Sunday, December 14, 2008

Muzungu's burden

Having finished a long overdue reading of William Easterly's book, White Man's Burden a couple of months ago, I was pleasantly surprised by the book: Easterly's articles (e.g. Can the West Save Africa, Dismal Science) tend to be a rather excessively pessimistic deconstruction of the failings of modern development aid; in this book Easterly goes much further in proposing ways in which we can move forward in solving the problems of the poor.

The central argument is one of Planners versus Searchers. Easterly's Planners are the proponents of the classical top-down development aid. This is particularly prevalent in the large bi-lateral and multi-lateral donor organisations. The Searchers are grass-roots implementers who try out and search for techniques and projects that work. Many grass-roots NGOs can be described as Searchers. Reform of development aid according to Easterly should involve a shift of power from Planners to Searchers. Easterly also tackles a range of other development issues such as accountability, recipient country participation and military intervention.

White Man's Burden is often seen as the antithesis to Jeffrey Sachs' book, End of Poverty. This comparison hardly does Easterly justice. The End of Poverty is a mostly anecdotal account with very little hard data to back up the core theses of the book. White Man's Burden bases its arguments on historical data, and uses anecdotal evidence only to complement, illustrate and occasionally complete when statistical data is insufficient. By comparison, I found The End of Poverty a weak and sloppy work that borders on populism.

I do however find one important weakness in the argument of White Man's Burden. Whilst results-oriented Searchers may indeed be able to offer direct solutions to straightforward problems such as school enrollment and mosquito bed nets, it is unlikely that more long-term projects such as private sector development or vocational training will work in the same way. Long-term projects tend to require people who can afford to worry less about immediate results. There is a balance to be struck.

This is an excellent book and an entertaining read.

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