Book-Blogging: The White Man’s Burden – Chapter Eleven

This is part of my effort to write my way through a number of development-focused books, starting with The White Man’s Burden. Previous chapters: onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnine, ten

This is it, folks – the final chapter, where Easterly will rain down catch-all solutions to the myriad problems of aid and development. Right?

Of course not! As he notes, “If you think I will now offer a utopian blueprint to fix aid’s complex problems, then I have done a really bad job in the previous chapters at explaining the problems with utopian blueprints.” So… end of chapter, end of book, right? Not quite.

Right away, Easterly recommends ditching the utopian goals and instead contends,

“The aim should be to make individuals better off, not to transform governments or societies… Put the focus back where it belongs: get the poorest people in the world such obvious goods as the vaccines, the antibiotics, the food supplements, the improved seeds, the fertilizer, the roads, the boreholes, the water pipes, the textbooks, and the nurses.”

This sounds great to me! In addition to project-based aid, Easterly also argues that aid agencies could work on higher-level concerns such as,

“…distilling practical knowledge on operating banking systems or stock markets… simplifying business regulations, or making piecemeal reforms that promote a merit-based civil service”

Here’s what I intuit Easterly as arguing: there’s a sizable amount of aid that works – focus on that. This is essentially  the opposite of what I expected coming into the book, but I’m glad that this is the argument he lands on; it’s pragmatic, partially technocratic, and narrowly-focused – which is where my intuition generally tells me to go.

What else? First, have the aid agencies put a focus on research — ex ante and ex post intervention, so that knowledge can be shared and “best-for-now practices” (my phrase, not his) can be discovered. Share results – especially failures – and always keep the focus on what can help the poor. As Easterly notes about education interventions in Kenya, “The lesson of all this research is that some equally plausible interventions work and others don’t.” It’s the on-the-ground research that distinguishes interventions that sound good with interventions that do good.

Next up: specialization. This would be a huge shift for most multilateral agencies, and the politicking to get it done would be ridiculous. Which is not to say that it can’t be done – I have all kinds of models scribbled in my notes – just that a degree of caution may be warranted. If the multilateral agencies can’t be revamped, perhaps the way they implement change can be, with a focus on competitive bidding, transparency, and incremental gains. I suspect I’ll have more to say on this in the future, as I continue learning.

Easterly points out two researchers – Dennis Whittle and Mari Kuraishi – who have proposed something similar to what I had in mind: a “marketplace instead of central planning, a kind of eBay meets foreign aid.” Their website – www.globalgiving.com – is well worth a look; I think it needs some revamping but the backbone is in place to do some pretty cool things.

There are a number of other innovative ideas that Easterly touches on: vouchers, conditional cash transfers, and prizes all stuck out to me as plausible interventions that could be pretty neat to see in practice. Conditional cash transfers are big in Mexico (the Progresa program) and have shown success; in Poor Economics, Esther Duflo and Arhibit Banerjee discuss this in some detail. Prizes have more to do with research (finding a successful vaccine for malaria, say) than on-the-ground implementation, but definitely appear to play a role.

All in all, an interesting chapter to capstone an interesting book. A summary post will be up next with some of my final, overarching thoughts.

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