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The White Man's burden

By Alan Caruba
web posted June 5, 2006

In 1899, when England had a great empire, Rudyard Kipling penned a poem in which he called on the West to "Take up the White Man's burden" to seek peace in the world, end famine, and vanquish disease. Kipling assumed that the millions living in Africa, the Middle East or India where he had spent many years were never going to achieve these lofty goals on their own.

In January 2005 Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, was still trying to make Kipling's dream come true, lamenting the tragedy of extreme poverty and the millions of deaths from easily preventable diseases. The cure, of course, was massive foreign aid.

In a refreshing, albeit exhausting book, William Easterly, a world-weary and world-wise professor of economics, long experienced in the great game of foreign aid, suggests that a real tragedy is one in which the West has spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last fifty years "and still had not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths."

The name of Easterly's book is The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. One of the reasons is found in a headline of a mid-May Associated Press article. "Zimbabwe crumbling as inflation tops 1,000 per cent." At that point a loaf of bread would have cost you 100,000 Zimbabwe dollars. You can use their currency as toilet paper.

Zimbabwe's problem can be summed up in two words: Robert Mugabe. In power since 1980, Mugabe has destroyed the nation, in large part by seizing the white-owned farms and giving them to his partners in crime. Since 2000, agriculture has collapsed along with the economy that was already in free-fall. Mugabe is just one example of much of Africa's most enduring problem, the utter corruption of its governments, despite the end of European colonization in the 1960s.

The problem of criminal and failed governments, however, is not just Africa's problem. The major aid institutions are forever bailing out countries all over the world. A recent example is Mexico, as badly governed as any you will find throughout South America.

In a recent Stratfor public policy intelligence report, Bart Mongoven, put forth the view that "The American public broadly is beginning to view poverty -- whether that in affluent countries or in highly indebted, poor countries -- as almost impossible to solve." With a remarkably refreshing clarity, Americans now view poverty in developing countries "as the result of a combination of failed states, corruption and cultural problems."

Mongovern warns that advocates for poverty reduction "have set about attempting to change how they talk about poverty, and to change the way people, particularly in affluent societies, think about it." Governments are no longer going to be identified as the agents to end poverty. They have failed. Instead, poverty is going to be recast as "a human rights violation." This, of course, raises the question of whether a job is a human right. From a socialist point of view, it is.

Guess who a liberal amalgam of do-good organizations are going to call upon to end poverty? The answer is quintessentially capitalist multinational and other large, successful corporations.

What organizations such as Oxfam, Evangelicals for Social Justice, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have realized is that corporations can be pressured in ways that governments cannot. This kind of pressure is already at work by various environmental organizations that use boycotts, smear campaigns, and other tactics to hijack and divert corporate profits to their own agendas.

Just how big is the problem of poverty in the world? Citing a variety of sources, Easterly provides the following statistics:

  • Almost three billion people live on less than two dollars a day, adjusted for purchasing power.
  • Eight hundred and forty million people in the world don't have enough to eat.
  • Ten million children die every year from easily preventable diseases.
  • AIDS is killing three million people a year and is still spreading.
  • One billion people in the world lack access to clean water; two billion lack access to sanitation.
  • One billion adults are illiterate.
  • About a quarter of the children in the poor countries do not finish primary school.

As far back as I can remember these kinds of statistics have been the bread-and-butter of every aid organization seeking funds to end these problems. Easterly, though, drawing on some sixteen years experience with the World Bank, has seen it all and seen through it.

In sum, foreign aid hasn't solved any of these problems or provided a framework in which many nations will ever achieve a sensible economy, integrated with the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, there is a huge matrix of aid organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development, and countless others in the wealthy nations that still presume they have the answers to the widespread corruption that breeds poverty. Indeed, billions have been given to nations whose leadership is famous for corruption.

The United Nations, whose depths of corruption and failure defy the imagination, has its own panoply of agencies whose main function, it would seem, is to hold endless conferences in plush settings without ever solving anything.

The issues involved in foreign aid are hugely complex. However, one comes away from Easterly's book with the distinct impression that it is all a massive charade pursued for the self-interest of the West and exploited by what Easterly calls "the Rest."

One warning, however, emerges that should be heeded. "Military intervention is too perfect an example of what this book argues you should not do -- have the West operate on other societies with virtually no feedback or accountability. The military is even more insulated from the interests of the poor than aid agencies are. People don't give reliable feedback at gunpoint."

"Military intervention to overthrow evil dictators and remake other societies into some reflection of Western democratic capitalism is the extreme of contemporary utopian social engineering," warns Easterly.

"The plan to end world poverty shows all the pretensions of utopian social engineering." It is not that nothing should be done, but rather what needs to be done should concentrate on good monetary policies, providing and maintaining roads, clean water projects, medicines and sanitation.

Accomplishing this when foreign aid providers are more in love with the "Big Plan" or ignoring the long history of its failures defies any hope of actually achieving any real change.

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba, 2006.

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