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.