Bill Easterly is back

Bill Easterly ceased blogging long ago, and also stopped writing newspaper columns. He now returns, with a spirited op-ed written for the Financial Times. In it, he takes aim at Bill Gates who, in a recent interview with The Economist, praised the efforts of wealthy donors and foreign aid to reduce poverty around the world. Mr Easterly, in contrast, believes “The contribution made by philanthropists and politicians should not be overplayed.”

Mr Gates is right that the world’s rich should do more to support public health programmes that work. He is right, too, to decry the time wasted arguing over whether aid works. But the reason he gives – that the argument should concentrate on how to make aid work better – is the wrong one. Aid spending is a drop in the ocean of the budgets of the governments that give it and the economies of the countries that receive it. Whether it works scarcely matters for development.

The obsession with international aid is a rich-world vanity that exaggerates the importance of western elites. It is comforting to imagine that benevolent leaders advised by wise experts could make the poor world rich. But this is a condescending fantasy.

The progress that Mr Gates celebrates is the work of entrepreneurs, inventors, traders, investors, activists – not to mention ordinary people of commitment and ingenuity striving for a better life. Davos Man may not be ready to acknowledge that he does not hold the fate of humanity in his gilded hands. But that need not stop the rest of us.

William Easterly, “Western vanities that do little to help the world’s poor“, Financial Times, 25 January 2014.

Bill Easterly’s latest book is The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (Basic Books, 2014). It is available now as a Kindle Edition and will be available in hardcover from March 4th.

William Easterly (born 1957) is Professor of Economics at New York University and Co-Director of NYU’s Development Research Institute. He worked at the World Bank from 1985 until he was asked (“encouraged”) to leave, following the 2001  publication of his book, The Elusive Quest For Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics.

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