Criticizing, Problem Solving and Searching

This piece was written for publication on Aid Watch: Just Asking that Aid Benefit the Poor.

I actually agree with much of what Professor Easterly writes and think he does some great things.  I also believe there is the potential for him to be making much more of a productive difference in the proverbial debate around poverty alleviation than is currently happening.

In that light, several colleagues and I from Students To End Extreme Poverty, have just launched a blog called Bill Easterly Watch:  Just Asking that Bill Stop Blowing Over Straw Men.  The name is pretty self explanatory.

In our opinion, NGOs and governments should be accountable – so should Professor Easterly.

Criticizing and problem solving are different.  Criticizing, in my analysis, is at best one third of the equation, and typically the easiest third.  Broadly speaking, criticizing can be the first step in positive change.  The next is figuring out – searching – what to do about it, the third is doing it, seeing what works and what doesn’t and if applicable how it can happen elsewhere.

The aid system is broken.  That is the starting point, not the ending point.  It’s easy to criticize, much harder to support or propose alternatives.  Mind you, if there were enough people focusing on the “solutions” it would be a different story and criticizing alone would be sufficient, but there are not enough people involved in meaningful ways so unless you are proposing alternatives a great deal of evidence does actually point to the potential to be discouraging more people than you are encouraging.

Unless this is the desired outcome Professor Easterly was hoping for, a strong argument can be made for amending his chosen approach.

I’ve spoken with countless people that cite Professor Easterly’s arguments as reasons for inaction, not just on aid but on the entire gamut of issues facing the world’s poorest.

Just telling someone to go out and search for solutions, when the social infrastructure is not in place to support people’s positive actions, as it isn’t, will not contribute to positive change in most instances.

We need internal and external emotional harmony to be happy people.  If we believe we are good (which most of us do) we need to reconcile our actions with our exterior environment.  What does this mean?   Good people do not ignore 9.2 million children dying every year from poverty related causes.  Therefore when confronted with this fact, if there is no social infrastructure in place (which there isn’t) allowing people to make a real tangible difference, there is a natural tendency for one to become cynical about the possibilities for change.  This also means, if you criticize an approach without suggesting a feasible alternative, chances are, except in a far too rare set of circumstances, people will give up on being involved.  I know, it’s sad hey.

Essentially, we are concerned that some of his arguments are not very well fleshed out, based on dramatic oversimplifications of complex issues and in several instances even miss the point.

The dichotomy between searchers and planners is a false one and a lot of planning is born out of searching.

The transformation of aid that is spoken about frequently here won’t happen without a critical mass of informed citizens who are willing to take actions collectively on the issues meaning you need all spheres of society involved.  This means that celebrity involvement can be a crucial component for getting people involved on an introductory level – usually the starting point for deeper more meaningful engagement – facilitating a tipping point and for norm promotion.

It doesn’t make sense to hold aid given for non development purposes to development outcomes but that’s what the $2.3 trillion in wasted aid argument, which is $15 per person per year, does.  We want to talk about that.

Students To End Extreme Poverty is all about healthy debate, accountability, innovation, searching and most of all solutions.  We believe, as is demonstrable, that aid can work, and there should be more of it that does work – more and better aid.  We think this is something that, with a little bit more prodding, Professor Easterly can support as well.


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10 Responses to “Criticizing, Problem Solving and Searching”

  1. Problem-solving-skill Says:

    This is the right opinion

    Cheers Giant Pandinha. I really enjoyed your post and thanks.

    All critique should not necessarily need to be constructive – of course. Ideally oversight, transparency and accountability are built into the structure of the organization.

    We do still think Professor Easterly can be far more constructive though and doing a lot more.

    About there being no easy answers. I half agree. This will be another topic we’ll be posting on. For many of the issues surrounding development there are no easy answers. I do believe, though, that there are a number of somewhat easy answers to poverty alleviation, which I think is (a) a perquisite for the potential for development (b) a humanitarian imperative.

  2. Supermodel vows to stay naked till USAID funds reach starving children Says:

    […] can understand why my critics at Bill Easterly Watch (!?) justify relying on Angelina Jolie as aid spokeswoman, since she combines all the successful […]

  3. Salguod Says:

    To borrow from another field, much what Prof. Easterly criticizes is “Aid Theater,” much as my colleagues in the security field criticize “Security Theater.” Both produce warm feelings, waste money, create negative externalities and accomplish nothing.


    Or, as better put by the wonderful legal colleagues Wronging Rights:

    If a proposed policy doesn’t pass my “is enacting this policy more likely to reduce suffering and end conflict than staying in to watch Love Actually again?” test,** then I for one would vote for movie night.


  4. gappy Says:

    As a regular read of Aid Watch and of some Growth & Development literature, I have some comments.

    You criticise Easterly for only being critical and not constructive in his approach. I actually disagree with your statement — Easterly has made clear in his blog, publications and talks what are his positive are. However, for the sake of argument, I am willing to accept your claim. I still don’t see what the issue is. Being ONLY critical AND mostly correct is an extremely valuable activity. Devaluing this activity on accounts that it does not propose solutions is a very common argument that does not stand up to close scrutiny. An art critic who persuasively points out that an artist is kitsch or derivative should not be asked to produce a great work of art in return. A mathematician who demolishes a conjecture (say, Godel or Matiyasevich) should not be asked to prove a positive weaker result. The work of an economist that demolishes naive approaches in his/her field (e.g., Arrow’s (Im)possibility theorem, or Lucas critique) should not be devalued fo being “negative”. But if you think criticism alone is not worth it, you should at least be consistent and change its main focus to positive statements, and not the criticism of another blog. That’s criticism squared.

    You criticise Easterly for justifying other people’s inaction. I wonder however if you shouldn’t then direct your focus on these very people, and question their original drive and motivation. Say that these people were content to do research in Aristotelian Physics and then someone comes along pointing out its inadequacy. Should we blame him because these countless people give up because research in the new Physics would be too complicated? And what exactly has the “absence of a social infrastructure” to do with it? To carry the Physics analogy further, should we keep believing in Aristotelian Physics just because we do not have the experimental apparatus to develop a new theory? You seem to see “people” as individuals who need to be enrolled in worthy causes without necessarily understanding them, so that they will achieve internal and external harmony.

    Finally, you criticise Easterly on specific points, such as “searching vs. planning”, celebrity involvement and churn in aid funds. Let us look at them.
    The criticism to the first point (“The dichotomy between searchers and planners is a false one and a lot of planning is born out of searching.”) must have been recommended by Yoda himself, and can be veritably generalised to the irrefutable statement that “The dichotomy between A and B is a false one and a lot of B is born out of A.” What’s next? “You must conquer inaction, or inaction will conquer you?”. Please.
    Regarding celebrities, I think you are inverting means and ends. Sure, it is a good thing to have more people aware of world poverty and of the need to eradicate it. But what if the solutions proposed are incorrect, and only achieve a false sense of internal and external harmony? Easterly’s critique is aimed at those who use their celebrity cachet to influence policy decisions for which they are not qualified, that are substantively wrong, and that only help appease the bad conscience of the aid-givers. Your objection says nothing regarding his critique, and is valid only if your goal is to enroll masses of acritical rock fans to a cause they do not fully understand.
    The last point, on wasted aid, is the most interesting one. Three lines in a blog don’t do it justice. I hope you really do want to talk about that. I am sure Easterly will be game.

    • billeasterlywatch Says:

      Gappy. That was a great post! You made a lot of great points. Thanks.

      We think Easterly can be a lot more constructive, obviously in some situations more than others. Like we said he does lots of good stuff.

      We’re just concerned at points, he may be contributing to negative change.

      “Only critical and mostly correct.” Here are three of my issues with that though. It’s all about the scope of your audience, what you are or are not correct about, and the type of efforts you’re making. I guess my problem here is I’ve heard his arguments, or oversimplifications of his arguments from second hand sources, used to justify inaction on everything. Not just on more wasted aid.

      In my experience Easterly is probably the most frequently cited academic reference for apathy. That’s my issue. And there’s a lot of good reasons for that. That is one of the things we’re trying to flesh out.

      That was a great paragraph about the art critic and the mathematician! Loved the comparisons. The problem with that though is the analogy doesn’t hold up. It leaves out the human factors, like (the vacuous claim of) dignity. I liked that article.

      The art critic doesn’t passively contribute to an unjust system or have any moral imperative for action, so the scope is totally different.
      The Aristotelian Physics paragraph. That was great, you’re a wonderful writer.

      If people gave up on new physics because it was too complicated, very crudely, people wouldn’t be left to die from stupid things. The social benefit from it is entirely different.

      Questioning the original drive and motivation. Of course. Ideally, those with the “best” drive and motivation (however you would define that) would rise to the top. But if we started making “pure intentions” or some variation thereof a prerequisite for engagement in anything, aside from it being tough to imagine being implemented and how, the bulk of people would probably be found wanting.

      I realized a while ago I couldn’t really, or wasn’t my place to, persuade people of where their drive and motivation should be coming from. So I just started working on norm promotion.

      With the massive increases in specialization there has been a heightened tension on communications, which is lagging behind especially when dealing with social issues, which has heightened the need for effective communications.

      This is where the social infrastructure comes in. I’m hoping to write more about this in some post soon, or pass off some old writing as new, but I’ll just touch on it briefly.

      This is how I’ve summed it up elsewhere.

      Essentially, we need to dramatically increase the numbers involved to see policy change and we need to further the debate so that we can gain the broad consensus required to move forward on the most pressing and easily solvable issues and take a longer term stance on the more complex and difficult to solve ones.

      This requires a disaggregation of the issues which cuts against the grain of the necessarily simplified presentation of the issues in order to gain widespread engagement based on limited substantive knowledge so there is an inherent tension here.

      It can however be overcome by prolonged sustained engagement but the structures for involvement currently do not promote the necessary sustained engagement. It seems therefore that modifying the existing structures for engagement should be our primary focus

      As you may have seen elsewhere, at this point, I’m a pretty firm believer in involving all spheres of society in these efforts. That means I think celebrity involvement can be a great component of norm promotion.

      “Easterly’s critique is aimed at those who use their celebrity cachet to influence policy decisions for which they are not qualified, that are substantively wrong, and that only help appease the bad conscience of the aid-givers.”

      I don’t think I agree with that. If memory serves me I’ve seen a number of examples here that I would argue do not fit those criteria.

      I thought you planner searcher comment was hilarious. Good call. Such is the limitation of 600 words – generalizing while changing the meaning of words mid sentence. Sorry about that.

      People can be “planners and searchers” (as used in the book). A lot of the strategies (plans) that people come up with are based on trying to figure stuff out (searching).

      Wasted aid.

      Yes, we really do want to talk about that. A lot! It should be a reoccurring topic here.

      Thanks again for your post that was great.

  5. Mark McCormack Says:

    I watched Easterly deliver a talk at Authors@Google. A funny a guy but I have to agree that he may be slowing things down a little too far in being so critical. One solution is offers is that we don’t need utopian holistic grand plan strategies to end extreme poverty. His solution is that we should keep very slowly letting individuals do the small little acts that will eventually amount to ending extreme poverty.

    Maybe. I could play the bleeding heart and say that this is an emergency of human lives, but to take a more “reasonable” approach I would like to point out that there are already so many NGO’s born out of peoples collective individuality that the paperwork generated appears to be debilitating to some African governments (at various levels). Accountability is great, but not if all 2000 NGO’s in a single slum in Nairobi produce mountains of paperwork proving that their rather small project is accountable. I don’t think we need more “individuality”. I think we need to get people “planning” TOGETHER to address specific targets (ie the MDG indicators) in a scientific way which I believe requires both searching and planning (hypothesizing). I too believe at some level that the division he makes is a false one. I haven’t completely finished the book however and will leave it at that.

    I think Easterly needs to propose better solutions, although his critical attitude is needed especially with the farse that was foreign aid for the past 40 years, but like was said earlier, its the easier 1/3 of the equation. Please step it up Easterly. Make the Millennium Villages better if you think you can.I don’t think small pox and soon polio would have been eradicated by the approach you were suggesting because it did take a great deal of planning. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you.

  6. Orlando Roncesvalles Says:

    There is something to the principle that all should be accountable for their actions and views. However:

    (a) I’d like to see the evidence that you have to waste $15, to get something more than that (and from whom?); and

    (b) You seem to argue that “celebrity involvement” solves the inaction of “informed” citizens. But it seems much more likely that celebrity involvement moves the uninformed, and in directions we can’t really control.

    My point is that the opportunity cost of the $15 and celebrity involvement would actually be very large if they could be put to much better use than under the present “aid” system. Of course, if the (self-deluded) donors and celebrities would have done what they do anyway, then I can see the point that Bill is barking up the wrong tree. But that’s not his fault, is it?

    • billeasterlywatch Says:

      Orlando. Thanks for those excellent points.

      (a.1) Wasted $15: When aggregating the $15 per person in aid we miss some valuable insights. Based on the amount given, a tremendous amount was wasted. But, the landscape of possibilities has completely shifted. Take the scope from 50 years to the last five or ten. A strong argument can even be made that possibilities are still shifting strongly right now.

      We’ll be elaborating on the “but you did it wrong 50 years ago” argument in a future post.

      Quickly, usual points: Until 1990 the Cold War dominated aid. Possibilities increase. Flurry of conferences in the 90s, International Development Targets, etc… 2000, MDGs. 2001 Sept 11. Security dominates again, war on terror. 2009, Bush is out. Possibilities increase.

      Last decade: Three million people on AIDS drugs. Malaria deaths dropping by over 50% when serious efforts are made. 40 million more children in school. Malawi going from 40% of the population needing food aid, to exponential gains and being a food exporter. There are a number examples of well spent aid that can be scaled.

      Well spent aid, obviously combined with a variety of other instruments, was the driving force.

      We think poverty alleviation almost necessarily a requisite for development and a humanitarian imperative.

      (a.2) From whom? Governments primarily, but special drawing rights, a currency transaction tax or a variety of others are interesting thoughts.

      (b.1) Opportunity cost of $15: Again I think given what’s happened in the last several years aid is coming out, in several instances, as a big success. There should be more of the aid that works. I don’t think there’s an inherent tension between moving forward on what works and reforming what doesn’t while scaling up funding.

      I would love to see the aid system reformed, as I think most people would, but I don’t see that as a reason not to be funding what works when the limiting factor in those instances is funding.

      (b.2) Opportunity cost of celebrity involvement: Yes, celebrity involvement could be better, but on the upside it could be much worse and I know a number of people who are working on that. And obviously the opportunity cost of other forms of celebrity involvement could be much higher.

      But like you said, that could be going on anyhow, and they could be doing a much poorer job, so it’s unclear and doesn’t seem like a reason to me to ignore that approach.

      Celebrity involvement can be one component of moving people towards being more informed citizens prompting more substantive meaningful action. And of course it’s only one part of it, but having all spheres of society involved in some way may need to happen, so it can be a valuable component.

      And of course that’s not Professor Easterly’s fault. We just think he can be doing more to be constructive and make sure that aid benefit the poor. Which can be done while giving more of it that works working towards the 0.7%.

  7. giantpanda Says:


    Just to kick things off, I am not an old timer, but still I am at times perplexed by the informality of this day and age of blogs/tweets. Not that it matters, because I didn’t learn that much about Development in the academy, but my professors would have never broadcast opinions in this way. Sometimes I think Easterly simplifies his arguments too much for the sake of an impatient readership.

    However, the idea that all critique should be constructive is something I actively struggle against, especially inside my agency.

    I believe that there should be a place, even within the workplace, for critique and reflection for their own sake. The big questions: What are we doing here? Why do we do things this way? In what ways are we perpetuating injustice and existing power structures? With these questions, there are no easy answers. But even the exercise of asking them, airing them, and debating them is crucial.

    Perhaps I operate on a more micro level and a less systemic level. But I honestly tire of the overly earnest, and simplistic, idea that we merely are mere conduits of development and that the only issue is effectiveness.

    And I actually pretty much agree on the planning/searching dichotomy… The exceptions prove the rule.

    And finally, I live in the UK, a country where many more people do care about aid and it has not had the results you seem to be yearning for in the US.

    I’ll be interested to see other reactions to what you have set out. Don’t be discouraged from this blog project, I think it’s only right for students to “talk back”, I hope you can sustain it!


    Giant Pandinha (@giantpandinha)

    • billeasterlywatch Says:

      Cheers Giant Pandinha. I really enjoyed your post and thanks.

      All critique should not necessarily need to be constructive – of course. Ideally oversight, transparency and accountability are built into the structure of the organization.

      We do still think Professor Easterly can be far more constructive though and doing a lot more.

      About there being no easy answers. I half agree. This will be another topic we’ll be posting on. For many of the issues surrounding development there are no easy answers. I do believe, though, that there are a number of somewhat easy answers to poverty alleviation, which I think is (a) a perquisite for the potential for development (b) a humanitarian imperative.

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