Nicholas Kristof Reviews Easterly's White Man's Burden – and Summarizes Foreign Aid Conundrum

September 21, 2006

The New York Review of Books' Aid: Can it Work? is a wide-ranging review of Bill Easterly's recent book The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Easterly discussed his book at a CGD event last March, transcript available.) Much more than an informed book review, Nicholas Kristof's article paints an excellent picture of the state of the debate on foreign aid. In sum, “The conundrum facing the rich countries is that everywhere in the developing world, and particularly in Africa, you see children dying for want of pennies, while it's equally obvious that aid often doesn't work very well.”As is done in the article, Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Easterly are often placed at opposite ends of the spectrum of aid optimists and pessimists, but I doubt even Easterly would argue for a complete disavowal of all foreign aid. Both Kristof and Easterly herald global health as one sector in which aid has seen considerable success, pointing to CGD's publication, Millions Saved: Proven Successes in Global Health. But there are two sides to this story. On the one hand, we found 17 health interventions proven to be successful through rigorous evidence. On the other hand, these 17 cases comprise a very small fraction of the global health interventions attempted over the last half century. So you might ask, what about the rest? Did they work? The truth is, it's hard to know. Poor or non-existent evaluation of the impact of these health interventions leaves us questioning. And the evidence base for other social sectors is equally weak, if not worse.Kristof conveys Easterly’s suggestion to addressing this problem:

"Perhaps the aid agencies should each set aside a portion of their budgets (such as the part now wasted on self-evaluation) to contribute to an international independent evaluation group made up of staff trained in the scientific method from the rich and poor countries, who will evaluate random samples of each aid agency's efforts."
This suggestion is in keeping with the recommendations of CGD's Evaluation Gap Working Group as described in the group's report, When Will We Ever Learn? Improving Lives through Impact Evaluation. Full disclosure: I served as project coordinator.


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