Keywords: Economics, politics, current affairs, international development

Title: The White Man's Burden

Author: William Easterly

Publisher: OUP/Penguin

ISBN: 0199210829/1594200378


There is a popular belief, fostered by many in the media and politics, that poverty in Africa and the developing world is simply a problem of money. If we just pump in more cash from the west, the thinking goes, then we can alleviate the many problems caused by poverty. It's that simple, all we have to do is donate more and more money to tackle poverty, malnutrition, lack of access to drinking water, HIV/AIDS and the rest of the problems. But, after 50 years of Western aid, and more that $2.3 trillion of aid, children are still dying from preventable diseases, people are still starving and lack access to drinking water, sanitation and basic education. Why is it that so much money has bought so little improvement in the lives of the African poor?

William Easterly, Professor of Economics at New York University and with a long track record in development, tackles precisely this question. The results make for uncomfortable but compelling reading. He describes not just the billions of dollars that have been, and continue to be, pumped into development budgets, he also describes what these dollars have bought for the people who are supposed to be the ultimate beneficiaries of this money. He describes the vast budgets, byzantine bureaucracies and the towering edifice that is the modern development industry.

Why has development (largely) failed? Easterly makes a strong case that a large part of the blame lies in the statist mind-set of donor governments, the World Bank, IMF and other organisations. Where Western governments, for the most part, no longer believe in central planning in their own economies, they see fit to impose central planning on the recipient countries. Easterly contrasts the activities of Planners and Searchers - between those who believe in command and control economics and those who just look for something that works.

He identifies specific failings in the current development process, for example issues with a lack of accountability, the emphasis on grandiose plans rather than specific and measurably goals, the problems with corrupt governments and so on. These are both symptoms and causes of the failure of the development process.

Easterly's book is not simply a paean to the free market. He does not argue for the imposition of free market capitalism, pointing out that the 'shock treatment' that was attempted in Russia with disastrous results. Institutions cannot be imposed from outside - free markets have to be given the chance to emerge organically rather than imported wholemeal. Obviously the governments of developing countries have to put the appropriate policies into place. Corruption, nepotism, tribalism, authoritarianism and bloated bureaucracies not only stop economic development (as so vividly described in Robert Guest's 'Shackled Continent', they are also excellent ways of soaking up those billions of dollars in aid.

Does this mean that we should step back and give up on development? Easterly thinks not. He suggests that the way forward is to accept that the West doesn't have all the answers. For the West to stop imagining that they have to 'save' Africa because the Africans can't do it. He suggests that the utopian plans to rid the world of poverty in one fell swoop are put away and replaced with more prosaic, smaller scale and more modest ambitions. By-pass corrupt governments and local bureaucrats and support those people who have local solutions to problems. Let market mechanisms sort through the projects that work and those that fail.

Trying the same thing again and again, not learning from failure and blindly hoping that next time it will work is madness, but that is what the West has been doing for a long time now. Easterly's book is an important one, and the arguments he raises cannot and should not be ignored.

Contents © London Book Review 2006. Published November 15 2006