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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.

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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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Jeffrey Sachs and The End of Poverty

Note: This post is more or less a book review of Jeffrey Sachs’ book, The End Of Poverty, which came out in 2005 (a whole decade ago), and he has since written other books on development economics. His flagship development project Millennium Villages, launched in 2005, should be publishing final results sometime soon, but the evaluation has been controversial, especially after Nina Monk’s somewhat disillusioned book The Idealist (2013) came out about Sachs and the project.

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

 

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Jeffrey Sachs’ book, The End Of Poverty, has rightfully been at the center of the development economics debate since it was published in 2006. While his optimism comes off as unrealistic and saccharine at times, his basic framework is grounded enough in reality to paint a truly inspiring picture of the very possible extermination of extreme poverty.  While there is some unpacking to do, Sachs develops a theory dedicated to a results-oriented, methodical, scientific approach to fighting poverty, and supplies lots of valid critiques of the international aid scene.

Sachs clearly defines himself as believing that comprehensive, multi-national, multi-pronged plans are needed to get individuals and nations out of poverty for good. He knows he knows how to fix poverty, and he knows it’s going to take a lot of international aid. Easy enough, right? He hooks you (and himself) in with the story behind his  (successful) economic policies in Bolivia and Poland, convincing you that development economics is relatively easy, and all fits in his neat little theory. Then he ups the difficulty (and complexity) setting from his (much less successful) experience in Russia to ideas about China, then India, all the way to the big one: Africa.

As an effective altruism fanboy, I of course love his “clinical economics” approach, whose “differential diagnosis” admits explicitly that development is complicated and regionally unique. He readily admits that development is messy, complex, prone to mistakes, and lacking proper monitoring and evaluation, and that the present-day system congratulates itself on inputs rather than outputs (Sachs himself seems to succumb to this last enticement from time to time). All in all, his logical, big-picture approach appears to separate him greatly from the stereotypical bigwig, bureaucratic ‘Planners’ of the development economics world.

He points out many often unacknowledged factors that make economic growth particular difficult, including: physical geographic features (being landlocked without cheap access to ports, mountainous, no good network of rivers, poor soil, low rainfall); lack of infrastructure (especially low quality roads); unique disease burden (unique geography, weather, or mosquito breeds); cultural barriers; and geopolitics (trade barriers and sanctions, crushing international debt).  The world isn’t fair, and some countries got an extremely bad hand (often with some external colonial or cold-war meddling to boot), and many pro-market, pro-democracy demagogues refuse to acknowledge that.  I’d heard of the “paradox of plenty” before, but I’d never thought about the crushing transport costs involved with mountainous terrain, or how useful it is for a country to have sea ports. He gives a fairly convincing, eye-opening history of the world that explicitly points out how arbitrary factors like these can be responsible for the history of worldwide development, and that the racist and tribalist social theory of colonialism is largely trumped by more or less random factors (Acemoglu and Robinson really critique Sachs on this in Why Nations Fail, but that’s for another blog post).

Sachs often berates the work of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, who offer macroeconomic advice and loans (often at economic gunpoint) to undeveloped countries. He sees much of their work as simplistic, unrealistic, neocolonialist, and paternalistic, and often just plain economically incorrect, and with good reason. Of course, Sachs has time and again offered macroeconomic advice to governments, which is basically what IMF does, but it seems like Sachs is actually working with the government of, say, Bolivia, not dictating orders as an outsider. Regardless, Sachs really is a planner through and through, but it’s possible that’s not a  bad thing. Scaling up and combining interventions that are relatively proven and individualized for each country is going to require a lot of planning (and bureaucracy). If you want to alleviate poverty quickly, you’ve got to go all in right?

Unfortunately, we have plenty of anecdotes from the last 30+ years of developmental aid of slow and wasteful bureaucratic aid, and in spite of himself Sachs seems partial to bureaucracy (he basically brags about the number of people in teams working under him for the UN Millennium Project). He’s in this strange in-between place where he is correctly critical of all the failures of previous big aid attempts, but completely optomistic that this time, we’ll get it right. For example, he  positively beams about the Millennium Goals while simultaneously acknowledging that many of them are simply failed goals from decades ago, slated anew for the new century. How many times are we going to move the goalposts? Sachs seems to walk this line a lot, giving politics and bureaucracy a lot more credit than I would, even as he disparages them.

Then again, maybe I’m just not willing to admit how much organization and planning is necessary to try to solve poverty all over the world as quickly as possible.

My biggest complaint about Sachs relates to his work combating AIDS in Africa, and it represents a flaw that may unravel his entire argument. His success focused on getting more funding (input) by proving that later stage HIV treatment was manageably expensive (he was right). But late stage HIV treatment, while politically tractable, is a huge waste of money and resources, and he does the world a huge disservice by not focusing funds on preventative measures. With late stage treatment, number of patients treated is a pretty useless output, since zero of those treated patients is cured, they just have their suffering (greatly) reduced, then they die. When there are other diseases (like malaria) with a cure that costs many orders of magnitude less per person, and when AIDS prevention is relatively cheap and relatively effective, this choice is extremely costly. Isn’t Sachs’ whole point in this book is that we have to fix the problem at the source, not with a Band-Aid? Sachs’ flowery rhetoric in this section makes me wonder what else in the book sounds great, but has deep flaws hidden under the surface that I can’t see.

Some big things:

  •  I agree with what seems to be Sachs’ core concept, that ending global absolute poverty (living on under USD $2 a day)  is totally possible, if not by 2025, then within my lifetime.
  •  I buy his argument that debt relief is a must (and we should mostly do away with loans as a form of aid).
  • I also agree with the other core concept that the world, and America especially, needs to throw a lot more money at this problem. This sounds flippant, but it isn’t.  The rich world can absolutely afford to exterminate extreme poverty, even with the  inefficient and wasteful approach we often currently take. The many (many) billions required is a drop in the bucket of the world economy. And it really is a one and done deal (on a decades time scale): one very, very, large investment that will eventually stop being necessary. The US has already symbolically committed to aid in the form of .07% of GDP, and it is a moral failure that we refuse to commit to it. Aid needs to be made politically tractable (something Sachs has been very effective at doing).
  • Sachs has sufficiently convinced me that for a growing number of countries, lack of donor money is a bottleneck for beginning a path toward self-sufficient growth (now that I’ve read Why Nations Fail, maybe not so much).

While Sachs is talking about public aid throughout the book, he does make a plea to rich individuals in the United States at the end, in line with effective altruist Peter Singer’s argument in The Life You Can Save, which came out two years later. Their conclusions are the same (Singer being directly influenced by Sachs): absolute poverty can be ended relatively quickly for relatively little money (if you are mega rich or the GDP of the entire world).

In any case, a lot of optimism is needed to fight the fight to end poverty, and Sachs has it in spades. He lays out a consistent, thorough, and multilayered approach to ending poverty, and I believe it could work, although I am markedly less optimistic about its effectiveness. We’ll just have to see if he can prove his claims.