I have really let the books pile up on my desk, but deadlines like "ILL return date" help me out. So here goes.
Every so often, a politician makes a big speech about how mosquito nets only cost a dollar and notebooks are even less, and if we just commit the money, we can solve poverty. All we need to do is have a plan and the money, and it can be done! Except, they've been making that speech for 60 years now, and while progress has been made, there are still millions of unvaccinated children, lots of unpotable water, and all sorts of terrible problems. Is it that we just haven't given enough money? What's the problem? Easterly, an economist who has spent much of his career in the developing world and foreign aid, has a lot to say about what the problem is.
From Easterly's perspective, a lot of the problem is that we throw money around, but we do it in a stupid way. We come up with gigantic plans to solve everything, make everybody work on it, give all the money to corrupt governments, and are then surprised when nobody is particularly accountable, nothing much happens, and an awful lot of money disappears into corrupt pockets. Sweeping utopian plans are bad, because they lack focus or accountability. The solution, he argues, is to accept that change comes one bit at a time, in a local manner, on the ground, mostly from the people who actually live there. Agencies should seek for solutions to small problems, not try to solve everything at once.
His terms for this are Planners vs. Seekers. Planners are top-down, blanket solution types; they don't ask what the people involved would like to do. This is ineffective (and condescending, and really kind of neo-colonial). Seekers are more likely to look for realistic solutions to a particular problem and then tackle it with the input of the people who live there. The question is not "How can the West end poverty in the Rest?" -- it's "What can foreign aid do for poor people?" Because it's not at all certain that the West can solve global poverty. But it can probably do some good stuff.
Some ground rules:
- Democracy is good. But it cannot be imposed from above.
- A free market is good. But it cannot be imposed from above.
- Incremental bottom-up improvements are both more realistic and more effective in the long run.
- Agencies should specialize.
- No matter how much aid agencies wish otherwise, giving money to corrupt governments neither encourages honesty (possibly it makes the corruption worse) or helps the poor.
- We really messed up with AIDS, and we still really are messing up with AIDS.
- UN peacekeeping efforts sound nice but are in fact worse than useless.
Piecemeal reformers, foreign and domestic, can try to move toward better systems that are sensitive to local conditions and that unshackle the dynamism of individuals everywhere. The dynamism of the poor at the bottom has much more potential than plans at the top.