“The White Man’s Burden”: Review

Cover of the book

In which I review a timely critique of western policy in the third world.

The White Man’s Burden, by economist William Easterly, is a 2006 book that argues that western interventions in the third world (which he refers to as “the rest”), from self interested colonialism in the past, to today’s supposedly benevolent foreign aid and “humanitarian” military interventions, have done far more harm than good.

The first thing that will stick out to a potential reader is the title of this book. The use of the phrase “White Man’s Burden” itself may rub some the wrong way, partly because it implies that the author actually accepts the pretextual justifications for colonization that the phrase has come to symbolize. However, the author uses the term more for its symbolic and evocative value, and does make clear that many of the interventions he talks about were more beneficial to the west than to those who were supposedly being helped (this is a major argument he makes in the later portion of the book).

Easterly begins by contrasting the lofty speeches of world leaders and aid agency heads over the years, and introducing the division that really drives his thesis; the difference between Planners and Searchers. Into the former category he puts most members of aid bureaucracies, as well as typical western leaders. In the latter, more virtuous category the author puts those who find out what people actually need or want, and then try in an accountable and direct way to provide it.

The major problem with aid, the author contends, is that those in charge of the organizations that distribute it—from arms of the UN to the World Bank (where the author used to work) and various other Nongovernmental Organizations—like to craft overarching schemes to end poverty/AIDS/war in various countries that inevitably fail due to a lack of specific goals and inputs.

The next few chapters are a tightly argued series of statistics, case studies and loose anecdotes about the problems with interventions based off of large plans; scrums of aid agencies with overlapping efforts in a region that can’t be held accountable for results, and biases towards visible interventions that sound good in speeches instead of less visible interventions that would be more effectual (e.g. AIDS treatment vs. prevention), to name some. This section is the main portion of the book.

The last part of the book deals with less passive interventions; the incidences of colonialism and clumsy decolonization, and military interventions during the Cold War. This here is where the author makes his strongest case, partially because in both sets of circumstances the interventions were first and foremost self interested, with humanitarian concerns playing, at best, the role of rhetorical rationalization. Easterly deconstructs the ways in which broadly applied policies (US policy of supporting whoever’s fighting the Communist sympathizers) and a lack of on-the ground information led to western dollars supporting major human rights violators, or even worse, actually staying impartial in the rare cases in which one side was clearly behaving in a more reprehensible manner (the west in Rwanda).


However, the book is not perfect. In his conclusion section, Easterly admits that with all of his complaints about coming up with overarching plans in the aid community, he has none. Rather, he gives several reasonable suggestions on how aid agencies should function. However, one of the things that stuck out at me was when he addressed his earlier idea about focusing on the observable versus unobservable outcomes. He admits that basically no aid agency would give money to a program with less observable effects—essentially throwing money into an ether. But then he says that agencies should compromise and give money to tasks with observable effects and sufficient accountability. While all of this is fair, the entire section where he makes suggestions feels a bit like a cop-out.

That shortcoming aside, the book is a sharp read that will challenge your assumptions about how to better the world, an essential counterpoint to Kony 2012 type idealists and Cheney-style neoconservatives alike.


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