Sunday, March 7, 2010

William Easterly cannot ridicule the aid community into irrelevance

Thanks to the very helpful Twitter client TweetDeck, I am able to keep up to speed on Professor William Easterly's prolific Twitter feed.  Easterly is a fixture in the contemporary debate over the propriety of development interventions, having clearly positioned himself as the free market-espousing, anti-multilateral and bilateral donor agency vertex of the tripolar development economics triumvirate.  The other two vertices are held by Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia, the most high-profile "big aid" apologist, and Paul Collier of Oxford, who has more faith in aid than Easterly yet has a more intricate set of theories regarding how it can be used to mitigate extreme poverty than Sachs.  Easterly is most well-known for authoring The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, the first in a series of books by development economists-turned public intellectuals that question the very notion of development interventions (see also Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid).  In essence, Easterly disputes the conclusions of people like Sachs that aid has benefited the developing world, arguing that development interventions have essentially enslaved the developing world to the self-serving interests and low-performing (his conclusion) efforts of bilateral and multilateral aid programmers.  This post won't adjudge the relative merits of Sachs, Collier, and Easterly, of course.  All three thinkers contribute meaningfully to the aid debate.  In fact, I think that Easterly presents many compelling arguments (his "planners vs. searchers" thesis simply cannot be dismissed out of hand), but rather than provide a fully fleshed-out alternative to "big aid" in which the efforts of innovative and entrepreneurial "searchers" are rightly facilitated by the free market, he spends far too much time criticizing aid workers of all stripes (DC-based USAID and other bilateral agency "planners," their field-based foreign-service colleagues, and multilateral development bank and NGO program implementers -- though, of course, some field workers are "searchers").  Indeed, when pressed to defend his position in a class simulation last fall, I really had to grasp at libertarian straws (truly antithetical to my core personal beliefs/worldview, but that's another issue) to fill in the lacunae of his argument.  How can searchers "organize" their efforts to maximize impact (isn't that where government/MDBs can help?)?  How can searchers get funding if there isn't a willing benefactor?  If searchers need funding, is it OK for Western-based foundations to get involved?  Can USAID and the World Bank denude themselves of their policy-planning competencies (this has already happened at USAID, which lost its policy-planning bureau under Secretary Rice's "F Process" reforms) and simply become "searcher"-seekers and funders?

Again, these aren't questions I can answer here, but I did want to take issue with one of Easterly's tweets from yesterday, in which he sardonically impugns USAID's efforts in Afghanistan, suggesting that the most benefit Afghanis have realized from USAID's years of war-time effort is the use of USAID-labeled vegetable oil cans to set up live WIFI nodes in Jalalabad, Afghanistan:

bill_easterly: USAID finally achieves Afghan impact --its Leftover cans used as scrapmetal 4 wireless infrastructure

This is a very unproductive and mean-spirited use of anybody's time.  I honestly have no idea what Easterly expects the response to such a post to be -- this adds nothing to the debate, and perversely co-opts what is otherwise very positive news into an outlet for his nihilistic worldview.  For earnest portrayals of this exciting project, check out this BoingBoing post by Cory Doctorow about the work of the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, the research group that, in conjunction with local residents, constructed these ingenious WIFI nodes.

At its worst, Bill Easterly's anti-aid campaign gives a bad name to private sector involvement in development, placing it in opposition to public sector efforts.  If anything, what the rise of major foundations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the nascent interest of large private firms in development shows us is that the philanthropic and private sectors "want in," and the aid community should work to further leverage their involvement into appreciable gains in the developing world.

Finally, for those of you interested in finding a very good counterpoint to the "planners vs. searchers" argument, check out this article co-authored by the DC-based "searcher" and global health economist Ruth Levine on the Advanced Market Commitment, a promising new initiative to provide cutting edge vaccines and drug-regimens to people in the developing world suffering from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases endemic to the developing world. 


  1. You sound a bit hysterical here. He made a joke. A funny one.

    As someone who works in Iraq for DOS and helps implement USAID programs at a PRT, I have to say I would find it funny if someone made a joke like that about the many failures the USG has had in this country.

    You say a freaking twitter post is "unproductive" and that "this adds nothing to the debate" . . . well, duh! That characterization pretty much 99% of all Twitter posts by anyone anywhere.

    Finally, you're right that Easterly comes across a smug. But he's certainly not anti-aid. He's anti-stupid-aid, the majority of which is funded by public sector efforts, because you have people managing it who seem to care more about feeling good about themselves and morally superior to others than they actually do about results.

  2. Hi! great blog!... found a lot of replies in the response Easterly made in aidwatch. His comments can be rude but his humour (in this case making fun) is the catchy way to get attention and is worth it if in fact gets people´s attention to the discussion on aid effectiveness. Don´t you think?

  3. "private sector involvement in development, placing it in opposition to public sector efforts. If anything, what the rise of major foundations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the nascent interest of large private firms in development shows us is that the private sector wants in"

    I think you're conflating private sector with philanthropic organisations a little here.

  4. Hi Karla! Thank you for your comment. I think that Easterly's comments are important, but I wonder if the aid community sometimes rejects him simply because of his tone before assessing the merit of his criticisms. USAID is probably going to go through some pretty substantial organizational changes in the next year or so (pending the passage of legislation and/or the outcome of the PSD and QDDR), and I wonder if Easterly's criticisms of the agency are properly being considered by those making these decisions.

    Hi Matt! Ah, yes. Cheers for that. I've amended accordingly.

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