February 25, 2006
The white man's burden
William Easterly wrote the first book I ever read about development - The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventure in the Tropics. Next month, he'll be coming out with the even more ambitiously titled: The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.
There were two things that made the first book such a good read.
First, it was jargon-free, written for people like you and me who have not got their Masters in Advanced Development Acronyms (MADA) from Tufts.
The second was that it came up with a passionately argued answer to a tough, tough question. The question was - why is so much of the world still so dramatically screwed up after more than 30 years of aid and development work largely funded by the west? It's a question I've been thinking about a lot after last week's trip to Ethiopia's drought-hit Oromiya region - an area which has been caught up in droughts many times in the past and looks likely to repeat its experience many times in the future.
The answer to why western aid had apparently made so little impact, according to Easterly, was all to do with big, dumb, imposed development schemes and a failure to understand the simple mantra "people respond to incentives".
There have been lots of bad schemes creating bad incentives, he said - "rewarding" corrupt governments who misuse aid by offering them debt forgiveness etc etc. And there have been very few schemes creating good incentives or removing bad disincentives - slashing red tape to make it easier to start new businesses in developing countries etc etc.
The book was pretty invigorating stuff, helped along by Mr Easterly's gift for a crushing phrase. A good example of that came in his opinion piece in last week's Washington Post titled The West Can't Save Africa, in which he reflected on Tony Blair, Bob Geldof and Jeffrey Sachs' big Africa push in 2005:
Everyone, it seems, was invited to the "Save Africa" campaign of 2005 except for Africans. They starred only as victims: genocide casualties, child soldiers, AIDS patients and famine deaths on our 43-inch plasma screens.
Yes, these tragedies deserve attention, but the obsessive and almost exclusive Western focus on them is less relevant to the vast majority of Africans -- the hundreds of millions not fleeing from homicidal minors, not HIV-positive, not starving to death, and not helpless wards waiting for actors and rock stars to rescue them. Angelina, the continent has problems but it is not being destroyed.
By all accounts, he gets even feistier in 'White Man's Burden'. According to a mixed review of the book by the greatest development writer of them all Amartya Sen "[The book] is a critique of all grand plans to save the world hatched in Washington or London or Paris".
All great stuff. Nothing like a bit of west-bashing to get you going in the morning.
So why exactly do aid workers, many of them western, continue to get up in the morning, amid all this apparent failure?
My best guess is that, despite all the colourful cynicism of people like Mr Easterly, there are lots of development projects that do actually work. It is easy to come up with a list of bizarre development failures over the past 30 years or so.
As The Economist said last July:
The aid sceptics-some of them veterans of the industry, their palms calloused from many previous bouts of hand-wringing over Africa-have all the best lines in the debate. Everything has been seen before, they say, nothing has worked.
But those same sceptics overlook the obvious successes.
One of those is good, old fashioned short-term emergency aid - as opposed to schemes that try and introduce long term change. Therapeutic feeding centres, for example, can transform a tiny human skeleton into a chuckling, healthy child in a matter of weeks with miraculous supplementary foods like Plumpy'Nut. I saw it happen in East Haraghe late last year. (I have also heard development sceptics - not including Easterly I hasten to add - huff and puff about this kind of "short-term fix" and ask what is the point of saving a child's life and then returning them to their original state of grinding poverty. They then go on to make ominous noises about the perils of fuelling Ethiopia's spiralling population growth. But have these people really thought through the implications of what they are saying?)
Another set of often-forgotten successes are the large scale campaigns against disease. Back in the 1960s, Smallpox was an unbeatable scourge, killing millions a year. Today, thanks to large scale coordinated public health campaigns, it has ceased to exist. In a few years time, we could be watch Polio suffer the same fate - thanks largely to global development oganisations like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Rotary International. In a few decades time, we may thanking Bill Gates and other development kingpins for doing the same to Malaria and HIV/AIDS.
So there are some significant successes to set against all the ills inflicted by the west through its development efforts. Successes, however, are not nearly as much fun to write about as a string of colourful failures. So I will quite understand if Mr Easterly chooses to leave them out of what should still be a real rip-roaring development page-turner.
Posted by aheavens at February 25, 2006 6:41 AM