Skip to content

A Lecturer answers The Big Question

Two of my favorites, Chris Blattman and Megan McArdle , recently had a great dialogue on “is aid depressing?” I don’t have anything to add–read them!

However,  their dialogue does remind me of  The Big Question that I and many others get whenever we give lectures on economic development. Inevitably, after every single lecture I have ever given, the first question is … What Can I Do to End World Poverty?

How to respond? On one hand, I want to (and usually do) salute the questioner for their willingness to give of themselves for those less fortunate. I admire their idealism and commitment.

On the other hand, I find this question to be unproductive and frustrating. It sounds mean, but the honest response (which I have never given) is, “look, the biggest problem to solve in economic development today is NOT what you can personally do to end poverty.”  Poor people do not perceive THEIR biggest problem to be that rich people are agonizing how to help them.

More constructively, I want to say: Don’t be in such a hurry. Learn a little bit more about a specific country or culture, a specific sector, the complexities of global poverty and long run economic development. At the very least, make sure you are sound on just plain economics before deciding how you personally can contribute. Be willing to accept that your role will be specialized and small relative to the scope of the problem. Aside from all this, you probably already know better what you can do than I do.

But I do salute you again, and I do believe when there are enough people like you, you will cumulatively make a difference.

This entry was posted in Big ideas, Poverty and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Joan wrote:

    It seems to me that there is an inconsitency on what you say and what your work as an academic mainly does, mainly focused on big regressions and general analysis.
    So thinks like “little bit more about a specific country or culture, a specific sector” or “accept that your role will be specialized and small relative to the scope of the problem” are kind of different of big regressions and critics.
    Many NGO and IFIs are in fact in that kind of work, the same ones that recive the constant critic – from your point of view – that their work is meaningless for fighting global poverty.
    I think it would be fair not abstracting ones own work from the development critic one is trying to make.
    Besides, I like your work a lot.

    Posted August 9, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  2. Indigenous Leader wrote:

    Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.

    ~~ H.L. Mencken ~


    1. Primum non nocete!

    2. Secundum non nocetote!

    3. Ad principium repite!

    Does it help with charity to know who we are? Is conventional time-space merely an illusion? Do we live within MTS, Minkowski-time-space of 4 dimensions? Inside the Cartesian Co-ordinates of MTS do you visualize the connections maintained by the one living cell? Can you see that we are all connected to that cell? Conventional space is merely a cross-section of MTS. Cross sections are notorious for leaving out connections. We are just one animal. We are merely self-charitable.

    How do we create sustainable charity. It can be many things. It can be extensively complex, difficult to contemplate. Occasionally it is very simple. Consistent, persistent family planning can be simple.

    A simple infectious smile between people can expand exponentially.

    May the smile be with you

    Posted August 9, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Permalink
  3. fundamentalist wrote:

    I teach intro econ classes for non-majors (general ed requirement) and most students sleep through the class. But I had an unusual night last week when I started talking about poverty and three students woke up and engaged me. I told them I became interested in economics after witnessing the poverty of several third world countries. They told me the subject was interesting and I told them it was depressing. But they insisted it was still interesting. I’ll try to build on that.

    What is curious to me, though, is why the rapid reductions in poverty in China and India haven’t affected development thinking. Maybe they have and I’m not aware of it. China and India are virtually miracles. No aid program in history has lifted so many out of the worst kind of poverty as has the opening of markets in those two countries. Why aren’t aid people screaming from the rooftops “That’s how you do it!”?

    Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  4. Robert Tulip wrote:

    Aid agencies have large scale entrenched false concepts about poverty reduction, illustrated by the common ideological hostility to market instruments as the prime drivers of growth.

    The perverse incentive that corrupts aid most insidiously is the politics of spin and self-aggrandisement by donors. As soon as you say “I made a difference” through charitable works you have created dependency and corrupted the incentives that spur competition and growth in poor countries.

    A further pervasive corruption of the aid system is the idea that equality is good. In practice, advocacy of equality is often anti-development, a way to pull down people who improve their situation by merit and initiative. Some neo-communists in the aid community seem to admire the iron rice bowl of Mao’s China when all were equally poor.

    Save charity for emergencies, and use development aid to support success and promote market capitalism.

    Posted August 10, 2010 at 11:33 pm | Permalink
  5. Christo Gilberti wrote:

    There are too many problems with McArdle’s economic reporting to pay attention to her comments. You can find references to these problems fairly quickly using Google.

    Posted August 14, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

6 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robert Went, Conduit Journal. Conduit Journal said: A Lecturer answers The Big Question […]

  2. […] William Easterly’s answer to the question, “What Can I Do to End World Poverty?“ […]

  3. […] find, via William Easterly’s Aid Watch, a post by Chris Blattman that quotes another by Todd Johnson and that, me too, what the hell, […]

  4. By Things I liked this week « Knowing Bliss on August 9, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    […] Easterly showing his soft underbelly on the big question: What can I do to end global poverty? The answer: take your energy, learn something specific, accept a small role in a big task. Lovely, true, and […]

  5. […] Easterly also offered his own characteristically sage advice for would-be aid workers: harness your passion, focus on your specific field or region, recognize […]

  6. […] the greater the problem of focus, and mobile is no exception. As Bill Easterly put it in a recent post in response to questions from students about how they might help “end world poverty”: […]

  • 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

  • Archives