Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good
William Easterly
448 pages (New York: Penguin Press, 2006)

I should admit that, before turning even one page of William Easterly’s book, I was predisposed to like it. After all, this is the man who has said publicly that if he were to inherit $1 billion, he would, among other things, “give it to the university in Burundi and the university in Ghana and all the other people around the world who are finding things that work. You know, dating all the way back to Muhammad Yunus, who started Grameen Bank, there are so many examples like this that aid could find, and yet today it’s not funding them, and so many opportunities are being lost.”1

As the executive vice president for programs at the Grameen Foundation, I am delighted whenever I hear of billion- dollar bequests to our cause, even if only hypothetical. Now, however, after reading Easterly’s scathing assessment of the harm that official foreign assistance has done in the world, I am less enamored. But the reason I am no longer as keen on his book has less to do with what it says than with what it doesn’t say.

Easterly divides the world between “planners” and “searchers.” According to him, planners are those who impose solutions from the top down, apply “global blueprints,” and raise expectations without fostering accountability. In contrast, searchers look for answers from the bottom up, adapt to local conditions, and accept responsibility for their actions. Dr. Yunus, in Easterly’s parlance, is a searcher.

Easterly has a lot to say to (and about) the planners of this world, including the U.N., the IMF, the World Bank, and Jeffrey Sachs, to name a few. Nearly all of it is critical. Easterly has much less to say to his searchers and those who are looking for ways to scale up searchers’ breakthroughs.2 Easterly probably would argue that this omission is by design for, as he is careful to announce, “above all, this book is not a plan” and “the right plan is to have no plan.” So what is a reader of Easterly’s book to do, particularly if that reader is an über-philanthropist like Bill Gates, with the combined billions of Gates and Warren Buffet at his disposal? And what if the lines differentiating planners and searchers are not as distinct as Easterly suggests?

All of which is to say, delivering effective aid is hard work, and the lines between the good guys and the bad guys are never quite as clear as Easterly suggests. Warren Buffet recently said that philanthropy is a “tougher game” than business. “In philanthropy, the most important problems are those which have already resisted both intellect and money.”3 Here Buffet has it exactly right. Smarts and dollars aren’t enough. Moreover, if doing good is hard to do, doing lots of good is devilishly hard.

As Easterly and Buffet are apt to agree, the challenges facing people working on the frontlines of development are complex, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Easterly helps to shed light on many of these complexities and spends much of his book pointing out, in colorful language,4 why so many Western assistance efforts have failed as a result, and are doomed to continue to fail.

Easterly is less nuanced, however, when he looks at the searchers’ “solutions” that he highlights in his book. Easterly, a man who clearly has invested his heart as well as his mind in identifying the complexities inherent in channeling aid and making those who deliver foreign assistance accountable for results, does not seem aware, almost willfully so, of the complexities that are often inherent in searchers’ “solutions.”

For example, we are told in Easterly’s “Snapshot: The Secret History of the Grameen Bank” that “microcredit is not a panacea for poverty reduction that some made it out to be after Yunus’ discovery. … Microcredit didn’t solve everything; it just solved one particular problem under one particular set of circumstances – the poor’s lack of access to credit except at usurious rates from money lenders.”5

Easterly is correct that microcredit is not a panacea for poverty reduction. But he is wrong when he fails to acknowledge what access to financial services can mean for poor women. Take the female microentrepreneur in Tanzania whom I met while attending a celebration of the opening of a new branch of a Tanzanian microfinance provider. The audience of female microentrepreneurs was a shifting rainbow of color, swaying in song.

At the end of the ceremony, a woman client of the microfinance institution approached me. My Swahili interpreter translated. “She has come to thank you for her soft knees,” the translator said. “Her what?” I asked. “Her soft knees,” he repeated.

Seeing the look of confusion on my face, he spoke again to the woman, and then turned to me and explained. “Because of her microfinance loan and the business it finances, she no longer has to kneel at her husband’s feet to beg for money for their children’s school fees.”

I doubt if this woman or the millions of microentrepreneurs like her would agree with Easterly’s characterization of microcredit as a solution for “one particular problem under one particular set of circumstances.”

Sometimes microcredit is more than just access to loans. Sometimes microcredit also contributes to the education of a daughter and the soft knees of her mother. For Easterly’s searchers of this world, this is why we continue searching.

1 “Foreign Aid and Developing Economies,” an on-the-record discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations, May 12, 2006. An audio recording of the discussion is available at CFR’s Web site.

2 Easterly is not altogether silent on what can be done to stimulate and support today’s searchers, but he unfortunately pays this issue much less attention. In the book’s last chapter, “The Future of Western Assistance,” Easterly takes a stab at ending on a hopeful and, dare I say, “prescriptive” note by outlining six principles that should inform aid to the poor. Easterly then exits with a clarion call to all who care about the poor. Activists are told to quit fundraising, and instead to start making sure that aid reaches the poor. Researchers are told to search for ways to improve the aid system, for “piecemeal innovations” that improve the lot of poor people, or for ways to “make homegrown development happen sooner.” Aid workers are told to “forget about utopian goals” and specialize in what they do best. And citizens are told to become a voice expressing dissatisfaction with planners and calling for more searchers.

3 “The New Powers in Giving,” The Economist (July 1, 2006): 65.

4 Amartya Sen, in a generally positive review of The White Man’s Burden, goes so far as to characterize some of Easterly’s language as “purple prose” in his review essay, “The Man Without a Plan,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2006).

5 The White Man’s Burden, p. 59.

Deborah Burand is executive vice president, programs, at the Grameen Foundation USA, a nonprofit that seeks to eradicate global poverty by providing financing, training, and technology to microfinance institutions around the world. The views expressed in this review are her own.