on August 31, 2008
Easterly's book is a sensitive and penetrating look at the many moral, organizational and logical failures of western aid agencies. In the words of Jagdish Bhagwati, NGO's, government aid organizations and celebrities of the Live Aid vintage 'hide behind their halos'. The road to hell is paved on good intentions, and in some situations foreign aid has come pretty close to paving it (the examples in Easterly's book are numerous, and I will leave you to read them).
Easterly's research and examples are generally empirically driven, unlike the modern, highly theoretical trend in Economic analysis. I am not saying that he doesn't employ theory. He makes extensive use of Game Theory, and its extensions with the Principal/ Agent problem. This approach, combined with insights from other social sciences (another refreshing quality, as nowadays it is the trend for Economists to impose their methodologies on other disciplines, not to learn from them) allows him to find some compelling explanations for the lack of success aid agencies have had, due to 1930's style top down planning which the Bretton Woods institutions and the UN, not to mention modern neo-cons are caught in. The big difference between his theorizing and the common Economic theorist is he puts heavy emphases on true 'positive' scientific analysis, which is empirical falsification.
Easterly generally avoids getting caught in the Left/Right abyss that Galbreth and Friedman had in the last generation, and Sowell/Stilitz in this one. He does show some bias in his discussion of AIDS (he refused to acknowledge the Ugandans success with programs advocating monogamy), but aside from that it is hard to find much partisanship in his analysis. Hopefully more young economists will follow this lead.
My only other criticism of his book is his tendency to use Economeze intermittently. Friedman, a master of public writing wisely translated Economic jargon into English, which accounts for his widespread influence. Aside from that, I think that 'The White Man's Burden' is an excellent book, and a compelling read.