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Book Review: White Man’s Burden

How our "help" has fallen far short...

First up, for my (hopefully) monthly book reviews is William Easterly’s controversial, yet imminently logical The White Man’s Burden : Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

As a former head-honcho for the World Bank–with an insider’s view on what has gone wrong with aid for so many decades–Easterly offers a candid, often disturbing view into the machinations of states, NGOs, the U.N., and the IMF and World Bank in particular.

I truly believe this book should be read by everyone in International Development, from CEOs of non-profits to administrative assistants at the IMF and UN.  Easterly’s greatest accomplishment in the book is his clear delineation between “Planners” (who institute top-down reform) and “Searchers” (who find solutions from the “bottom” up).  Easterly shows that the “Planners” at the IMF and UN have had decades to make a difference and have, in general, not done so–and sometimes actually made things worse.   Much of the book is dedicated to providing examples of how aid from the West has harmed the Rest, and you will need a degree in Economics / Statistics or at least a good grasp of its principles to understand a lot of his examples; if you are an English major or math-allergic person like myself, there is still much to be gained from reading this book…you may just have to skip some of the charts and statistical soliloquies.

Another fascinating, though disheartening, aspect of the book is where Easterly breaks down actual examples from the past decades of aid and shows that the poor actually do not receive much at all of what is “given” or donated.  Part of his contention is that corruption serves as a figurative black-hole that sucks up aid and lets little funds escape to trickle down to the masses.  Compounding this travesty is that the IMF and other lenders will actually expect to be paid back one day:  “The poor population was going to be liable for IMF loans that were never going to reach them,” (Easterly, 153).

In the end, I walked away from this book firmly resolved to be a “Searcher” whenever possible, and to avoid falling into the “Planner” trap of dictating solutions from “on high.”  I also began truly analyzing my prior beliefs and convictions about the benefit of “aid”…at least in its current incarnation.  The biggest take-away for me will be my resolve to ensure that my efforts actually benefit the people I seek to assist (the poor / those desiring an education) in a measurable, authentic way, rather than merely providing a sound-bite or resume bullet for someone in the West.  ~LD

RATING4.5 out of 5 stars

Next Up:  Stay tuned for the next review, where I do a 180 and read Easterly’s polar-opposite, Jeffery Sachs, who is a firm believer in top-down, aid-heavy reforms.  The End of Poverty will be interesting to read after finishing The White Man’s Burden!