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The White Man’s Burden’

In response to:

How Aid Can Work from the December 21, 2006 issue

The Editors:

Professor Jeffrey Sachs responds to Nicholas Kristof’s review of my book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good [NYR, October 5, 2006] with his own vision of “How Aid Can Work” [NYR, December 21, 2006]. He boils it down for us eloquently:

I have led efforts that have canvassed the world’s leading practitioners in disease control, food production, infrastructure development, water and sanitation, Internet connectivity, and the like, to identify practical, proven, low-cost, and scalable strategies for the world’s poorest people such as those mentioned above.

Such life-saving and poverty-reducing measures raise the productivity of the poor so that they can earn and invest their way out of extreme poverty, and these measures do so at an amazingly low cost. To extend these proven technologies throughout the poorest parts of Africa would require around $75 billion per year from all donors….

Professor Sachs unintentionally confirms my characterization of his approach as the modern-day heir to the patronizing “White Man’s Burden” of a century ago. To Professor Sachs, African poverty is just a technical problem that “the world’s leading practitioners” can solve (as described in the thousands of pages produced by Sachs’s UN Millennium Project) if only these experts are given enough money for their “proven strategies.” This reveals a remarkable naiveté about the roots of poverty. Poverty in Africa is the outcome of much deeper factors such as political elites who seek mainly to protect their own position, dysfunctional institutions like corruption and lack of property rights, and a long history of exploitation and meddling from abroad (the slave trade, colonial depredations, the creation of artificial states, military interventions). It takes breathtaking hubris to assert that this mess can be fixed for the tidy sum of $75 billion. A similar hubris leads to amnesia concerning the many previous generations of technical experts that have ineffectively tried Sachs’s “proven strategies” to end African poverty.

Poverty never has been ended and never will be ended by foreign experts or foreign aid. Poverty will end as it has ended everywhere else, by homegrown political, economic, and social reformers and entrepreneurs that unleash the power of democracy and free markets.

Yes, some specific problems are fixable by aid and there has been progress on some already in health and education, as both Sachs and I have noted. But the answers were never so obvious in advance to the “experts.” Future solutions will be found by trial-and-error search for what works on the ground (e.g., how to motivate delivery of bed nets to those who need them? how to convince the poor to use them?). Productive searches will come from actors who each take responsibility for one step at a time and get held accountable for success or failure. The unaccountable foreign experts who promise to comprehensively end poverty “at an amazingly low cost,” a claim that bears stronger intellectual kinship to late-night TV commercials than to African reality, will accomplish very little.

William Easterly
New York City

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