The Magazine

Good Intentions

How Big Plans in foreign aid yield Little Results.

Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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As much as is possible for a book describing gut-wrenching poverty and human misery, The White Man's Burden is actually a very fun read. Books about the plight of Africa and development economics tend to be tedious affairs, weighed down by sanctimony and self-importance, not to mention plain bad writing. Thankfully, Easterly is as engaging and entertaining as he is cerebral, and his book crackles with combative, often cheeky, prose. He is keenly aware that outrage is better communicated by blistering wit than by angry tirades or glib moralizing.

He suggests, for example, that judging aid by the total amount of money given to poor countries is a little like telling moviegoers that Catwoman (voted worst film of 2004) wasn't really so bad because, after all, it cost a whopping $200 million to make. In the pathology of aid, he quips, "the rich people who pay for the tickets are not the ones who see the movie."

That's not to say there aren't chinks in Easterly's armor. According to The White Man's Burden, the obsession with grandiose social engineering and big plans is a peculiar Western fixation, a reflection of "white arrogance." But as Easterly well knows, political elites in developing countries have been equally willing to buy into the dream of a top-down, comprehensive transformation of their societies, especially in the aftermath of decolonization. Easterly acknowledges at several points the capacity of governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America for corruption and venality, but he fails to mention the extent to which leaders like Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah were just as easily seduced as Western intellectuals by myths like the "poverty trap" and the "Big Push."

Nor were the World Bank and the Agency for International Development alone in peddling these dubious theories. As Easterly himself detailed in his previous book, The Elusive Quest for Growth, early development economics was heavily influenced by the perceived success of Stalin's crash industrialization program in the 1930s, and throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union was aggressively pushing its economic ideology across the developing world. Although inconvenient for the purposes of Easterly's title, utopian social engineering schemes have proven appeal across ethnic, racial, and cultural lines.

Easterly is also less convincing in his criticism of Western military intervention, which he singles out as the epitome "of what this book argues you should not do--have the West operate on other societies with virtually no feedback."

On the one hand, Easterly deserves praise for acknowledging that foreign aid and military intervention are two sides of the same coin: Both are fundamentally about leveraging national power to affect the internal conditions of a foreign society. In addition, he's right to point out the hypocrisy of liberals and conservatives alike in blindly embracing one approach and skeptically rejecting the other: "The Left likes the idea of a big-state led effort to fight global poverty. The Right likes the idea of benevolent imperialism to spread Western capitalism and subdue opposition to the West."

But at times, Easterly paints with too broad a brush, especially in his assertion that "military interventionists are inherently Planners." In fact, no. In villages in rural Afghanistan, American soldiers meet with local leaders, listen to their requests, and implement small-scale, quick-impact projects, such as digging wells, building schools, or providing medical care for basic ailments. In many respects, the U.S. military in Afghanistan is closer to Easterly's vision of how foreign assistance should work than the aid bureaucrats in Kabul who complain that the soldiers' modest projects haven't been sufficiently pre-programmed into national development strategies.

It's too bad Easterly didn't apply his ideas about aid to military intervention: Namely, that there are limits to its ability to transform a foreign society, but that it is also capable of accomplishing certain discrete and valuable objectives--if wielded wisely. The ouster of the Taliban could no more have been accomplished through foreign aid than the elimination of malaria can be carried out with F-18s. But both are decent, progressive objectives to be touted by anyone who cares about helping people in the developing world.