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I face my own critics

It’s only fair that I respond to my critics, in the same way I ask others to respond to my criticisms. A comment by Jeff on the poverty tourism controversy was particularly negative, but also succinct and eloquent, and his concerns seem to overlap with those expressed by other, so I will respond to Jeff directly. I put his comments in bold and my response in italics.

The main take away from this blog in general seems to be this:

1) for the sake of your reputation and the world, steer your career clear of anything other than making money for yourself.

The intention with criticism is to induce change from bad aid behavior to better aid behavior. You are right, Jeff, that criticism could scare away some people from engagement in aid at all. I could do better in making clear that this is the LAST thing I want.

2) especially if you’re famous, be selfish. If you care about problems like poverty, keep your mouth shut.

I think that it is ridiculous that celebrities have a major voice on aid. But you are right that I could do better in recognizing the possibility of more modest and constructive celebrity engagement. I did do an event with Natalie Portman once.

3) only about 5 people in the world know anything about development and aid. Everyone else trying to do something is borderline evil.

That many? (joking)

I am a dissenter from the aid establishment (and not the only one); it badly needs dissent because there is too much group-think. There is a difference between dissent and arrogance, especially when my dissent often takes the form of questioning whether outsiders (including me) know enough to perform social engineering in other societies. But you are right I could do better showing respect to those I am dissenting from.

4) If you think you’re part of the solution, you’re really part of the problem.

Since you criticized arrogance in the previous point, Jeff, it’s probably worth it for all of us to double-check ourselves on (4).

5) private sector take heed: doing a little to help is usually worse than doing nothing at all.

The private sector should not get a free pass from criticism when they mix social and private enterprise, but social enterprise is often a good thing.

6) misguided good intentions should be dealt with harshly, with righteous indignation, rather than nudged toward more effective paths.

You are right, Jeff, I have to be careful about self-righteousness, particularly when it comes to moral/ethical issues like poverty tourism. I still strongly disapprove of poverty tourism, but I certainly do not get rich-poor interactions perfectly right all the time either. Based on yours and other feedback I have gotten, I think my tone was too harsh in response to Dr. Michael Grosspietsch on the Rwanda Millennium Village project. I apologize to him and to the others involved for my excessively harsh tone.

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  1. Yi wrote:

    “Since you criticized arrogance in the previous point, Jeff, it’s probably worth it for all of us to double-check ourselves on”; the best sentence of this post. Sometimes I feel you two missed each other’s target while throwing back the arrow, hope Jeff could hold the same attitude.

    But still, we need dissents, as always, and everywhere, especially for the countries still under the lead of totalitarians in which dissenters are persecuted, like China.

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 3:14 am | Permalink
  2. I appreciate your response. I wanted to note that you didn’t respond to the person who asked why certain study abroad programs are different from poverty tourism. Personally, I think a great many NGO workers are poverty tourists who get paid for it.

    I don’t mean to add to the cynicism here. I don’t think cynicism serves anyone, but I love the well articulated criticism followed (we hope) by accountability.

    As you are an economist, I wonder if you have given much thought to what participants gain from these experiences and weighed various cost benefits? I think motivations run from boosting self-esteem (at the low end) to hands on research by people who want to start with relationship in order to be involved in the most effective ways. I suspect that there are many kinds of programs, so there are many possible answers. You can’t paint all efforts to bring the “rich” into connection with the “poor” with a broad brush.

    I take people from a “rich” country to a “poor” country. I start with the perspective that life in this “rich” country is impoverished in relationships (as Mother Theresa observed when she visited wealthy nations). Most people I bring discover this reality as they spend time getting to know the “poor” as friends.

    I don’t make money. I cover my big expenses and donate all that I can. I’m working on being an effective searcher (having read “White Man’s Burden” as a breath of fresh air) and showing (rather than just telling) people what that looks like. I’ll probably get better as I go. I have a long term perspective, hoping that people who have connected with people in poverty will continue to remember them as friends and equals whether they are giving money smartly or doing business together.

    I’m not saying this to defend myself. I’m willing to learn. The more I think about it, poverty tourism implies things that I don’t associate with my work at all, so perhaps (if you knew me) you’d agree the term doesn’t apply. Whatever, I still feel lumped with it. Some people commenting here have a lot of anger to express (me to), but when it gets down to it (as you demonstrate again and again) it’s not sincere feelings that change things but people who dive in to real situations and relationships and “muddle through” (as you aptly described). I will say confidently that I’m not a cynic. I am just an ordinary guy muddling through and still hopeful.

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 3:54 am | Permalink
  3. In the words of one of the great philosophers of our time, Rodney King, “can’t we all just get along?”

    What disturbs me about the general tone of many of the comments related to the debate over so-called “poverty tourism” in Africa is that it has become another binary battle of right vs wrong and us vs them. Someone even invoked cliche “if you aren’t a part of the solution then you are part of the problem.”

    How do people with such attitudes manage their own relationships with spouses, children, parents, friends, and neighbors? There are certainly areas of compromise and contrition that can enter the debate on this issue.

    Bill is not a policymaker, but his observations and research can certainly influence policy makers. Based on what I have read and seen, Jeffery Sachs has had a greater influence on policymakers over the years that Bill.

    I have said this before and I’ll say it again; in my opinion Bill is not telling people WHAT to think, he is simply asking people TO think. Based on that, Bill is effectively doing his job as an educator.

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 9:40 am | Permalink
  4. JTapp wrote:

    Can I just say that Dr. Easterly is a real inspiration for me and I’d like to encourage him and his criticisms? My development professor in grad school used his Elusive Quest for Growth as a textbook (he was a second generation Amartya Sen disciple).

    I entered grad school after spending a couple years overseas doing humanitarian aid. I got frustrated with what we were doing as an organization and read Stiglitz’ Discontents at about the same time. I decided to get a masters in Int’l Econ and thought I’d work for the World Bank or USAID or someone. I read End of Poverty thinking Sachs had the right ideas. Then I read Easterly (and others) and realized that much of what I had thought about int’l development was false, much of what has been done in the realm of aid has been wasteful and, indeed, harmful.

    Upon graduation, I did an internship with a microcredit agency and am currently looking at ways to foster entrepreneurship overseas as a career.

    Easterly is a very needed voice, his op-eds in the papers responding to Sachs and others are a much-needed different point of view. His demands for transparency should be lauded. Yes, he can jump the gun at times but are other econobloggers any different (look at Rodrik, Krugman, Delong…)?

    Dr. Easterly, thanks for what you do.

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  5. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    Amen to Michael’s comment. This is definitely not a black and white issue, and I thought Bill’s original post, while a little harsh at the outset, still served a very useful purpose in raising important issues about how all wealthy foreigners (in whatever industry) relate to poor people. Running the response and the self-criticism above also helped to bring out the complexity of these issues. One of the things that drives me crazy in the development field is people always looking for simple solutions. The myth of the magic bullet. Bill is one of my heroes for reminding us all that things are rarely simple and that while we should continue to try to help, hubris and self-assurance are not assets.

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  6. Jeff,

    Western culture has become a victim of the simple solutions marketed by the media and society. We are surrounded by magic bullets. Complex geo-politics are boiled down to cliches and 30 second sound bytes barked by pundits and talkingheads. Marriages are ended by divorce. Disposable products save us from maintaining things we own. Fast-food and microwave ovens expedite mealtime. Cosmetic surgery eliminates the need for disciplined exercise and diet while also fighting the aging process.

    The problem is when we apply this mentality to issues in Africa and other cultures in the developing world. My experience is that it simply does not work. In many cases we may not live long enough to see the impact of our efforts and work. Too many people in the aid and relief industry want to see immediate results so they can have a sense of accomplishment.

    To those that would call me uncaring and insensitive to the plight of those affected by famine, war, malnutrition, and disease, I say this: a hospital is not just an giant emergency room. A hospital contains other departments and specialties that address health issues. A hospital is also a place where there is birth and new life entering this world!

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  7. Jeff wrote:

    I was frankly disappointed by this post. The work you’ve done on this blog not nearly as crude as Jeff’s numbered points (I didn’t find them eloquent at all).

    No apologies necessary!

    Why is it that we let large organizations run amok with only occasional half-ass, “formal apologies”, while individuals doing really valuable, hard critical work half to tip-toe around, back-tracking over every critical word?

    Keep up the great work Dr Easterly.

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  8. Sceptical Secondo wrote:

    Sorry to be the party-pooper but would rather like Prof. Easterly to face the criticisms on matter rather than what is mostly unnecessary apoligies over style.

    I sort of like your style.


    Posted June 29, 2009 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  9. The Randomizer wrote:

    What the hell has happened to this blog? I seem to remember when I thought the URL was an invaluable resource in exposing of the sometimes dastardly and often just incompetent practices that hamstring the effectiveness of aid, while also shining a lot on the kind of innovation which goes some small way to alleviating poverty in the developing world. Over the past couple of weeks, though, we’ve seen little else other than puerile debates over whether small ventures which make money introducing rich people to much poorer people is analogous to pornography. As they say, it’s all become rather academic . . .

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  10. The Randomizer,

    Please share with everyone your ideas and solutions to “exposing the sometimes dastardly and often just incompetent practices that hamstring the effectiveness of aid” or “shine the light on the kind of innovation which goes some small way to alleviating poverty in the developing world.”

    I believe that the postings made by Aid Watch do exactly what you are looking for in regards to the developing world. Aid Watch cannot control the content of the comments posted.

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  11. The Randomizer wrote:

    Michael: Uh, yes, and that’s kinda my point. Aid Watch has been doing exactly that (and one of the very few) until very recently, since when things have got a little, well, insular and mastubatorial. I didn’t mind the commentary on the U.S. Army’s field manual, since it’s a valid point that grand hubris and powerful guns create powerfully grand problems, but it was still a little out of left field and not really what we might term a battle well-chosen. But, this back-and-forth commentary on this “poverty tourism” venture is seriously ridiculous. The central gripe, at least as best as I can discern, is the ultimate irrefutable hypothesis without the slightest whim of a policy recommendation: whether those who spend money to visit villages in Rwanda are motivated by a pornographic desire to gape at human suffering. Such a debate is completely pointless and ends up wasting time, energy, and the tremendous potential of this blog to serve as the chief-exposer of the bests and worsts of the development industry. There may be some sort of a natural tendency of blogs (and media, in general, I guess) to succumb to this sort of pointless bickering over nonsensical issues, since it seems to be what attracts the passion and the comments (check the record), but if this blog aspires to a public service, it needs to be more conscientious in staying above the fray.

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 8:13 pm | Permalink
  12. The Randomizer wrote:

    As “Just Muddling Through” notes above, you can take the “poverty tourism” argument and go wherever you like with it, from tourists to summer interns to Peace Corps volunteers to NGO workers to World Bankers etc. etc. etc. For example, an old friend of mine did relief work for a few years out of college and quickly decided, based on his own introspection, that all westerners working in development were implicitly or explicitly motivated by a need for self-aggrandizement through surrounding themselves with others less fortunate and by whom they were automatically accorded adoring respect by virtue of the resource differential. He saw no way to work in the field without being functionally racist and viewed development assistance as an imperialist and institutionally racist construct. I am a development practitioner now and have no idea whether my old friend is correct – in fact, I have no hope of knowing. Thus, given how hard it is for me to understand my own motivations for wanting to work in developing countries and defend myself against the ‘long-term poverty tourist’ accusations, I cannot comprehend how others can come to reach conclusions about what is motivating some abstract individual to pay money to visit a millennium village in Rwanda.

    Posted June 29, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Permalink
  13. Jeff wrote:

    Dear Bill,

    First, thanks for taking my admittedly negative comment and giving it such a positive, thoughtful response.

    Second, my apologies. The tone of my comment belied the appreciation and respect I have for your work and this blog. I admire what you’re doing to shake up the general complacency in the aid and development world, and would love to see your blog become more influential. There are too few people out there holding aid organizations to account, and I bet it must be a rather thankless job at times.

    It was really just the tone of the blog (including a lot of the comments) that got me wondering if we shouldn’t in some cases try to be more persuasive rather than angry. Well, at least toward folks with good intentions or other incentives who just might listen.

    Hmmmm, maybe I should’ve have heeded this very thought before posting such a negative comment . . . It was well-intended, you know.

    Posted June 30, 2009 at 8:08 am | Permalink
  14. jina wrote:

    I just published an article about this very tour in the Christian Science Monitor. I wanted to write about it because I was intrigued by the dilemma–is it okay for rich(er) people to pay a lot of money to go look at people who don’t have any? It seemed a delicious irony for a writer.

    It seems to me, like so many things, to be all about the gaze–how you look and why, which does not have to be objectifying prima facie.

    It also turned out–as, in my experience, it always does when you get away from the voices in your own head and go into the field to listen the voices out there–that the obvious irony gives way to a trickier one. My own experience on the tour, and going back to interview the Rwandans whose homes and workplaces are tour stops, was that in this particular case, the criticism meant to protect the poor doesn’t. The men and women I met loved the tourists. And because of the particular business model put in practice here, they’re making money off of every visit. Not a lot, sure, but it’s something.

    I’m not endorsing the tour, the company, the practice. I’m just trying to point out that it’s more complicated than it’s been made to sound, at HuffPo and here.

    A final note: Academics see a difference between exploitative tourism (“poorism,” it was once dubbed somewhere and then caught on) and compassionate tourism (sustainable, pro-poor, eco-friendly…lots of words, each with slightly different shades of meaning). It’s an important distinction, and one that should be considered after the reflexive response of outrage, albeit well-intentioned outrage.

    That’s in my article too, which is here, if anyone is interested. And there’s more personal reflection on all this at my blog.

    Posted June 30, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  15. margie wrote:

    Respect the debates…. once Bob Marley had sing: Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind. Well, Mr. Easterly thought has really inspired me when I work in such a complicated development work. I work for the “searchers” though when everything we did… we just did for the “planners”… but at least the debates put me on a clear point… None but ourselves can free our mind…

    Posted July 11, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

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