efforts must begin by understanding the culture from the bottom up and to define accountability as shown through effectiveness. The Washington Post said of the book, “His analysis is depressing but quite readable—thanks largely to his skill in giving lively names and conceptual handles to his explanations for why the West’s charitable works in fact accomplish ‘so much ill and so little good.’”

The concept of wealthy governments attempting to help those countries that have lower standards of living dates back to at least the nineteenth century and the Welsh social reformer Robert Owens, who was a founder of a socialist utopian movement in Scotland and then later founded an experimental utopian society in America. In White Man’s Burden, Easterly explains that there is no secret to achieving successful economic growth. He points out that many foreign aid programs not only fail to bring advancement, but that they, in fact, often get in the way of finding local solutions to the problems that stand in the way of poorer nations’ growth. In addition, foreign intervention can get in the way of using local markets and banking institutions.

Easterly addresses the frequent negative outcomes of loans and grants provided by the World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, and the United States Agency for International Development. Those programs, he points out, have as their focus the best interest of the wealthy and are guided by what the rich perceive to be what is best for the recipients of the monies, but not necessarily what would benefit them the most. The process of utilizing what is known as “top-down goal setting” makes the situation worse because it shuts out information and feedback from the “bottom,” blocking out what really needs to be known about why these projects meet with failure so frequently. Adding another layer of frustration to the efforts is the fact that poorer nations are frequently riddled with corrupt and unscrupulous governmental officials who embezzle money and increase the cost of conducting business while shunning private investments.

What Easterly recommends are what he refers to as “searchers,” not for profit businesses or entrepreneurs who are given power, and who are well versed in the needs of the poor and their surroundings. This is to replace what he calls “planners” who think from the top down. These searchers should try out ideas on a small scale and have measurable goals to achieve. One example he cites is a program designed by a United States nonprofit organization to help fight malaria in Malawi. Nurses are dispatched to sell protective nets in rural regions via clinics and are paid a few cents for each sale. This provides an incentive, and the work is done in conjunction with selling the same nets to a richer faction of society at a much higher cost, which makes the smaller nonprofit group successful and self-sufficient. The program created to sell the nets has proven itself more successful than those that give them away for free, as it was found that people paying for them are more likely to use them, thus leading to increased results in achieving the ultimate goal of reducing the disease.

Although Easterly argues strongly against foreign aid as it has traditionally existed, for example the World Bank, he suggests that it can be used with a smaller scope. It can be particularly useful in areas of public health, he suggests. Recommended are such safeguards as allowing recipients to have a role in selecting the agency from which to obtain support and working with a type of voucher system. He believes that free markets work but not when forced. Their success relies on the support of political systems and institutions through which to work. The author continues to stress the necessity of poverty-stricken people and societies using efforts that encourage self- reliance and points to growth in many Asian nations in support of the concept. Easterly does not contend that there is a one-size-fits-all approach inherent to his ideas. The New York Times Book Review recognizes this, as well as the significance of his book. “Easterly is understandably skittish about generalizations, but extracting lessons from experience is quite compatible with decentralized searching. Businesses in radically different industries learn from one another. Searching includes discovering the day’s best practices. Not every situation is unique…Easterly asks the right questions, combining compassion with clear-eyed empiricism.”