Daniel W. Drezner

A belated book review

Ten days ago I reviewed William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden for the Wall Street Journal. I would have linked to it, but the subscription firewall proved fierce. Luckily, the University of Chicago likes it when their professors write in the public domain. [All the time?–ed. Well, there are no current links to the London ...

Ten days ago I reviewed William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden for the Wall Street Journal. I would have linked to it, but the subscription firewall proved fierce. Luckily, the University of Chicago likes it when their professors write in the public domain. [All the time?–ed. Well, there are no current links to the London Review of Books, if that’s what you’re asking.] So here’s a link to the review. The key paragraphs:

The foreign-aid community, according to Mr. Easterly, is mostly composed of Planners. They think of development as a technical engineering problem and generate ambitious plans to eliminate the causes of poverty in a multi-pronged intervention. But Planners are embedded in and beholden to rich donors — large institutions in the West. Thus they lack real-life, on-the-ground feedback, and they lack accountability, both of which would allow them to improve their policies over time. Mr. Easterly prefers what he calls Searchers — those who learn through trial and error in the field. They can’t achieve the ambitious goals set out by Planners, but they can deliver at least some results. “The White Man’s Burden” is one long exercise in demonstrating why the Planners’ mentality is wrong and why a little humility is in order: “The West cannot transform the Rest. It is a fantasy to think that the West can change complex societies with very different histories and cultures into some image of itself. The main hope for the poor is for them to be their own Searchers, borrowing ideas and technology from the West when it suits them to do so.” Mr. Easterly shows why many of the development fads of the past 50 years — the big push, donor coordination, shock therapy — failed to do much good. He does a nifty job of disproving Jeffrey Sachs’s claim that the real problem with Africa is that it is stuck in a “poverty trap” — i.e., so poor that it cannot generate economic growth on its own. The real problem is bad governance. Aid institutions have not helped matters by doling out grants and loans to corrupt and thuggish regimes…. Lest one think that Mr. Easterly is generalizing unfairly, it is worth noting that he has done something that very few people do: He has actually read the reams of reports churned out by the development community year after year. D?j? vu begins to set in after seeing Mr. Easterly quote from the failed projects of decades ago — the problems and “solutions” repeat themselves miserably. He has great fun, too, interpreting this turgid prose for the layman. A war is relabeled as a “conflict-related reallocation of resources”; corrupt leaders who raid public coffers create “governance issues.”

Be sure to check out Virginia Postrel’s review of Easterly from last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Virginia had a few more hundred words to play with than I did — and she used them very wisely.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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