Dr. William Easterly

Dr. William Easterly

Western aid ineffective against poverty: NYU professor

Do Western aid efforts end poverty?

According to Dr. William Easterly, the answer is no. Speaking to a capacity crowd at Olscamp Hall recently, the New York University professor and BGSU alumnus asserted that current aid models reflect the West’s illusions of grandeur and are not only condescending, racist and elitist, but also largely ineffective.

Hosted by BGSU’s economics department and the Center for Regional Development, Easterly discussed his newest book, White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Needling Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, Easterly outlined the folly of imposing utopian Western solutions on the complex problems of world poverty.

Also a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, Easterly graduated from BGSU in 1979 and earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a senior research economist at the World Bank for more than 16 years and the author of the influential book, The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics.

He discussed what he calls the twin tragedies of global poverty. The first is that so many people are seemingly fated to live miserable lives and die early deaths. The second is that after 50 years and more than $2.3 trillion in aid from the West addressing the first tragedy, there is so shockingly little to show for it. We’ll never solve the first tragedy, he insisted, unless we figure out the second.

Easterly explained that institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Nations have racked up dismal success rates because they focus on churning out thousands of pages of idealistic plans that provide neither accountability nor feedback. Without analysis and accountability, these ill-fated strategies are never abandoned or revised.

As evidence of his conclusion, Easterly offered an economic analysis that showed that despite one big idea after another and spending more than $2.3 trillion over the past five decades, the majority of places where the West has intervened are no better off than they were before aid efforts. In some cases, he showed they are even worse off then before. He contends that in no other business would this level of performance be tolerated.

The key flaw in current aid efforts, Easterly asserted, is the emphasis on “planners” rather than “searchers.” Planners seek to impose solutions from the top down, while searchers adapt to the cultural, political and bureaucratic realities of a foreign land from the bottom up. He said that continued focus on large plans, rather than meaningful grass-roots efforts, dooms us to repeat the tragedies of the past 50 years, where utopian goals focus aid efforts on unfeasible tasks, instead of the feasible tasks that will do some good.

He offered scathing criticism of public figures such as Bono and author Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty) who are using their platforms to promote still more grandiose but empty plans to make poverty history. Easterly emphasized that we should not abandon aid to the poor, but should enlist scores of searchers to make sure aid actually reaches people in need.

He bade his audience to embrace the words of Robert Kennedy:

"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

November 6, 2006