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May I Suggest ... "The White Man's Burden" by William Easterly

Wealthy people rely on free markets and entrepreneurs; poor people rely on bureaucracies and planners. Wealthy nations have tried to help poorer nations, but even the comparatively unformed market economies of the poorer nations are complex enough to have proved that while free market economies work, planned free market reforms do not. But the master planners of the West will not admit defeat, and so further plans pour forth, forcing the rest to divert limited energies and resources from the modest gains of on-the-ground local efforts to the imposed interventions of the master planners. The approach never really works, but it never has to because all the glory is in the big goals of the plan and its publicity. Once the publicity is exhausted and the goals unmet and the plan forgotten in the public mind, a new master plan will ìmake a big splashî all over again, to the same ultimate effect.

This is a short version of the case made in lengthy and engrossing detail in William Easterlyís book, ìThe White Manís Burden: Why the Westís Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and so Little Good.î

But in addition to asserting the problem, and supporting the assertion with research that seems more or less unassailable, Easterly offers a solution: forget the Utopian goals; encourage instead the homegrown, gradual, piecemeal enterprises of entrepreneurs in poor communities ñ ìsearchers,î Easterly calls them. These are the people who are close enough to their communities to know what is needed, what is desired and how to supply suitable products or services at a profit. They build in feedback from the customers, whether theyíre indoor stove cookers in Africa or law students in India or rice farmers in China, and they are held accountable under the market discipline that comes with such proximity. This approach will not end world poverty now, but it will bring an increasing supply of some good things to many poor communities.

Easterly focuses on foreign aid as conceived by the United States and western Europe, so much space is given to documenting the regular failures of the World Bank, the Inter-national Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations Childrenís Fund, the U.N./G8 Millennium Development Goals, large private-sector foundations and other usual suspects.

Human compassion isnít the problem here. The problem is that these and other Western institutions have spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over 50 years or so without figuring out how to supply 12-cent medicines and bed nets to malarial communities, or to provide new mothers with a few dollars in order to save 5 million infant lives, or to strengthen governments and title law in poor nations, or to introduce sustainable economic development regimens. Not every penny of $2.3 trillion has been outright wasted, certainly; but Easterly makes a solid case that much foreign aid, as he states explicitly of the Westís various governmental interventions, ìhas been on the far side of unhelpful.î

Indian country should be interested in this book for several reasons. For one thing, tribal communities and governments often find themselves under siege by intervention specialists of one stripe or another, many of them so thoroughly well-intentioned about it that actual strategies are needed to fend them off without offense while tending to a perpetually full plate. Easterly offers a public rationale for transcending friends like these.

In addition, private sector foundations that have begun to provide serviceable funding for Indian community initiatives are not immune from the master planning bug, which passed through them like a pathogen only a handful of years ago. But next time the master planners descend from their foundation strongholds, understanding Easterlyís book should provide some traction against them.

A final reason to put ìWhite Manís Burdenî on the syllabus of Indian country is that its principal findings apply in many places. How well they apply in some places was apparent at a recent Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on economic development in Indian country. There it became known that Shannon County in South Dakota, comprised of the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota, has not only ended a generation-spanning tenure as the nationís poorest county, but even boasts the highest percentile hike in employment rate of all the stateís counties. Elsie Meeks was on hand, currently with First Nations Oweesta Corporation, a small-business lender on Pine Ridge, and formerly of Lakota Fund, a small-business incubator of still longer standing on the reservation. Going back to First Nations Development Institute, the originator of both organizations, theyíve been at work on economic development at Pine Ridge for just about 30 years between them. It has been on-the-ground legwork, finding and encouraging small projects in an environment where entrepreneurs donít grow on trees but a fair number of folks know what their community needs. As Meeks made clear, theyíre still taking baby steps in economic development because they are the steps worth taking in a setting where many people havenít worked in years.

It would be unfair to say the senators who questioned Meeks were disappointed to hear that baby steps were still in order. But understandably enough in times of casino-sized revenue figures, neither did they seem enamored of the news. Easterlyís book might cheer them up.

Wealthy people rely on free markets and entrepreneurs; poor people rely on bureaucracies and planners. Wealthy nations have tried to help poorer nations, but even the comparatively unformed market economies of the poorer nations are complex enough to have proved that while free market economies work, planned free market reforms do not. But the master planners of the West will not admit defeat, and so further plans pour forth, forcing the rest to divert limited energies and resources from the modest gains of on-the-ground local efforts to the imposed interventions of the master planners. The approach never really works, but it never has to because all the glory is in the big goals of the plan and its publicity. Once the publicity is exhausted and the goals unmet and the plan forgotten in the public mind, a new master plan will ìmake a big splashî all over again, to the same ultimate effect.This is a short version of the case made in lengthy and engrossing detail in William Easterlyís book, ìThe White Manís Burden: Why the Westís Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and so Little Good.îBut in addition to asserting the problem, and supporting the assertion with research that seems more or less unassailable, Easterly offers a solution: forget the Utopian goals; encourage instead the homegrown, gradual, piecemeal enterprises of entrepreneurs in poor communities ñ ìsearchers,î Easterly calls them. These are the people who are close enough to their communities to know what is needed, what is desired and how to supply suitable products or services at a profit. They build in feedback from the customers, whether theyíre indoor stove cookers in Africa or law students in India or rice farmers in China, and they are held accountable under the market discipline that comes with such proximity. This approach will not end world poverty now, but it will bring an increasing supply of some good things to many poor communities.Easterly focuses on foreign aid as conceived by the United States and western Europe, so much space is given to documenting the regular failures of the World Bank, the Inter-national Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations Childrenís Fund, the U.N./G8 Millennium Development Goals, large private-sector foundations and other usual suspects.Human compassion isnít the problem here. The problem is that these and other Western institutions have spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over 50 years or so without figuring out how to supply 12-cent medicines and bed nets to malarial communities, or to provide new mothers with a few dollars in order to save 5 million infant lives, or to strengthen governments and title law in poor nations, or to introduce sustainable economic development regimens. Not every penny of $2.3 trillion has been outright wasted, certainly; but Easterly makes a solid case that much foreign aid, as he states explicitly of the Westís various governmental interventions, ìhas been on the far side of unhelpful.îIndian country should be interested in this book for several reasons. For one thing, tribal communities and governments often find themselves under siege by intervention specialists of one stripe or another, many of them so thoroughly well-intentioned about it that actual strategies are needed to fend them off without offense while tending to a perpetually full plate. Easterly offers a public rationale for transcending friends like these.In addition, private sector foundations that have begun to provide serviceable funding for Indian community initiatives are not immune from the master planning bug, which passed through them like a pathogen only a handful of years ago. But next time the master planners descend from their foundation strongholds, understanding Easterlyís book should provide some traction against them.A final reason to put ìWhite Manís Burdenî on the syllabus of Indian country is that its principal findings apply in many places. How well they apply in some places was apparent at a recent Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on economic development in Indian country. There it became known that Shannon County in South Dakota, comprised of the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota, has not only ended a generation-spanning tenure as the nationís poorest county, but even boasts the highest percentile hike in employment rate of all the stateís counties. Elsie Meeks was on hand, currently with First Nations Oweesta Corporation, a small-business lender on Pine Ridge, and formerly of Lakota Fund, a small-business incubator of still longer standing on the reservation. Going back to First Nations Development Institute, the originator of both organizations, theyíve been at work on economic development at Pine Ridge for just about 30 years between them. It has been on-the-ground legwork, finding and encouraging small projects in an environment where entrepreneurs donít grow on trees but a fair number of folks know what their community needs. As Meeks made clear, theyíre still taking baby steps in economic development because they are the steps worth taking in a setting where many people havenít worked in years.It would be unfair to say the senators who questioned Meeks were disappointed to hear that baby steps were still in order. But understandably enough in times of casino-sized revenue figures, neither did they seem enamored of the news. Easterlyís book might cheer them up.