"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


this aggression will not stand

My jaw dropped when I read Jeffrey Sachs' attack on foreign aid expert and NYU professor Bill Easterly in the Huffington Post. Sachs, a prominent figure in the world of rich white people who convene in fancy hotels to talk about ways to help poor brown people, lumps in Easterly with Dambisa Moyo (whose recent book argues that foreign aid only hurts Africa) as an "opponent of foreign aid" with complete disregard for nuance, civility, and the facts.

This is ludicrous and Sachs knows it. Easterly does not denounce all foreign aid programs. Anyone who has actually read his work knows so. He simply asks, as the subtitle of his excellent Aid Watch blog proclaims, that aid actually benefit the poor. Easterly doesn't believe that programs planned in European and American capitals generally do so, and he contends that trusting locals and the free market to solve their own economic development problems is usually more effective.

He has a point. The long record of failed aid programs in the developing world that wasted billions of dollars and the failure of a long list of countries to develop in any meaningful sense in the last fifty years makes it clear that something is horribly wrong in our current system of foreign aid. Sachs does nothing to give a fair presentation of Easterly's actual views. It's not that Easterly opposes all forms of aid; it's that he opposes stupid aid that disregards the needs, preferences, and lifestyles of the recipients. An undergraduate reading one of Easterly's articles would understand the distinction. I am quite certain that Sachs does as well.

It's unfortunate that Sachs chose to include this sort of personal attack in what was otherwise a decent post on the ways that some foreign aid does help the world's poor through the provision of lifesaving medicines and access to clean drinking water. Sachs also points out the disingenuousness of those who denounce all aid programs but are themselves the recipients of foreign assistance. But he destroyed a lot credibility by digressing into an entirely unnecessary attack.

It's fine to disagree with the views of any given scholar; after all, that's mostly what graduate school trains us to do. I certainly don't agree with everything Easterly writes, but that doesn't give me license to blatantly misrepresent his claims. A person of Sachs' prominence should know better.

UPDATE: Easterly responds to Sachs here. Thanks to reader Lauren for the tip.


Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

Let me start off by saying that I am in both camps on the aid/no aid debate. I believe that there has been fostered a culture of aid dependency, and I believe that much of foreign aid has helped to set countries back. But I also realize that lump statements are rarely intelligent and largely ineffective. That being said:

Yes, to lump Easterly with Moyo is irresponsible and wholly unfair. But, take out the names mentioned in the article and Sachs makes wonderful points regarding the inability to generalize aid and the harmfulness of trying to do so.

I feel that all of the intelligent, positive dialogue concerning foreign aid is being drowned out with the release of Dead Aid. Moyo is traipsing around the world making the exact same 5-10 points at every stop she makes. She refuses to hear any counter argument -- as can be seen by her reaction to the Sachs article "Jeffrey Sachs' new article on huff post accuses Americans of thinking it is good if Africans die" -- entirely untrue and childish.

This has turned into a pissing match and the dialogue has disappeared. It's sad, really. So, take away the off-base attack on Easterly, and Sachs' article is a breath of fresh air in an environment being polluted by bickering.

Monday, May 25, 2009 1:51:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Dusty, I agree with almost everything you wrote here. The problem isn't the debate. It's healthy and good and someone needs to deconstruct Moyo's terrible arguments using solid empirical evidence.

The problem is that because Sachs chose to behave like a petulant child by going after Easterly in their longstanding feud, people end up focusing not on his points, but on the people he attacked. As an academic, I'm also terribly offended by the deliberate misrepresentation of someone's scholarly opinion, regardless of whether that opinion is right or wrong.

Monday, May 25, 2009 10:21:00 AM

Blogger Dustyn Winder said...

I get that. I guess I'm just tired of hearing the same rhetoric from Moyo every two minutes.

But, you're right. There is no excuse for going after Easterly with inaccurate statements.

Monday, May 25, 2009 11:18:00 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Easterly has responded on HuffPo: can get the link through AidWatch.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 7:13:00 AM

Blogger Chris said...

The problem here is that Sachs is a fund-raiser. I suppose Easterly also has some personal motivation in selling books, but this feud between the two of them is far beyond ideology. The same thing happens in politics when instead of reviewing ideas and working together, politicians have the added pressure of representing lobbyist and constituencies and it merely becomes a fight to win.

Kind of a shame that it's come to this as both sides make some very credible points and yet have some gaping holes in their philosophies. I think Sachs ideas will further create a welfare state of Africa, while Easterly seems to think that sweat shops and other forms of exploitive labor are the solution.

I've never formally studied aid or Africa for that matter (I've never even read a book by Sachs), but I am very interested in the topic. I have a Ugandan friend studying development in Gulu, and they've been learning about what he calls "the basic needs approach to economic development." The idea being that free market development only works when people aren't living in constant hunger and illness. I don't know if there's much to this idea, but it's what they are are currently teaching Africans in Africa. Does anyone know any good books on this topic, or other scholars I should be reading?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 9:23:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Lauren, thanks for the tip!

Chris, I think you hit it dead on. Sachs' stuff seems to be most closely related to the topic you're interested in learning more about. Anyone else have suggestions?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 12:07:00 PM


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