“Deep down, if we really accept that their lives – African lives – are equal to ours, we would all be doing more to put the fire out. Its an uncomfortable truth.” – Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty.
“When you are in a hole, the top priority is to stop digging.” – William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden
Chapter 10 talks about the debate on pros and cons of development aid with leading economists Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University) and William Easterly (NYU) pitted against each other. Each side has valid points. After reading for a few weeks about the issue of ending poverty, what is your take on this debate. Which side do you take and why?
While Easterly and Sachs are positioned as quite opposite in their ideas regarding foreign aid, they are similar in that they are passionate about this topic and have focused much of their professional time on this area of study. Both have also struggled with the fundamental question of what it means to be poor in today’s world. From the quotes above we can begin to unpack the different views that these economists hold.
Jefferey Sachs, whom I have written about previously in terms of the MDGs is the economist known for throwing money at the problem. Sachs was originally praised for his strategies and the Millennium Villages were supposed to be his shining beacon of success. However, he has been criticized for his project’s lack of measurable success. As an economist and a researcher, Sachs must be able to produce data in order to gauge the progress of these villages. Sachs has been very influential in short term projects like helping curb the spread of Malaria in many African countries by providing mosquito nets. In terms of his long term projects like the Millennium Villages, however, he has been very defensive when it comes to admitting the project’s faults. Critics believe that if these villages were to be replicated, it would result in a money pit with no real showable success.
On the other hand, Easterly is wary of foreign aid as it creates a culture of dependency. Easterly also argues that by providing aid to various countries with autocratic leaders, we entrust this autocrat to use foreign aid wisely when in fact it is used to keep poor people at the bottom as to keep them in power. Easterly also believes that there is a deep racism and prejudice against African nations which the West deem as helpless and therefore in need of Western aid. While Easterly’s critiques are valid, he is criticized for offering no legitimate solutions. I think this critique is valid as well because it is easy to offer criticism of the Millennium Villages, for instance, but then you also need to provide your own solutions. At least Sachs was brave enough to put his plan into motion in the first place.
I definitely agree with Easterly in that I think Western values are often seen as correct and have been normalized around the world. These values often represent white values and remind me of many of the issues I have with aid given to the poor even in the United States. Often mission trips and money are given to certain causes so that individuals can pat themselves on the back and prove that they have somehow made a difference when in fact no long-term goal was even created. Many mission trips have this same attitude. They go for a week and the next week a different group arrives and nothing ever gets truly finished because each group has slightly different ideas and goals. This idea can be generalized when we talk about foreign aid as well.
While I think both Sachs and Easterly are extraordinarily intelligent and both are qualified to give ideas and criticisms, I also believe that other people need to be involved in the conversation as well. As white men, these men carry around a large amount of privilege and I think this needs to be challenged. We need to have coalitions made up of African people in these villages. Even though they may not have degrees, they can still understand the basic premise of human rights and know what they need in order to survive. I think that sometimes this debate becomes too theoretical and loses its humanity and this becomes the biggest issue. Data and numbers are obviously very important when it comes to measuring success, but numbers also don’t matter if the individuals don’t feel happier or like their quality of life has improved.
Check out Laura Poitras new website https://fieldofvision.org/ – is her vision a tool to address global issues? How do you think people can be and should be reached about global issues?
Last year, I attended the premiere screening of Concerned Student 1950, so I was aware of the work that Field of Vision supported, but I had not seen any of the other documentaries on the website. After poking around the website, I decided to watch The Black Belt which raised the question of whether Alabama closed 31 DMVs as a way to disenfranchise black voters. I really enjoyed the way that the video was produced, especially the video portraits at the end, which I always find very powerful. I hadn’t heard of this issue before and the documentary was only 11 minutes, but it was an interesting way for me to learn about a topic in a short amount of time. I really like this platform, especially because it is free and provides perspectives that are often left out of news coverage or covered, but by white people who often have a different frame of reference.
I think this is a great platform that allows individuals to tell their own stories. In the future, I could see websites such as this one becoming very popular, especially for different niche groups. These stories do take longer to produce and obviously are more costly than traditional news, but the content is so much richer and more engaging.