Monday, October 02, 2006

William Easterly

William Easterly's new book The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Help the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good is getting quite a bit of attention of late, including this piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Review of Books.

Just from what I've gleaned from the various reviews, there seemed to be a variety of potential critiques one could make of this book. I find some of them more satisfying than others. Easterly is definately pro-capitalism, and the burden of responsibility his market-liberal ideology places on the poor certainly sounds like something most scholars in my field would find distasteful (a common quote given from the book is how attaching a token fee to mosquito nets, rather than giving them out for free, increased the percentage of people who used the nets they obtained, Easterly - or his source, it isn't clear - infers this is because the fee made net recipients "value" the nets). His central claim, however, seems to be that aid agencies should use best possible practices to target their spending (including, very importantly, listening to the expertise of the people they are tasked with helping) and the dollars spent should be evaluated objectively to evaluate how well they work. I understand the potential problems with this (who is "objective"? what questions will they ask? what assumptions about the goals will they make?), but I think it has some merit. I admit I can't speak for folks in the field of aid, but if its anything like my own field - academe - there may be a need to admit that wishes aren't horses. We need to find out if what we are doing is actually doing any good. I've read too many "revolutionary theories" that never lead to any revolutionary social change. Or even meaningful reform. Dreaming a new reality is a necessary step to creating a new reality, but it is not a sufficent step. We must know what methods will succeed in realizing our dreams.

That rant out of the way... here's a critique of Easterly's logic I find fairly compelling. Why is it only the poor and those spending money to help the poor who need to be evaluated? I suppose in Easterly's mind aid agencies are spending "someone else's money" and thus need oversight... but the west's wealth was gained via colonial exploitation. Is it really fair to evaluate only those who would try to give it back? Shouldn't there be some thought to "evaluating" how the wealthy and powerful spend "their" money, and what the social consequences of that might be? Or would that be an unthinkable intrusion on our precious "consumer freedom?"

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