Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Book Review: The White Man's Burder

I recently finished reading William Easterly's The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.  Reading some reviews online before starting it I was expecting it to be much more of a screed than it actually was.  Easterly criticizes the efforts of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to further the development of poorer countries but his nuanced criticisms are in sharp contrast to most of their critics.  There's a lot of discussion about all the complicated moving parts that go into a modern commercial society, all the problems with both causing trust and causing trust to be justified between commercial actors and how people have found ad hoc solutions in the absence of regular institutions, and how it's very hard to know in advance which interventions will actually make things better rather than just funnel money into someone's pocket.  He provides some fairly compelling statistics showing that development aid of this type doesn't help on average and explains a bit why there can be occasional negative consequences to match the occasional positive consequences.  I think in my earlier review of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters I gave an illustration of the damage that ill-considered aid can cause.

He talks a bit about programs that actually help.  Initiatives lead by residents of the countries being aided get a lot of praise.  But he also talks about accountability.  Having one organization do one thing and having their impact on that thing measured.  So if this had been written later I think he might have specifically praised Effective Altruism institutions like Givewell.

There's also a chapter on peacekeeping, which I found less convincing.  Steven Pinker had some pretty convincing statistical arguments in Better Angels of Our Nature that blue helmeted peacekeepers are a substantial net benefit.  Easterly, though, uses anecdotes like what happened in Somalia to argue that peacekeepers are useless, in sharp contrast to his statistics and scorning of anecdote in the aid chapters.

Overall I'd recommend this book, particularly for the dives into the nitty-gritty details of institutions in the third world.

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