The Burden of Planning

William Easterly, The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 448 pp., $27.95.

PROFESSOR JEFFREY Sachs, author of The End of Poverty (2005), advisor to Kofi Annan on the UN Millennium Development Goals, and advocate for immediate multibillion-dollar initiatives to boost foreign aid spending, was in a testy mood recently when a reporter for a Toronto newspaper visited one of his development projects in Kenya. A question about corruption prompted a harsh reaction from the professor from Columbia University--as if simply posing the question suggested that Africans couldn't take care of themselves or their money.

"The whole development discussion has become unhinged from ground realities", Sachs told the Globe and Mail. "There is endless discussion about process and corruption and governance, as if these are realities of life in Africa--and it's all deflected attention away from things like growing food and drinking water."

As he spoke, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), citing Kenya President Mwai Kibaki's failure to act against graft and official corruption, were placing holds on some $900 million in aid to his country. Kenyan investigators recently turned up separate schemes designed to loot the nation's treasury in sums of $600 million, $100 million and $700 million. In response to the government's plans to offer amnesty to corrupt officials or persuade bandits in high places to voluntarily surrender ill-gotten gains, Kenyan property lawyer Isaac Ngaruthi offered this assessment: "It's naive to expect these people, who clearly have the law behind them, to give up their wealth and in so doing admit to the world, 'Yes, we are stinking corrupt', and willingly hang themselves on a cross for public crucifixion and ridicule."

Into this weird world where Western idealism meets African reality, comes William Easterly's The White Man's Burden, a convincing indictment of a foreign aid industry that has funneled, during the course of the last five decades, some $2.3 trillion in aid from rich countries into places like Kenya. And still, Easterly says, all that Western aid "had not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths."

Easterly, an economics professor at New York University, has written an insider's account. He spent 16 years as a World Bank economist and his experience in the field shows in the short anecdotal "snapshots" included as endnotes. These anecdotes, much more than the fever charts and tables of economic data that fill the book, bring home Easterly's "small is better" approach to foreign aid. What the foreign aid establishment lacks, he says, is precisely the ability to understand how programs work at ground level. Foreign aid organizations, highly developed bureaucracies that churn out massive reports and inspiring mission statements, lack accountability, incentives for superior performance and mechanisms for feedback from the very people they claim to help.

From Easterly's point of view, there are two types of aid workers: Planners and Searchers. You can guess where the problem lies.

"A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn't know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors. A Searcher hopes to find answers to individual problems only by trial and error experimentation."

As a self-described "noninterventionist", Easterly prefers the bottom-up approach that puts the Searchers (some of whom may work for large aid organizations) looking for creative solutions to problems, in concert with the people who need that help. "All the hoopla about having the right plan is itself a symptom of the misdirected approach to foreign aid taken by so many in the past and so many still today", Easterly writes. "The right plan is to have no plan."

Drawing on the thinking of Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, Easterly puts himself on the side of piecemeal, fix-it-as-you-go political and economic reform, in opposition to what Popper described as "utopian social engineering." Easterly's preference for the Searcher as social entrepreneur is also consonant with the "spontaneous order" theory of social scientist Michael Polanyi, whereby productive social networks and relationships arise spontaneously through the myriad interactions and exchanges of individuals mutually adjusting to a changing environment. Polanyi applied this theory to explain not just the market, but other fields as well, such as scientific research.

Yet the Planners, Easterly complains, "keep pouring resources into a fixed objective, despite many previous failures at reaching that objective, despite a track record that suggests the objective is infeasible or the plan unworkable." He's highly skeptical of hubristic attempts by organizations such as the World Bank and IMF to reform bad governments and bottomed-out economies with carrot-and-stick policies such as "structural adjustment." But as Easterly points out, the Planners have the rhetorical high ground: programs that promise to "end world poverty" grab headlines, mollify donor governments and provide rich photo opportunities with the likes of Bono and Angelina Jolie.

For the Searchers, Easterly prescribes a market-based model. The market, he maintains, is not only "hard-wired into human nature." Its "positive feedback loop to searching for solutions to customers' problems has made the market the greatest bottom-up system in history for meeting people's needs. (If only foreign aid could work like that.)"