The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, by William Easterly

His grand plan? There is no grand plan.

Book Review by Crystal Andvik

In the compelling book The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly, exposes the failures of Western aid to developing countries. A professor of Economics at New York University and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, Easterly argues that we need to be seekers instead of planners. To stop wasting time and money planning how to reduce poverty, rather to go to these impoverished places and seek out existing resources using those to flourish the lives of poor people.

Easterly briefly explains the origins of aid relief, the first aid organizations forming around the time of the great world wars to rebuild nations left in devastation. This idea called the Big Push was introduced by Polish-born economist Paul Rosenstein, to ‘move the third world into the first.’ It helped pave the way for western governments, including scholars disciplined in politics, sociology, medicine, economics to begin planning what an underdeveloped country should look like and what developed countries need to do and give for such development. From there the Big Push escalated into creations of more international organizations, multi-sector collaborations, as well as life-long commitments to move the developing countries out of poverty- many involved with a planner’s mindset of a utopian world.

Easterly pressures aid agencies to take more responsibility in their failures and stop rewarding goal setting. It is not the goals which bring people out of poverty rather it is the success of programs implemented and transformation in their lives. Too much money is carelessly unaccounted for yet time and time again the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), just to name a few, report only the accomplishments thus more goals and funding are added on top of unmet targets and exhausted funds.

Not all hope is lost as Easterly shares successful accounts (snapshots) of people, organizations and corporations seeking ways to reduce poverty. Even the World Bank and IMF have had great achievements. Foreign aid has contributed greatly to dramatic improvements on a global scale in health and education in poor countries, life expectancy has risen and infant and child mortality rates have decreased significantly. However we cannot overlook the places with little to no improvement. There are still countries where far more people are dying from preventable diseases than should with the type of technology we have today.

This controversial book is bound to stir emotion and dialogue. If it does, Easterly has done his job. He may come across as angry and at times snide yet his point is clear. To reach an audience who will take his message to heart and act on it. That in order to succeed we must point out the failures and learn from them to make change- even if it means abandoning decades of planning and go back to the basics, as seekers.

Review published: January 2010

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