How Effective Is International Aid, and How Effective Can It Be?

Amartya Sen reviews 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 in Foreign Affairs.

…Easterly’s book offers a line of analysis that could serve as the basis for a reasoned critique of the formulaic thinking and policy triumphalism of some of the literature on economic development. The wide-ranging and rich evidence — both anecdotal and statistical — that Easterly cites in his sharply presented arguments against grand designs of different kinds deserves serious consideration. In a less extreme form, they could have yielded an illuminating critical perspective on how and why things often do go wrong in the global efforts to help the world’s poor.

Unfortunately, Easterly gets swept up by the intoxicating power of purple prose (I could not avoid recollecting Kipling’s description of words as “the most powerful drug used by mankind”). He forgoes the opportunity for a much-needed dialogue, opting instead for a rhetorical drubbing of those whom he sees as well-intentioned enemies of the poor…

Empirical evidence of the ineffectiveness of many grand development and poverty-alleviation schemes is undoubtedly worth discussing clearly and honestly, as Easterly does when he is not too busy looking for an aphorism so crushing that it will leave his targets gasping for breath. And Easterly is also right to note that the failure of many grand schemes results from their disregard for the complexity of institutions and incentive systems and their neglect of individual initiative, which must be societally encouraged rather than bureaucratically stifled. All of this may not yield Easterly’s overblown conclusions; in fact, even he acknowledges the success of many international aid efforts, from the dissemination of deworming drugs and the use of oral rehydration therapy for diarrheal diseases to indoor spraying to control malaria and several programs to slow down the spread of AIDS. But all of the failures he does cite should encourage the type of scrutiny that can help translate good intentions into effective results.