Dynamist Blog

Bono Doesn't Know How to End Poverty

In today's NYTBR, I review iconoclastic development economist William Easterly's new book, The White Man's Burden. Although the context is different, the book's basic theme will be familiar to readers of The Future and Its Enemies (though there's no indication that Easterly has read my book). From the review:

In "The White Man's Burden," Easterly turns from incentives to the subtler problems of knowledge. If we truly want to help the poor, rather than just congratulate ourselves for generosity, he argues, we rich Westerners have to give up our grand ambitions. Piecemeal problem-solving has the best chance of success.

He contrasts the traditional "Planner" approach of most aid projects with the "Searcher" approach that works so well in the markets and democracies of the West. Searchers treat problem-solving as an incremental discovery process, relying on competition and feedback to figure out what works.

"A Planner thinks he already knows the answers," Easterly writes. "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." Planners trust outside experts. Searchers emphasize homegrown solutions.

The new book, while well worth reading, isn't as good as Easterly's earlier The Elusive Quest for Growth, which I highly recommend. As I note in the review, however, that's partly because The White Man's Burden is trying to tackle much more difficult questions.

Dan Drezner reviewed Easterly in Friday's WSJ. (This link does not require a subscription.)

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