"Be thine own palace," wrote John Donne, "or the world's thy jail." William Easterly does not invoke this particular metaphor in The White Man's Burden, but this exciting -- and excited -- book is about the imprisonment of the world's poor in the trap of international aid, where "planners" have incarcerated the wretched of the earth. The poor may not have a "palace" to fall back on, battered as they are by grinding privation, massive illiteracy, and the scourge of epidemics. But Easterly -- a former World Bank economist who now teaches at New York University -- nevertheless argues that in the fight against global poverty, "the right plan is to have no plan."
In contrast to the typically well-meaning but allegedly always injurious "planners," the heroes of Easterly's book are those whom he calls "searchers." The division between the planners and the searchers, as seen by Easterly, could not be sharper: "In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don't motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward. Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand. Planners apply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; Searchers find out whether the customer is satisfied." The radical oversimplification in this overdrawn contrast leads Easterly to a simple summary of his book's thesis in its subtitle -- Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good -- which supplements a title borrowed from Rudyard Kipling's lyrical paean to high-minded