White Man’s Burden by William Easterley

The White Man's Burden

White Man’s Burden is an investigation and critique of international development, foreign aid, and Western intervention, including the histories and effects of colonialism and imperialism.

The book argues that aid has failed due to a mixture of corruption, overambition, and incompetence. Easterly emphasizes that free markets work, but they cannot be imposed; to work effectively they need a supportive political and institutional environment. He suggests that what is needed are empowered “Searchers” on the ground—business or nonprofit entrepreneurs, for instance—who understand the needs of the poor and the institutions within which they live, who have tangible incentives to meet those needs, and who are encouraged to experiment on a small scale.

The main themes of the book include:

  1. The failure of foreign aid programs to help poorer countries raise their living standards.
  2. The need for self-reliant efforts of poor people and poor societies themselves to end poverty.
  3. The importance of incorporating systematic evaluation and observation, accountability, feedback loops, use of experienced individuals working from the local context, and incentives that reward successes in aid organizations.
  4. The negative effects of colonialism and imperialism on developing countries.
  5. The potential for modest interventions, particularly in such areas as public health, subject to an experimental quasi-market process whereby the potential aid recipients select the agency to deliver the assistance, perhaps through a voucher system.

What I Liked

The book is accessible, well-argued, level-headed, and respects nuance. I love how he tackles a sector that uses good intentions to avoid accountability.

What I Did Not Like

Not a whole lot – very interesting book.

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