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

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.

The NYU economics professor and former World Banker’s latest book, The Tyranny of Experts, contends that the ‘technocratic’ and apolitical approach favored by the aid and development community (including the World Bank) has served to keep the poor oppressed because it ignores one of the primary drivers of poverty – the poor’s lack of individual rights, of economic and political freedoms.

Humanosphere talked with Bill Easterly in advance of his Seattle visit, to ask him to describe in more detail what he thinks is wrong with the standard approach to fighting poverty and what we should do instead. Below is an excerpted and edited Q&A. Listen to the audio podcast for the full interview.

Q What’s the problem with the way we usually do aid and development today?

BE: We support dictatorships with our aid money. By trying to keep aid and development apolitical, by assuming poverty is a technical problem, we end up ignoring oppressive policies…. Aid agencies, development experts, economists and philanthropists, usually unintentionally, often give spurious intellectual support to autocrats and put them at the center of (anti-poverty initiatives). This neglects the rights, and interests, of the poor.

Q Are you saying we shouldn’t have launched the Global Fund or Pepfar and saved tens of millions of lives in Africa unless we had included requirements aimed at also bolstering good governance and human rights conditions on African nations?

BE: No, I think the world’s response to the AIDS crisis is a great aid success story. I have never argued against these standard aid responses to disasters, or dealing with an emergency crisis…. I’m also not saying we, the US government or American philanthropists, should be trying to force other nations to become more democratic. Not at all. I think it’s the wrong mindset in general for outsiders to propose or impose solutions…. What I’m saying is we do harm when aid funding directly finances dictators or oppressive governments. When we do that, we reduce the incentive for an autocrat to respond to the citizenry.

Q Bill Gates has made it pretty clear he’s not a big fan of your arguments. Gates wants to boost public support for foreign aid and development, which in fact is pretty weak and maybe at risk of being further eroded by the American political tendency toward isolationism and apathy toward the poor overseas. Are you concerned you may be undermining the case for aid rather than transforming it?

BE: In that sense, I fully support what Gates is saying. I celebrate the Gates Foundation for how much they’ve done to raise awareness, and for how generous and compassionate they are. I just think Bill Gates has signed on to the wrong set of ideas. What I’m attacking is a different kind of apathy that exists within the development community, and at the Gates Foundation – apathy about poor people’s rights…. For example, Gates and Tony Blair once praised the late Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi for his country’s success at reducing child mortality. Meanwhile, Meles was refusing to provide food aid, funded by the West, to his political opponents, starving them.

Q You say political and economic freedoms are critical to reducing poverty and achieving the goals of development. Yet China is a country that is both perhaps the biggest success story when it comes to poverty reduction and also authoritarian. Similarly, Rwanda is increasingly recognized for its government’s suppression of political opposition (and relative lack of free speech) even as many celebrate Rwanda for its stunning improvements in health, education, gender equity and poverty reduction. Seems like you can do development without democracy.

BE: I think that’s misreading the evidence. I’m glad you brought up China because that’s everyone’s favorite example of the benefit of authoritarian development. But what we are really celebrating so far is China’s relatively higher level of prosperity because of its rapid economic growth. And I do think that corresponds to some positive changes in economic, and to some extent political, rights for Chinese citizens. China today is a lot more free than it was under Mao; the Chinese do have more freedom today to choose their own destinies. But if that growth and progress is to continue, they will need to continue to improve on those political and economic freedoms…

I’d say the same goes for Rwanda. That country has experienced rapid growth and improvements since the genocide. But Paul Kagame’s government has really only focused on improving economic freedoms. They have not focused on political freedoms and have even been accused of assassinating political opponents. Just as for China, future success and progress in Rwanda will depend on if they move out of the authoritarian development approach to what I’d call a ‘free development’ approach – focused on individual rights.

Q If someone gave you complete control of the aid and development agenda, made you the aid/dev czar, what would you do?

BE: (laughs) If I was given complete control I would try to convince everyone that nobody should have complete control. My main point here is that the aid and development needs to become much more democratic and focused on improving the rights of poor people. I would say that and then resign.

Editor’s note: If you want to ask Bill Easterly your own questions, please come join us at Seattle Town Hall next Tuesday, March 25. Humanosphere is a co-sponsor of the event and I will be emceeing a Q&A following his lecture.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.