Our Critics Are Starting a Bill Easterly Watch

We received a request by Bryan Turner to submit a post on Aid Watch critical of this blog’s approach. Since we are in favor of debate, we accepted his proposal and here is the blog post he submitted yesterday--Eds. by Bryan Turner, founder and coordinator of Students To End Extreme Poverty and Youth Engagement Coordinator of Make Poverty History Canada

I actually agree with much of what Professor Easterly writes and he does some great things. I also believe that he could make more of a constructive difference in the debate on poverty alleviation than he is now.

Several colleagues and I from Students To End Extreme Poverty have launched a blog called Bill Easterly Watch: Just Asking that Bill Stop Blowing Over Straw Men. In our opinion, NGOs and governments should be accountable – and so should Professor Easterly.

Criticizing is at best one third of the equation, and typically the easiest third. Criticizing can be the first step in positive change. The next is figuring out – searching – what to do about it, the third is doing it, seeing what works and what doesn’t and if applicable how it can happen elsewhere.

The aid system is broken. That is the start, not the end. It’s easy to criticize, much harder to propose alternatives. If there were enough people focusing on the “solutions,” then criticizing alone would be sufficient -- but there are not. So unless you are proposing alternatives, evidence suggests you may be discouraging more people than you are encouraging.

If this is not the goal of Professor Easterly, then he should amend his approach.

I’ve spoken with countless people that cite Professor Easterly’s arguments as reasons for inaction, not just on aid but on the entire gamut of issues facing the world’s poorest.

We need internal and external emotional harmony to be happy people. If we believe we are good (which most of us do) we need to reconcile our actions with our exterior environment. What does this mean? Good people do not ignore 9.2 million children dying every year from poverty related causes. But if there is no infrastructure in place (which there isn’t) allowing people to make a difference, then people will become cynical about change. And if you criticize an approach without suggesting a feasible alternative, chances are people will give up on being involved.

We are concerned that some of Easterly’s arguments are not fleshed out, based on oversimplifications of complex issues and sometimes even miss the point.

For example: the dichotomy between searchers and planners is a false one and a lot of planning is born out of searching.

A second example: the criticism of celebrities. The transformation of aid that Easterly advocates won’t happen without a critical mass of informed citizens who are willing to take actions. Celebrity involvement can be crucial for getting people involved on an introductory level – usually the starting point for deeper engagement – facilitating a tipping point towards mass action.

A third example: You should not hold aid given for non development purposes accountable for development outcomes, but that’s what the $2.3 trillion ($15 per person per year) in wasted aid argument does. We want to talk about that.

Students To End Extreme Poverty is all about healthy debate, accountability, innovation, searching, and most of all, solutions. We believe, as is demonstrable, that aid can work, and there should be more of it that does work – more and better aid. We think this is something that, with a little bit more prodding, Professor Easterly can support as well.