Seattle Town Hall


Bill Easterly on the ‘Tyranny of Experts’ | 

Bill Easterly
Bill Easterly

William Easterly, a professor of economics and one of Bill Gates’ least favorite aid experts, will be speaking in Seattle at Town Hall next Tuesday, March 25, starting at 7:30 pm. Humanosphere’s Tom Paulson will be emceeing a Q&A at Town Hall with Easterly after his lecture Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, based on his book The Tyranny of Experts.

The book by the former World Bank expert – who is now one of the leading critics of World Bank experts – is the latest in which Easterly again jousts with folks like Bill Gates and the anti-poverty advocate and economist Jeffrey Sachs. As Humanosphere has frequently noted, the ongoing Sachs-Easterly debate frequently flares up to engage and entertain the humanitarian community.

Tom, who admitted to first regarding Easterly as entertaining but just another one of those anti-aid cranks,  believes the controversial economist has some important points that anyone interested in fighting poverty and inequity needs to take seriously. In the podcast, we ask Easterly to explain what he means by ‘authoritarian development,’ why he so strongly argues against the ‘technocratic’ approach taken by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and, if the mainstream aid/dev community is doing it wrong, what’s he actually proposing to make it right.

Before our chat with Easterly, Tom and I review some of the top stories this week in the Humanosphere. Tom Murphy reviewed a powerful, prize-winning documentary film, The Act of Killing, which explores, through the eyes of a killer, Indonesia’s slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in the mid-1960s. Accompanying this post was a guest post drawing attention to the ongoing effort by West Papuan’s to gain independence from Indonesia after the bigger country invaded it immediately after it declared independence.

Tom Paulson did several stories over the past two weeks that reported on both the promise and perils ahead for global health: He writes about a major study that claims to show improving health is the most effective way to fight poverty and create growth (a claim hotly disputed in the comments); Secondly, that the global health community – for the last decade or so, the top dog in the development hierarchy – has perhaps lost some clout and, in an analysis, may be in need of a more coherent and clear strategy.

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A chat with Bill Gates’ least favorite aid expert, Bill Easterly | 

Bill Easterly
Bill Easterly

William Easterly is a leading voice on the aid and development scene that folks seem to either love or hate. Bill Gates is in the latter camp, as this Gates Foundation blog post would indicate.

On Tuesday, March 25, starting at 7:30 pm in Seattle Town Hall, Easterly will be speaking about what he thinks needs to change in the way we approach the fight against global poverty. His talk is entitled Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, which may sound a little predictable and boring. It won’t be.

Easterly is always entertainingly provocative and his thesis – which, put simply, is that many if not most aid projects actually cause more harm than good – is an aggressive stab at the heart of much of the aid and development establishment. Continue reading

Thailand’s Condom King comes to Seattle | 

Tom Paulson

Mechai Viravaidya at Seattle Town Hall

Mechai Viravaidya is known around the world as “Mr. Condom” or the “Condom King” for his activism promoting safe sex in Thailand when the AIDS epidemic first emerged. Many say Thailand’s aggressive condom promotion within the sex industry did a lot to lessen the impact of the pandemic there.

On Thursday evening, after stopping by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation earlier in the week to speak at their annual meeting, Mechai gave a talk at Seattle Town Hall. The event was sponsored by the World Affairs Council.

The economist and former legislator-movie star is very entertaining, even though he tends to use the same jokes. (I met Mechai almost 10 years ago in Bangkok at one of his famous Cabbages & Condoms restaurants … and heard some of the same jokes then. They’re still funny, though)

Mechai didn’t talk about condoms much this time. He talked about a much grander project he’s been working on for more than 30 years, and which led to his condom activism. Continue reading

Preview of the issues: Can Seattle Save the World? | 

Here are a few thoughts in advance of tonight’s event at Town Hall Seattle.

Can Seattle Save the World?

What do we intend to accomplish asking a question like that?

It’s a bit irreverent, sure. That’s the point. We seem to have countless meetings, forums and symposiums these days that do a great job of describing the region’s (it’s not just Seattle, of course) many efforts in fighting disease and poverty worldwide. Most of them, legitimately, are focused on promoting a cause.

As a journalist, it’s my job to also help the community probe such causes — poke at them, see if they’re half-baked or cooked just right. We’ll do more of that tonight.


I was at one such event yesterday, at Seattle-based PATH, for World Malaria Day where experts discussed some of the locally based projects aimed at fighting malaria overseas. It’s stunning to realize our community is now one of the world’s headquarters for the global fight against malaria.

But it was also sobering to recognize that, despite some tremendous progress, we remain on a knife’s edge in this global battle against a major killer. Everyone wants this battle to succeed, so it can be difficult raising questions about effectiveness, cost and performance. It can be especially difficult to do in public because of the risk of undermining popular support. It’s a dilemma.


We’re also big on microfinance here. The anti-poverty scheme pioneered by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus has been carried out by organizations like Global Partnerships for many years — long before most of us had even heard of microfinance.

Yet microfinance is in kind of a mess right now, something like an identity crisis. Yunus is having political battles that get a lot of media attention, but the more important problems raise questions of a loss of purpose — of truly focusing on the needs of the poor. These are also tough, complex issues that some advocates of microfinance worry will hurt the cause.



Yes, chocolate. I can partially reveal now why I convinced Joe Whinney, founder and president of Theo Chocolate, to join this panel discussion focused largely on health. The main reason is that I didn’t want it to be limited to health. Global health is really a subset of development, which is about fighting poverty.

Whinney is a business owner and an activist. He got into the chocolate business aiming to improve the lives of poor farmers. And he will say that we will never get rid of poverty unless we all change our ways — of doing business and how we behave as consumers.

To put it simply, you can vaccinate a kid against disease but if you buy the wrong kind of chocolate bar you’re dooming that child to slave labor and poverty.


Our first goal for the event will be to make sure we recognize that something special is happening here with respect to global health and poverty.

Secondly, we will consider our special responsibility. Are we heading in the right direction? Have we defined the problems correctly? What are we doing to correct the problems?

Or are we all just naive, thinking that we can save the world? And save it from what exactly?

We’ll begin with Bill Foege — the man who figured out how to eradicate smallpox, former head of the CDC and an adviser to Bill and Melinda Gates. Following my chat with Foege, we’ll explore the issues with Chris Elias, president of PATH, UW health activist Wendy Johnson and Whinney such as:

  • Does improving health actually reduce poverty?
  • Is our approach to fighting disease in poor countries too techno-fix oriented?
  • Is the philanthropic, or charitable, approach a long-term solution just a short-term band-aid?
  • What can the rest of us do to help … save the world?

For those who would like to use Twitter to follow and participate, or even suggest questions now, see #SEAsaves and chime in. My colleague Charla Bear has graciously agreed to live-blog the event on Humanosphere.

And, of course, you can always just actually come to event.