Published in 2006, the monography “The White Man’s Burden - Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much III and So Little Good’ (WMB) by New York University’s William Easterly addressed, and in fact reached, a broad, especially non-academic audience, with its meaningful title as well as consciously provocative and polarising, yet trenchant line of arguments. WMB is the development economists’ ambitious attempt to explain the structural reasons for the ineffectiveness of the West’s aid programmes for the world’s poor - and how to overcome them.
From the very outset, he makes his diagnosis unambigously clear: a) top-down-plans suffer informational shortage of most diverse realities on the ground, b) development agencies work more effectively with fewer goals and c) unaccountable agencies (as any other entities) perform worse than others, due to missing incentive structures such as feedback loops. Against this background, Easterly draws a sharp line between two roles - Planners and Searchers - which, throughout the book, remain somewhat under-conceptualised in their certainly useful distinction, yet artificially appealing dichotomy.
He convincingly argues that only a significant shift of power towards Searchers can result in a homegrown, long-term and effective (self-)help for the poor (which themselves represent the majority of Searchers). The author does so by drawing heavily on his own experiences made in dozens of developing countries all over the world in his 16-year long capacity as research economist at the World Bank - for him virtually the epitome of all the failures of the systematically blueprint-approach led Planners in the aid sector.
According to Easterly, this shift can only be reached by a reformist rather than revolutionary approach towards the aid sector. The author particularly does so by consistently drawing linkages between Searchers and markets of capitalist economies with their particular social norms and institutions, even claiming markets to be “the greatest bottom-up system in history for meeting people’s needs.” (2006: 76) In addition to that, the only role he foresees for Western assistance is that of meeting the most desperate needs of the poor - until homegrown market-based development takes over.
As reasonable as his arguments might appeal on first glance, I will argue in the following that their meaningfulness is significantly weakened by WMB’s manifold blind spots. Firstly, as already discussed elsewhere (e.g. Broude 2007), in his attempt to construct a coherent story rather than a balanced analysis, Easterly reveals his ignorance of vast bodies of literature on economic development and aid effectiveness. Against this background it is less wonder that he repeatedly draws to examples of presumably crystal-clear Searcher-versus-Planner configurations.
Secondly, by implying that it is especially himself raising fundamentally new questions, Easterly not only overstates his own contribution to the wider literature of aid effectiveness;1 it also limits WMB’s potential as an entry point for continued reading within the wider body of literature which, at least since White’s eponymous publication in 1968, is often discussed under the term "aid debate”. This is all the more important as the author keeps the reader fairly in the dark regarding developments affecting the aid sector of the early 2000s - including the passing of the then landmark Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005 as well as even literature that would have supported his diagnosis (e.g. Acharya et al. 2004 on the role of transaction costs and proliferation of aid agencies).
Thirdly, seemingly trying to lead his own form of "aid debate”, Easterly focuses almost exclusively on delegitimising the "Big Aid”-idea of his intellectual counterpart, Jeffrey Sachs.2 On top of that, considering the broad audience that he addresses, it appears particularly detrimental that the functional background of aid agencies themselves are only insufficiently discussed3 - leaving the reader almost with the impression that they are nothing but part of a bigger, neo-imperial project.
1 In fact, more than a decade before WMB’s publication, Cassen et al. (1994) captured the overarching question, to which Easterly contributes, precisely: "Does aid work?”
2 Tellingly, the ongoing feud (or better: their own "White Men’s Burden?) between the two authors with presumably irreconcilable worldviews was later dubbed as the "Easterly-Sachs saga” (e.g. Pryke 2014).
3 See for example Martens (2005) on the question, why foreign aid agencies exist in the first place.