NPR’s The Takeaway asks in an interview with one of our local troublemakers this week, are billionaire philanthropists the true champions in the fight against poverty? Listen to at least part of the audio to get the tone of the critique, as well as read the selected transcripts below.

Bill Easterly: I have nothing to take away from the billionaires who are very generous, who are spending on the poor rather than on private jets – that’s great. But what can actually happen is they can also have too much influence on the way we see the whole problem of global poverty.


Gates has this ‘great man’ approach to development in which he sees great national leaders and great philanthropists like himself doing all the good things that happen. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government…that he praised a year ago in his Annual Letter from his Foundation is not doing great things. He is very naïve to think that the government is benevolent and is actually contributing to development. They actually are serial human rights abusers that are destroying development.


Before Gates’ annual letter… there was a peaceful blogger named Eskinder Nega who was sentenced to eighteen years in prison simply for advocating more democracy in Ethiopia, for writing about the Arab Democratic Spring.

This kind of democratic activism is what you need to make government leaders benevolent. If you think of our own Chris Christie scandal on the bridge – that’s the sign of democracy working, that we keep Chris Christie from doing something bad. He’ll never do it again. No other governor will ever do it again.

John Hockenberry (host): Can’t you make an argument that you want to be separate from politics?  The United Nations and many NGOs try to stay out. For instance, CARE and the Red Cross are completely independent from politics. [They] go into Ethiopia regardless of what the government is doing and get access because of their objectivity, or their detachment from politics.

Bill Easterly: That’s the perpetual temptation in poverty reduction: to think you can do something that’s technically pure that’s free from politics. Unfortunately that’s a delusion. Let me give you one example of that. Famine relief you might think is as a-political it can get. But unfortunately to go back to Ethiopia, the same government Gates was praising was caught red-handed using famine relief to only give it to the supporters of the ruling party. They denied it to the opposition party members. They were starving the opposition – in the middle of a famine they were rewarding their own supporters and staying in power by that means.

Listen to the full program at The Takeaway here.

Bill Easterly responds to Bill and Melinda Gates’ Annual Letter:

Mr Gates says there has been much progress, but that “we’ll need to apply human ingenuity and act on our compassion” to keep it going. Conversely, he equates the idea that “the world is getting worse” to the idea that “we can’t solve extreme poverty and disease”. For Mr Gates, apparently, much depends on what “we” do. But who are “we”, and who put us in charge? Mr Gates seems to have in mind the global elite whose most prominent representatives were this week assembled in Davos: political leaders, business executives, philanthropists, academics and functionaries from international institutions such as the World Bank.

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.

Read the whole article in the Financial Times (Note to spotters of irony on Twitter: elitist paywall easily defeated by 1-minute free registration). Also, Chris Blattman grades the letter, giving the Harvard dropout an A-.

From a letter just published in the New York Review of Books, signed by me and others:

On June 27, 2012, the Ethiopian high court convicted journalist Eskinder Nega and twenty-three others on vague terrorism charges, continuing a trend in which Prime Minister Meles Zenawi jails his critics as “terrorists” …

Eskinder Nega, who received this year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, has been a leading voice for press freedom in Ethiopia for almost two decades. He has been repeatedly detained, imprisoned with his wife Serkalem Fasil on treason charges.

Now Eskinder Nega is facing between 15 years and life in prison…His sentence will be announced on July 13, 2012.

We call on President Obama and all world leaders to condemn Eskinder’s imprisonment.

This site just mentioned Eskinder last week, and just this last January publicized a previous letter in the NYRB about Eskinder’s case.

Let me be honest. I am tired of writing about Eskinder Nega. You are tired of reading about Eskinder Nega. This site really needs to move on from Eskinder Nega.

Let me consult Elie Wiesel on our major compassion fatigue:

Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.

Let’s call on all to condemn the imprisonment of Eskinder Nega.

Here at DRI, we must concede our longstanding strenuous effort to get the individual who has been World Bank President  to say the word “Democracy” has ignominiously failed. His term ends this weekend.

Alas, this is more than a game. Yesterday, the peaceful Ethiopian blogger Eskinder Nega was convicted of “high treason” and “terrorist acts”  for such nefarious activities as noticing there was an Arab Spring. (Nega should have followed the World Bank President’s exemplary speech on the Arab Spring that omitted the word “democracy” even in a purely descriptive sense. ) The World Bank has given Ethiopia’s government more than $2.5 billion (2007-2010) during Robert Zoellick’s term.

Of course, President Zoellick did have to obey China  the 1944 Articles of Agreement, which forbids interference in “the political affairs of any member.” But when Ethiopian rulers use the aid to give food relief to supporters and starve opponents, according to careful documentation by Human Rights Watch (HRW),  one begins to wonder if aid itself is political interference? Wouldn’t suspending aid be more consistent with the Articles in that case?

At least the Development Assistance Group for Ethiopia (which includes the US, Canada, the UK, and the EU, together accounting for another $6 billion to Meles Zenawi over 2007-2010) sternly commissioned a field investigation into the HRW charges. Which has since quietly been cancelled. A 2009 secret US cable released by Wikileaks said that donors to Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi were already “keenly aware that foreign assistance … is vulnerable to politicization.”

Mr. Zoellick, you still have two whole business days to use some word form of democra____.    Maybe you could just casually mention the official name of North Korea?

From the Wall Street Journal, by Daniel Lippman:

European settlement had a longstanding positive effect on economic development in countries that were colonies, notwithstanding the terrible effects of Western diseases and political oppression that often resulted, according to new research.

The paper, titled “The European Origins of Economic Development,” was written by New York University’s William Easterly and UC Berkeley’s Ross Levine, who set out to build a new comprehensive database of the European share of the population in the early phases of colonization. It also looked at the impact of the settlers on the former colonies’ economic development today.

In an “illustrative exercise” that the two professors run in their paper, they find that “47% of average global development levels today are attributable to Europeans.”

What could accounts for that large number? The paper argues that it could partly be explained because “Europeans brought growth-promoting characteristics — such as institutions, human capital, connections with international markets, and cultural norms — that diffused to the rest of the population over generations.”

A large number of commentators generously congratulated the authors on being obvious, wrong, and racist.

You may find the NBER link to the paper above to be restricted. If so, here is an unrestricted link.