Books on development that change the game

Written by on October 19, 2009 in Helping Without Hurting, Notes By The Way with 0 Comments

I just finished reading an article entitled “Arrested Development” in Prism Magazine. The author, James Thomas, gives an overview of four books about development that attempt the change the game.

He starts out with The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, a well known book calling the wealthy nations to give more — much more — money to stimulate development in the poorer countries of the world. He casually slips in that Jeffrey Sachs helped the countries of the former Soviet Union in their painful (some would say “misconceived”) transition to capitalism, indicating the direction the rest of the article will take.

The next three books come from a variety of sources, but they all share a common belief that international aid isn’t working and giving more isn’t the answer. I’ve read the first book, The White Man’s Burden, by William Easterly. The other do are on my wish list at Amazon: Africa Unchained, by George Ayittey and Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, by Dambisa Moyo.

Thomas ends with a reluctant swipe at Bono and his very popular ONE Campaign. I love U2 and appreciate Bono’s efforts to translate his fame into benefits for people in need, but I wish he would read these three books, go meet the authors, and reconsider his approach. Perhaps it is the Achilles heel of a rock star to think big and miss the most important thing because it’s too small. The poorest people of the world can do more with freedom, opportunity, and money invested in countless small ventures that bubble up from below than with lavish gifts of money poured down from above on their supposed leaders without accountability or even economic incentives for the desired results.

Read the full article for more details about the books. It’s time to change the international aid game, and I like the way the latter three books are heading. Check out Prism Magazine for articles from a Christian point of view emphasizing holistic love and justice in the world.


This just in (from William Easterly’s blog today):

First, who is “we”? It seems like whoever “we” are, “we” must have unconstrained power to implement “the answer”, so “we” sounds like authoritarian leaders (national autocrats or World Bank officials dictating conditions).

Second, are “we” going to allow poor people to choose their own paths? Of course not, because “we” already know the “right answer” for them.

So this question only makes sense in approach to development that is authoritarian and paternalistic, using Top Down Planning, which in fact has been the prevailing – but unsuccessful – approach to development for six decades.

The paradox of development economics is that Development does NOT require any one person (Expert, Leader, or Aid Official) to have a comprehensive understanding of how to achieve Development (sort of like how evolution managed to happen on its own before Darwin).

I always find Easterly’s reasoning so refreshing, something like, “We don’t have all the answers, so it’s no use trying to impose a solution, but that doesn’t mean we must give up hope.”

A little further down in the post he includes this gem:

Growth is innovation, and you can’t know in advance how to do the innovative thing, or else it wouldn’t be an innovation. Development is BOTTOM-UP outcome of lots of unpredictable individual successes and failures.


I can’t help thinking that Easterly’s logic applies in a totally different sphere of life: the way we do religion (experts providing solutions from the top down, offering freedom under their control, with seemingly altruistic motives, and distrusting what would emerge from the bottom up by “the Spirit of God” if they truly allowed that option).

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About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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