35 pages 1 hour read

William Easterly

The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2006

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The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good is William Easterly’s investigation and critique of international development, foreign aid, and Western intervention, including the histories and effects of colonialism and imperialism. Easterly comes with decades of experience as a development economist working with global institutions such as the World Bank and on projects across the developing world, which is reflected in his book, first published in 2006.

The first chapter begins with the poem “The White Man’s Burden,” written by Rudyard Kipling at the “height of the imperial era” (278). Kipling was an advocate of colonialism and a believer of the West, or “White Man’s,” divine responsibility to impose their cultures and structures on the rest of the world, usually people of color. Therefore, the term “white man’s burden” becomes a euphemism for imperialism and Western control. For current times, the white man’s burden is still a euphemism for Western intervention, but it added the shiny wrap of foreign aid. When President Truman called for a “bold new program […] the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas” is his inaugural address (24), he packaged the old mindset in modern jargon. From that point onward, it became part of a lexicon that created an aid development industry that spewed trillions of dollars in order to transform the lives of the poor.

The first chapter also outlines the book’s central dilemma: the perspective of the Planners versus the Searchers. Within the context of foreign aid, Easterly defines the Planners as those who hold idealistic beliefs to solve the world’s problems and take a top-down approach, while Searchers look for a specific solution through a bottom-up approach and experiment until they satisfy a customer. The Planners are responsible for vague and broad initiatives that are laudable and grandiose, such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and for the failures that exist from these unrealistic expectations with unclear methods. On the other hand, Searchers are credited with producing tailor-made results that are effective because, unlike the Planners’ systems, they receive feedback and are held accountable against measures for impact.

After each chapter, Easterly shares anecdotes, which he calls “Snapshots,” and within these interspersed snippets, he shows the real-life triumphs of Searchers who made a measurable and profound difference in their communities through piecemeal actions. These improvements range from encouraging people to use soap against deadly yet preventable diseases such as diarrhea or getting clean water in a village in Ethiopia."

According to Easterly, there are two tragedies: the first is global problems that include extreme poverty and its effects, and the second is that despite the West’s spending 2.3 trillion dollars in aid, these problems remain unresolved. Throughout the subsequent chapters, Easterly focuses on the latter tragedy.

In Part 1: “Why Planners Cannot Bring Prosperity,” he lists the assumptions and paths taken by Planners that prevent them from succeeding in their mission. For instance, funneling in large amounts of aid will not help the poorest of countries without a strategy or understanding of their regional histories and circumstances. Free-market reforms have been historically unsuccessful as evidenced by the programs pushed, by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other global financial entities, on economies in Eastern Europe to Latin America. In addition, problems in regard to property rights, cheating and faulty governments become obstacles in maintaining trust and integrity for free markets.

During Part 2: “Acting Out the Burden," Easterly touches upon the failures of aid agencies and the IMF as well as the moves toward funding for AIDS. With this backdrop, Easterly notes that aid agencies are obstructed by their lack of measurable outcomes and their favoritism in giving money to countries that serve their political interests. Similarly, the IMF and their continuous involvement in countries result in total state collapse without any path to betterment for the country. Finally, AIDS funding becomes wasteful when the focus is on treatment rather than prevention, which backfires in the long run due to costs and inability to maintain health care practices.

Easterly delves into colonialism and imperialism in Part 3: “The White Man’s Army” to explain the old structures that still affect many countries and are hurdles to recovery, such as the colonizers’ haphazard creation of national borders and the military invasions in the name of democracy that led countries into further disarray and chaos.

Although Easterly admits that there is no “Big Answer” in Part 4: “The Future,” he illustrates countries that managed to succeed without much foreign aid or Western assistance, such as India, China, Botswana, and others, because of Searchers’ efforts. Easterly argues that to be effective agents for the poor, aid organizations must incorporate systematic evaluation and advocates for observation, accountability, feedback loops, use of experienced individuals working from the local context, and incentives that reward successes.

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