While in Nigeria I had the opportunity to read William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. I brought it along on my trip with the hope that it might inform my perspective (on “Western development efforts”) while there.
I’d previously read Jeff Sachs The End of Poverty, and while I appreciate Sachs passion (and successes), I also find some of his views to stop short of where I’d like them to go. He talks about those in poverty getting their foot on the ‘first rung’ of the development ladder, and points to successes in poor countries, and while I can appreciate the decreases in poverty in many of the countries he uses as examples, I can also see populations that are still widely exploited and marginalized. Call me optimistic, utopian, whatever, but I wish Jeff Sachs went further in demanding we boost the poor directly to the fourth or fifth rung of the ladder, not just to the first. Kernaghan puts it better than I can, talking about those who are desperate moving simply “from misery to poverty.” That Washington Post article sums up my problem; Kernaghan’s anecdote of a Bangladeshi worker who told him, “If we could earn 37 cents an hour, we could live with a little dignity.” That worker currently made 21 cents an hour.
Easterly is widely know to be critical of Sachs and I was interested to try his views on for size and see if I cared better for them, or if perhaps they cast Sachs views in a different light for me.
My overall impression of the book is that I enjoyed it. Easterly is self-critical and not afraid to admit his own past mistakes, and this puts him in a credible light as he draws the outlines of other mistakes of aid and economic policy. I will say that he stops short of being as self-critical as I would like. Frequently he fails to indict the World Bank or IMF for destructive policies or mistakes they have made, and I believe this is because of his own past history with the World Bank. He is quick to assign culpability for other institutions that have made similar or less egregious errors, and so this is the only one fatal flaw I find with the book.
Some have accused Sachs and Easterly of playing off of each other — of having public disagreements in furtherance of their own careers. Sort of the Tupac and Biggie of economics, if you will. I think there is a hint of truth to this criticism, but I also think that careerism is a pragmatic necessity for many who want to enact change while working from within the system. I’d like to be careful about judging others — it’s a dangerous practice, and frankly it’s not very productive, as my interest is in positive change, not casting aspersions. I do find it interesting that both of their books are published by Penguin Press, and the spines look eerily similar. That said, I think that’s really not a bad thing; these are two books that should be taken together, as they are both seeking to address the same problem, and surely the reader can better understand the problem and the benefits of each author’s approach after absorbing both volumes.
Easterly’s book is filled with political and development history, and those who don’t know the basics of, say, Nicaragua and the Contra/FLSN struggle, will find this book an informative primer. In this case there is the inherent problem that you’re also trusting someone who is not a historian to teach you about history, and many people might warn against taking history lessons from a former World Bank economist (the World Bank is hardly a neutral party), but his accountings strike me as relatively neutral.