“The White Man’s Burden” by William Easterly

I remember reading ‘The End of Poverty’ by Jeffrey Sachs some time ago and although I hardly remember the content, I ‘think’ I can vaguely recall how optimistic and energized I felt after reading it. Yes, the end of poverty is indeed possible, if only people AND international organizations could only try a little bit harder than they already are. Yes, the MDGs are achievable, but even if they weren’t, what an admirable and noble cause. I wonder if I would have had a different reaction if I had read it during or after GSIS.

This book by Easterly is more fitting to during and after GSIS however, and I feel naive and duped even, to have believed every beautiful word and the utopia Sachs dared expose before my eyes. Should I have had more sense of criticism back then?

Easterly, despite being a man having devoted much of his career to the World Bank and international organizations, is very doubtful as to whether these international organizations and all these global pledges on ending povery and war and all the atrocities are indeed effective. He exposes many problems and issues, many of which I have unfortunatey become familiar with during the period of disillusion GSIS has offered me (which, surprisingly, was only for a year and a half and not the two whole years).

The issue of accountability especially, and how to set goals that are indeed helpful to those whom all these grand institutions are trying to ‘help’ and ‘develop’ remain the fundamental questions in development.

The current diversity of international organizations and NGOs is, as the fact itself, quite admirable, but when it comes to actual results and work, disappointment reigns. There are too many organizations handling one ‘simple’ issue, hence the lack of responsibility and accountability. All the Planners are busy making grandiose plans that will save the world, so that people (namely those who will provide the funds) will be impressed and will donate money to make even bigger and less achievable plans. Easterly advises his readers to become Searchers, those who know what is going on in the field, in the village, the region, the country, and figure out what people really need.

This book gives helpful insight in many ways, especially since I’m interested in development, but it is also quite confusing as to find out where to start my so-called career. Should I give up my studies now and just ‘get into th field’? How will more studies help me become a Searcher? If so, where do I start? Can I just go off to some ‘developing country’, with my ‘devotion’ as my sole asset? Actually, I’m not even sure my ‘devotion’ is still valid today. And what if my ‘devotion’ is another ‘savior complex’ the ‘West’ has been so eager to demonstrate and impose on the ‘Rest’?

On the other hand, books that are related to academics and studies (by that I mean books that are not novels…and thus more difficult to read and so on) provide one advantage (among others, but this one being related to my own personal gain) – they can give you (alas, not always) hints and inspirations on what to study more. For instance, Easterly, being an economist, seems to focus very much on numbers, GDPs, and financial development and institutions for development. What about the social context? How can society, especially civil society, help and be held accountable in situations like this? Can civil society play a role? (Well, unless someone else has already researched on this… probably has…)

speaking of Easterly being an economist, one criticism I would have against him concerns the latter part of his book, where he cites some cases of ‘successful development’ without much of the West’s help – mainly China, India, Bostwana and so on. However, reading his description and analysis on these countries, especially China, I cannot help but get the impression that  the author too, falls into the ‘typical White view on the Rest’. Also all these great numbers he presents to document his claims, well, that’s it, they are just numbers. How much social unrest and instability, as well as oppression, has been made for those GDP numbers? How many violations on basic human rights? And that is why I do not like Economy – in the end, it’s all just numbers, and numbers can mean anything (or basically anything) you want if you manage to manipulate them in the right context. You can’t focus solely on economic development, the social and the political have to go with it. South Korea is such a revealing example in that context.


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