Wednesday, January 31, 2007

'THE WHITE MAN'S BURDEN' - another view of western aid

Whilst the following letter takes a harsher view of the Sachs' formula for using aid as a more effective tool than I would express, the nub of the argument is sound. I felt the most telling point of the Sachs article was the comparison between military and aid expenditures. Yes, he provides a formulaic snapshot of aid interventions, but I think this was more a function of his presumed audience than a reflection of his insights into the roots of poverty in Africa.

In many respects aid is a component of a neocolonial mindset that pervades Western dealings with the developing world. The notion that the intervention of Western technical transfers can be a panacea for developing country problems is patronizing and harmful. Where local change management and community development processes are moving in the right direction, sensibly targeted aid can be of great benefit. Small amounts of seed capital can enable local projects to be sustainable. Capacity development support can be beneficial if the key actors and factors for change are homegrown. Heath and education interventions can be a vital catalyst for social uplift.

William Esterly writes:

"Professor Sachs unintentionally confirms my characterization of his approach as the modern-day heir to the patronizing "White Man's Burden" of a century ago. To Professor Sachs, African poverty is just a technical problem that "the world's leading practitioners" can solve (as described in the thousands of pages produced by Sachs's UN Millennium Project) if only these experts are given enough money for their "proven strategies." This reveals a remarkable naiveté about the roots of poverty. Poverty in Africa is the outcome of much deeper factors such as political elites who seek mainly to protect their own position, dysfunctional institutions like corruption and lack of property rights, and a long history of exploitation and meddling from abroad (the slave trade, colonial depredations, the creation of artificial states, military interventions). It takes breathtaking hubris to assert that this mess can be fixed for the tidy sum of $75 billion. A similar hubris leads to amnesia concerning the many previous generations of technical experts that have ineffectively tried Sachs's "proven strategies" to end African poverty.

Poverty never has been ended and never will be ended by foreign experts or foreign aid. Poverty will end as it has ended everywhere else, by homegrown political, economic, and social reformers and entrepreneurs that unleash the power of democracy and free markets.

Yes, some specific problems are fixable by aid and there has been progress on some already in health and education, as both Sachs and I have noted. But the answers were never so obvious in advance to the "experts." Future solutions will be found by trial-and-error search for what works on the ground (e.g., how to motivate delivery of bed nets to those who need them? how to convince the poor to use them?). Productive searches will come from actors who each take responsibility for one step at a time and get held accountable for success or failure. The unaccountable foreign experts who promise to comprehensively end poverty "at an amazingly low cost," a claim that bears stronger intellectual kinship to late-night TV commercials than to African reality, will accomplish very little."

I do not think these writers are so far apart in reality. Local ownership of development processes is fundamental. When homegrown impetus is established outside interventions can be helpful.


Juergen Nagler said...

Mark, Thanks for your blog! Easterly's White Man's Burden is on top of my reading list now, I was impressed/inspired by his Quest for Growths. I somehow believe we need a combination of Sachs' top down MDGs and Easterly trial and error grassroots approach. I also have a blog, have a look... Best, Juergen

Mark Thomson said...

Juergen, thanks for this constructive comment. I agree that a marriage between these two approaches is the way to make aid more effective. In my piece I was making the point that I did'nt think Easterly and Sachs were that far apart, just coming at the problem from differing management perspectives. In my country this piece attracted the criticism of being "neo-Marxist garbage". Of course, it behooves people of limited wit to stay off subjects they know little about, but we live in a time when 'a born to rule' attitude pervades in certain circles and anyone who drifts from the narrow orthodoxies these people sprout is derided. I pray for a more enlightened and 'humanist' period to arrive...