Sunday, April 22, 2007

Some ideas of William Easterly

In view of the recent Easterly-Sachs debates, it may be useful to go back to Amartya Sen's review of Easterly's "The White Man's Burden" and Easterly's response.
From Sen's review:

“All of this is a great pity, since 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.
The challenge is to respond to the plight of the hopelessly impoverished without neglecting to insist that help come in useful and productive forms.

In fact, Easterly makes exactly that point once the blast of rhetoric is turned down: "The good news about the noisy anti-globalization protesters, the hard-working NGOs, the rock bands and the movie stars, and the rich-country governments' increased interest in the Rest coming after 9/11 is that the constituency for the poor is growing. It's time for the rich-country public to insist that aid money actually reach the poor." Although not coming until after page 200, those sentences provide a better summary of the contribution of The White Man's Burden than do the rather extreme slogans to which Easterly chooses to give pride of place.
On the basis of his own investigations, Easterly is in an excellent position to systematize such insights. But this does not quite happen here, despite Easterly's occasional suggestions for how to make international aid more effective and less wasteful.
Perhaps the weakest link in Easterly's reasoning is his almost complete neglect of the distinctions between different types of economic problems
There is much of merit in Easterly's perceptive vision about initiatives, incentives, and communication. We should be grateful to Easterly for the wealth of material he has presented, thereby enriching the development literature. We may have less reason to celebrate -- or even to accept -- the diagnosis of idiocy and obduracy he gives to those whom he calls "planners." But there is a strong case for judging a book by its best contributions, not its weakest points. My hope is that the "searchers" among the readers of The White Man's Burden will look for the convincing arguments Easterly does provide rather than for those he does not.”
From Easterly’ response to Sen:
“I have two responses: first, a "rhetorical drubbing" can promote accountability; second, the book does in fact offer positive alternatives to the conventional approach being drubbed.”
A drastic example of the sort that Easterly fears from Martin Walker’s review of “The White Man’s Burden”:
“From the air, one curious fact became clear. The vast swath of scrubland known as the Sahel, which translates as “the shore,” marks the transition from the true desert to the fertile lands of the south that are watered by the Volta and Niger rivers. It was dotted with recently built wells, and with their pumps and concrete rims these new wells were the epicenters not of the drought but of the death of the land around them. Great pans of dried mud and rutted dust stretched out in vast circles from each one. So after endless interviews with aid workers and local people and farmers, the real dimensions of this tragedy became clear. The drought was a man-made disaster, a tragedy of good intentions and of foreign aid.

The Sahel tragedy would fit perfectly into William Easterly’s new book, The White Man’s Burden, whose real message is in its long subtitle—“Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.”
The grand project to make the Sahel more fertile, for example, began in the late 1950s when most of West Africa was under French rule, and the French built hundreds of wells to tap the underground aquifers. They also built rural health clinics, which meant that more babies survived and fewer adults died. A population explosion then followed, of humans because of the health system, and of livestock because of the wells and the need to feed the extra human mouths. Families that had two cows and a camel and a dozen goats very quickly became wealthy with new herds, a process that could be measured in the rise of the bride-price from one cow in the 1950s to a dozen by 1970.

But these extra animals, while plentifully supplied with water, also had to eat, and the Sahel was too fragile an ecology to feed them. So they ate everything, the scrubby thorn trees and the sparse grasses that stopped the thinnest of topsoil from being blown away in the Sahara winds. And the first places to be overgrazed into desert were the areas around the new wells. So while it was true that the Sahara was advancing by fifty kilometers a year and more, it was jumping from the dead zone of one new well to the next. The French aid program, while a short-term triumph, produced an ecological disaster, and the Sahel drought was nature’s way of killing off the population explosion and restoring the delicate balance between the Sahel’s limited supply and the voracious demands of the animals and humans.

The humanitarian airlifts and aid funds that were triggered by the heartrending reporting of this disaster could not do much for the livestock, but they helped save a lot of lives—at a further price. The food and medical aid centers were set up near the big cities where the roads were reasonable, and so towns like Agadez and Niamey, Ougadougou and Timbuktu, became surrounded by vast refugee camps for people who had nothing in the Sahel to return to. The Tuareg and the other Sahel nomads stayed, to become a burden to the fragile governments of poor and newly independent countries like Niger, Mali, and Upper Volta. Political tensions inevitably arose between Muslim nomads and the Christian blacks of the south, and scuffles over grazing rights for the few camels that were left to the nomad refugees turned into skirmishes and even gunfights. It was not what the French had bargained for.”
A more recnt article by Easterly on Africa here. Easterly and collaborators wonder whether thewealth of the nations was already determined by 1000BC.