Posted by: keherenf | September 18, 2007

The White Man’s Burden- What You Probably Never Knew About Poverty


Driven by a passion for volunteering since a young age combined with a love for medicine and public health, I have been trying to learn as much as I can about the extreme poverty that is ravishing over half of the world’s population. Subsequently, I have been reading many books that pertain to global poverty, public health, and development economics. After finishing The White Man’s Burden , I felt William Easterly’s arguments to be both interesting and agreeable. Written with brilliant analogies, informative graphs, and an easily understandable writing style, I found these themes to be especially compelling:

**Note, In order to fully understand this discussion, you should have a basic understanding of the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank.**

1. Planning: He prefaces the book by saying that he commends most people for their efforts when it comes to foreign aid. He does believe that most people give out of the good of their hearts, and just need to be aware of what is really happening to a lot of foreign aid. This lack of information also leads to bad planning when it comes to how to use the money. He explains that most of the time, a “top-down” approach is used by foreign aid agencies in that they try to solve a multitude of problems instead of just one.

The best analogy I can create is this: Imagine that you go to the doctor and you have about 10 different non-related ailments. Maybe your stomach hurts, you have a gaping wound in your arm, your leg is broken, you have a fever, and so on. Now, imagine that he closely examines you and then prescribes you one medication to solve every single ailment. Do you think that pill will magically fix your broken leg? Or that it will stop the bleeding from the gaping wound in your arm? Of course not! Instead, you need the physician to take each ailment one at a time and treat each thing individually.

Likewise, with foreign aid the same approach should be used. Often times, what Easterly calls “the Planners” (those who make decisions on large amounts of foreign aid like the IMF or the World Bank) look at an impoverished nation and think that they can solve every major problem at one time. So, they will throw a very large amount of money over, thinking that it will completely turn the country around. Well, this has failed time after time. Instead, this money is usually used up very quickly in programs that are not sustainable, so when the money runs out the country ends up failing even more then before the aid was even sent.


2. Utilization: Foreign aid donation money is not properly used. Period. A majority of the time, the “top-down” approach leads to a very poor utilization of funding. When the IMF sends money, most of the time it is in the form of a repayment loan. They write both the time that it needs to be repaid by as well as a list of conditions for the utilization of the funds. Often times, what the poor really want and need is omitted from this list. Easterly shows how many countries fail to pay the money back, and without consequence.

Here is the analogy that Easterly provides: Pretend you have a close family member who has a drug or alcohol addiction. This family member comes to you and says that he/she would like to sober up, and for help would like you to loan him/her some money. You gladly provide the funding under the following conditions: 1. the person must get clean, and 2. the person must get a job. Well, that family member uses the money on food or clothes or whatever the situation, but once the money is out the person is not clean and does not have a job. But, he/she still comes to you and asks for more money. What do you do?

If you were the IMF, you would give the person more money. Despite the fact that many countries do not pay any of the money back and that no problems were really solved, the IMF tries to compensate by sending over more money. Easterly portrays a shocking graph where as funding gets higher in many countries, per capita growth inversely plummets. The more poorly planned and terribly utilized money we send over, the worse off these countries actually get.

3. Accountability: One large problem with foreign aid is that many of the agencies, including the IMF and the World Bank, are not accountable for whether or not the aid is properly utilized. He provides an analogy of being a Harry Potter publisher. If your job was solely to be a Harry Potter publisher and a new book was coming out, there are a couple of things that you would learn: 1. How many copies should you make, 2. What type of copies your customers need. You would then do whatever it took to make sure that you had this ready when the book was released. If something went terribly wrong and the book was accidentally printed in invisible ink, you would take the copies back and again do whatever it took to make sure that your customers got the copies they need and that they were fully satisfied.

Unfortunately, the same does not seem to apply for foreign aid agencies. Often times, the aid is sent over to an impoverished nation without having the needs properly assessed. Instead of asking the poor people what they want the most (he gives an example of one area desperately just wanting clean water when the IMF assumed they wanted AIDS medication), each agency just assumes and spends the money accordingly. Then, the Western world can hear on the news that a large sum of money was donated to a certain country, and the Western population assumes that the money is being used effectively. But, often times it is not, but there is no check on these agencies to make sure that they are accountable for the programs they try and create. You know the old saying about what assuming does…

The solution: Easterly makes it very clear through these points that the popular usage of aid has not benefited anyone. But, he is not a pessimist. He explains that the best way to solve this problem is to be a “Seeker” rather than a “Planner” and look for small, sustainable programs. Remember the doctor analogy I gave earlier? What Easterly would say is that the West is the physician. Instead of trying to solve every single ailment in a country by one magical pill (or plan), we should send “Seekers” (those who try and develop these small sustainable programs) into the countries to closely tend to one ailment at a time. He gives countless stories throughout the book about small programs that have been highly effective and still work today: bringing clean water to a village and dramatically reducing the incidence of death by diarrhea, educating prostitutes as to how HIV is spread and therefore drastically decreasing HIV infection rates, selling mosquito nets only to those who actually want them and therefore providing both an income to the people who sell them and preventing wasting nets on those who will not use them, and so on. Easterly believes that there is a way to help solve poverty, and it is through this “bottom-up” approach.

So, if you donate personal money to a cause I would encourage you to try and do the research to make sure that it is being effectively used. Try looking for agencies that really focus in a single issue rather than an agency that claims that it will save a whole country. As long as we try to be effective, we can help alleviate the extreme poverty that ravishes so many people today.



  1. it would seem the most obvious way to make sure ur money is being used in an effective way is to use, of course there are other ways but u def know exactly where it is going with this wonderful method of giving money

  2. […] Easterly puts it, “The development field is still dominated by planers.” Although the best way to solve this problem is to be a “Seeker” rather than a “Planner” and look for …. To set up projects in a relevant context is a key and means to include as much expertise (actors?) […]

  3. […] The White Man’s Burden- What You Probably Never Knew About Poverty « Kirstyn E’s Weblog “Instead of trying to solve every single ailment in a country by one magical pill (or plan), we should send “Seekers” (those who try and develop these small sustainable programs) into the countries to closely tend to one ailment at a time” (tags: blog development easterly whitemansburden) […]

  4. Dear Kirstyn, as a person who lives and works in the second poorest country in this hemisphere, I’m always thinking of ways to get Nicaraguans out of poverty. I enjoyed reading your weblog and look forward to reading “The White Man’s Burden.” I have never been a fan of bureaucratic organizations, but rather prefer working on concrete solutions. One way we are doing this, as businessmen is by creating jobs… in construction, shrimp farming, and an industrial free zone. Another way we are helping is by financing the smaller companies through financial factoring, in an effort that is supported strongly by the Bank of Interamerican Development (BID). Other efforts we have undertaken is the refurbishing of public schools, doing maintenance in jails and hospitals, etc. Now we are looking at training Nicaraguan teachers in the Montesori educational system by bringing a trainer who has had considerable success in Honduras ( All of this through a private effort of a company interested in getting Nicaraguans out of their misery. None of it through foreign aid and donations. Although the aim is a good one, and it does in the end help people, the bulk of the work has to be done on the field by focusing on solving one problem at a time. I commend you on your efforts and agree wholeheartedly with your conclusions. Regards, Carl Ahlers, Managua, Nicaragua

    • Thank you so much for your help and your efforts. Let me know if I can help in anyway!

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