Bill Easterly on Foreign Aid and Development

Q You’re largely known as a critic of aid and development, pointing out what doesn’t work. What do you think does work? Many young people do want to make the world a better place. What should they do?

BE: Again, I don’t say aid never works or that outside interventions always fail. I would say that many aid projects in health have been quite successful, such as the expansion of vaccinations, oral re-hydration therapy and such. What I’m saying is you’re asking the wrong question. It’s the wrong mindset, asking ‘What can we do?’ because you’ve already taken a top-down, paternalistic stance.

I would tell people to first learn how poverty reduction and development actually work. If activists want an outlet for their energies, they should be advocating for individual rights for the poor. Poor people need idealistic and intellectual allies, like the northern white liberals who worked with poor blacks on civil rights in the South.

This is true not only in 3rd world countries, but in rich western ones, as well. The top-down, government-administered approach to homelessness and poverty is both well-intentioned and doomed to failure. 

The Man Without a Plan

Amartya Sen reviews Bill Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden:

Perhaps the weakest link in Easterly’s reasoning is his almost complete neglect of the distinctions between different types of economic problems. Easterly is well aware of the efficiency of market delivery when commodities are bought in a market and backed by suitable purchasing power, and he contrasts that with the usual infelicities and inefficiencies in getting aid to those who need it most. But the distinction between the two scenarios lies not only in the different ways of meeting the respective problems, but also in the nature of the problems themselves. There is something deeply misleading in the contrast he draws between them, which seems to have motivated his entire project: “There was no Marshall Plan for Harry Potter, no International Financing Facility for books about underage wizards. It is heartbreaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children.” The disparity in the results is indeed heartbreaking. But jumping from there to arguing that the solution to the latter problem is along the same lines as the solution to the former reflects a misunderstanding of what makes the latter so much more difficult. (That major issue is clearly more important than the minor point that J. K. Rowling was on welfare support and received a grant from the Scottish Arts Council when writing the first Harry Potter novel.)

Stratospheric Winds

The stratosphere (whitish in the photo) lies just above the troposphere (orange) at altitudes from 10 – 50 km above the surface of the Earth. Although most of the weather we experience on the surface of the Earth occurs in the troposphere, atmospheric scientists have observed winds above the equatorial region in the stratosphere. These winds were first observed in the early 1960’s using radiosondes (instruments tied to helium balloons that measure – pressure, temperature and relative humidity) and have been regularly measured ever since.

Atmospheric scientists refer to them as “quasi-biennial oscillation” – the winds that whip around the equator, switching from easterlies to westerlies and repeating this cycle - every 28 months (watch this short animation of the QBO’s from 1980 to 2000 here - http://bit.ly/2c547tD). It is a downward propagating wind pattern that begins with a strong westerly flow that eventually weakens after a year as they descend into the lower stratosphere and is replaced by an easterly flow. This cycle has been consistent repeating itself roughly every 28 months since the beginning of continuous measurements in 1953.

However, in February, atmospheric scientists saw a change in the otherwise – consistent pattern of the QBO’s.

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Today in Middle-Earth: Frodo and Samwise escape and begin their journey north along the Morgai (March 15th, 3019 T.A.).

   'Now down we go, Sam,’ Frodo whispered. ‘Down into the valley quick, and then turn northward, as soon as ever we can.' 

   Day was coming again in the world outside, and far beyond the glooms of Mordor the Sun was climbing over the eastern rim of Middle-earth; but here all was still dark as night. The Mountain smouldered and its fires went out. The glare faded from the cliffs. The easterly wind that had been blowing ever since they left Ithilien now seemed dead. Slowly and painfully they clambered down, groping, stumbling, scrambling among rock and briar and dead wood in the blind shadows, down and down until they could go no further. 


My name is Aidan Devereaux and I own a camera. I am based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the most easterly city in North America capturing its beautiful landscapes, nature, and people. I love photography because it gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Life can feel pretty dull sometimes and I try to show the opposite through my photos.


“You should see the light that we get here, when the sun comes from behind those mountains. It’s almost heavenly. It reminds me of you…”

Creating this was harder than I thought. I feel silly saying this, but I almost cried several times in process, especially with those flowers on the grave and when I did her transparency.

Over 1950-2001. countries with below-average aid had the same growth rate as countries with above-average foreign aid. Poor countries without aid had no trouble having positive growth.

This is a critical finding - the poorest countries can grow and develop on their own. Since foreign aid received does not explain these successes, perhaps they happened for entirely homegrown reasons. The Searchers among the poor can find a way toward higher living standards; they do not have to wait for the West to save them.


William Easterly providing empirical evidence - in The White Man’s Burden - debunking the poverty trap myth developed by Rostow and used by Jeffrey Sachs in his 2005 book The End of Poverty, to justify white saviorism:

“When people are … utterly destitute, they need their entire income, or more, just to survive. There is no margin of income above survival that can be invested for the future. This is the main reason why the poorest of the poor are more prone with becoming trapped with low or negative economic growth rates. They are too poor to save for the future and thereby accumulate the capital that could pull them out of their current misery.”