The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
To the Editor:
Sparks are flying in the normally dull world of development economics. In his recent work The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, William Easterly castigated his former employers at the World Bank. Amartya Sen then zapped him in these pages for his "purple prose" ("The Man Without a Plan," March/April 2006).
As Easterly points out, however, for too long the evaluation of development projects has been conducted in the opposite of purple prose. For 60 years, bland economic reports have justified the $2 trillion that has been spent on utopian goals.
In his book, Easterly argues that aid bureaucracies are slow to learn and react because they lack "feedback mechanisms" such as markets or elections. As a result, flawed policies are never corrected because aid recipients cannot communicate their displeasure about them. Worse, what program evaluations do occur are conducted by self-interested international bureaucrats, who inevitably blame failure on someone else (typically the poor). The best way to call attention to such absurdities is through a polemic.
Since he left the World Bank, Easterly has been at times too harsh on his discipline. But Sen is wrong to imply that Easterly's overenthusiasm discredits his ideas. Such passion is a virtue, not a flaw. Members of the aid community should listen to Easterly's argument about accountability. Neither they nor the poor can afford for them to gloss over the problem again.
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, California State University-Chico