William Easterly and The White Man’s Burden

Note: This post is more or less a book review of William Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden, which came out in 2006 (a whole decade ago). He has since written another book on development economics, The Tyranny of Experts.

More on Easterly, and on Jeffrey Sachs, will be up soon.


William Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden, is infamous for its critiques of the international aid scene. I was surprised by how much I agreed with his ideas, and how many of them seem to have been implicitly incorporated into the philosophy of the burgeoning effective altruism movement.

First of all, in light of the curmudgeonly tone of the book, I had to keep reminding myself of the context.  Easterly spent sixteen years as a Research Economist at the World Bank, so his palpable frustration with the bureaucracy of governmental aid organizations makes sense, even if I can’t personally relate to it. Also, many of his ideas seem obvious and straightforward within the framework of effective altruism, but I had to remind myself that this book came out only a few years after the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) had formed, and at the same time as the first effective altruism organizations were just getting started (the term “effective altruism” wasn’t coined until 2011).

The biggest frustration I have with Easterly’s worldview is the dichotomy he sets up between the ‘Planner’ and the ‘Searcher’. Planners are supply-side, big picture, bureaucratic, paternalistic, top-down, utopian, central plannin’, generalist, Big Answer lovin’, and world summit holdin’, while the Searchers are demand-side, on the ground, adaptable, bottom-up, realistic, specialist, market-lovin, piecemeal interventionist, homegrown-solution havers.  These terms become a catch-all for everything that is good and bad in aid, with any ineffective approach more or less defined as being a Planner approach. His choice of the nouns Planner and Searcher implies an absurd black and white picture of the international aid scene, where organizations are run by Planners with a few sneaky Searchers at the bottom doing actual good. There is obviously lots of grey here, and Easterly seems unwilling to admit that a single person can both Plan and Search.

As long as I (mis)interpret Easterly’s anti-Planner tirades as simple critiques of the current system and his pro-Searcher tirades as practical advice for how to better these existing institutions, the book becomes at once refreshing and helpful. For example: foreign aid often lacks feedback from and accountability to the targeted poor. He considers the lack of these two elements to be critical flaws that are responsible for many very inefficient and ineffective interventions. Right on. But his complaints would feel more valid if they were directly targeting the inevitably inefficient bureaucracy of politicized organizations (as opposed to some implied club of intentionally obtuse Planners). Of course, the fact that I think he’s shouting in the wrong direction doesn’t make his complaints any less valid. Legitimate reform and vigilant attempts to incorporate true accountability was and is sorely needed in organizations like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In reality, I think Easterly’s biggest gripes are with bureaucracy and politics, which are very frustrating and nearly insurmountable obstacles getting in the way of effective world aid, but which are deeper issues than what is implied by simply labeling people as planners. He admits that we should not abolish these large aid institutions, but rather inject them with some Searcher best practices. Unfortunately, he never really admits to Planning being, at the very least, a necessary evil (in his worldview), if not a sometimes helpful and important component of aid. He is careful to deny it, but in reality, he himself has a Big Plan, that of the Piecemeal Search.

Second, his critique of our predilection for grandiose, utopian Big Plans is completely valid, if somewhat heavy-handed. Here the real enemy seems to be politics, which is forwards an agenda that only sometimes chances to align with the actual needs of the poor. While we shouldn’t feel responsible for the intractability of politics, politically motivated aid choices can have terrible consequences for the poor. Obviously getting our government to give aid is generally a good thing, but expensive band-aid interventions (like current aid efforts for the AIDS epidemic) are indefensible when there are many other promising and proven interventions in need of aid.

What really sticks out to me is this: considering the history of colonialism and racial superiority that led to the conceptual framework of Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden” (read it, it’s awful), a framework that Easterly sufficiently proves led to many a misguided, naïve, and harmful intervention, we have to be extra careful that we aren’t still institutionalizing these mistakes. Even if it turns out that we come up with an intervention that is likely to be totally successful at sparking growth or reducing poverty in some way, it is still a mistake to “force” implementation (for example: IMF giving out conditional loans). Not only is it a disservice to the autonomy of a country, but we have enough anecdotal and empirical evidence to show that it is likely to cause more harm than good. Easterly is quite reasonable on this front, admitting that it’s totally possible that military and economic intervention could be necessary or useful. It’s just that in real life, we have so many examples of horrific screw ups that even the most optimistic development economist should take pause and tread carefully. Neo-imperialism leaching into policy decisions is a subtle and dangerous reality.

Some things:

  • I personally found his argument against the ‘poverty trap’ worldview to be kind of weak.
  • His anti-Sachs/Bono/celebtrity/etc. tirades had legitimate points but seemed rather one-dimensional (and curmudgeony).
  • He has an utter lack of distinction between private and public aid. This complaint is unwarranted considering that, given his background, Easterly seems to be talking almost exclusively about government aid throughout the book.
  • In that case, my complaint becomes that he doesn’t talk about private aid. Again, considering that this book comes out before the effective altruism movement (which largely supports private aid organizations, per logic identical to Easterly’s main thesis) began to gain momentum, and the small fraction of private vs public international aid in the US, this makes sense. Still…
  • his generalizations about everything that is wrong with aid aren’t quite as damning when you realize that his real beef with bureaucracy and politics is not as necessary a component of the private aid landscape.


I do think that much of the development economics and effective altruism movement has, consciously or not, adapted most of Easterly’s main points into their philosophy while shedding the pessimism and problematic generalizations. Rigorous study of piecemeal intervention has become more and more popular, and is (hopefully) leading to a broader understanding of how to best help the poor on a global scale. Easterly directly asked for no strings attached cash transfers in the vein of PROGRESA (now Prospera), and GiveDirectly does exactly that. Global health interventions remain the most popular, for reasons similar to those outlined by Easterly. As for the great debate with Sachs et al?  I find it hard to believe that Sachs or any but the truly entrenched “Planner” would be uninterested in having more scientific evidence, or pushing for efficiency, transparency and accountability. While their world views may differ, I think Sachs or even Bono would be on board with most of Easterly’s reform suggestions, as long as they don’t have to hang out with him.

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