Kristof on Easterly, Sachs, et al

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has an article in the current New York Review of Books that reviews four fairly new books on development aid. He devotes most of his coverage to Bill Easterly’s book The White Man’s Burden. I read Easterly’s previous book, The Elusive Quest for Growth, and found it to be a rather good summary of development history and theory over the past 50 years or so. However, Easterly now seems more concerned about taking down the whole movement behind development aid (and especially Jeffrey Sachs). Kristof writes:

Professor Easterly devotes his book to hacking away, with considerable satisfaction, at Sachs and the entire humanitarian approach taken by the UN. Frankly, I find that satisfaction off-putting, because Sachs’s evangelism for aid has saved countless lives in the developing world by raising money to provide drinkable water, distribute mosquito nets to protect against malaria, improve methods of raising crops, and much else.

Kristof goes on to differentiate himself from Easterly on the issue of military intervention in developing countries:

If Easterly is generally sensible, there’s one matter where I think he’s catastrophically wrong. That is his hostility toward military intervention. It’s true tha in the past, military interventions have often been foolish and ended up hurting the people we claimed to be helping. The long American proxy war in Angola was disaster for everyone. But it’s also true that the single most essential prerequisite for economic development is security: no one will invest in a shop or factory if it is likely to be burned down soon. And insecurity is immensely contagious

The Western failure to intervene early in Rwanda allowed the genocide in 1994 that claimed perhaps 800,000 lives. But that was only the beginning. That chaos in turn infected Burundi and especially Congo, which collapsed into civil war. Some 4.1 million people have died because of the Congo war, mostly from hunger and disease, making it the most lethal conflict since World War II.

Something similar happened in West Africa. Upheavals in Liberia were allowed to fester and spread to Sierra Leone and then Ivory Coast; and now Guinea may be on the precipice as well. Because nobody was concerned to stop the killings in Darfur when they began in 2003, the genocide there is now spreading to Chad as well, and even to the Central African Republic.

So one of the most crucial kinds of foreign aid is simply security. And when we have provided that kind of aid, it has made a huge difference. The most successful single thing the US ever did in Asia, for example, was probably Truman’s decision in 1950, after the Korean War began, to send the Seventh Fleet to protect Taiwan. Otherwise China would very likely have invaded Taiwan sometime in the 1950s, hundreds of thousands would have died, and Taiwan wouldn’t have existed as a free economy in the 1980s and 1990s to provide both an economic model and investment for the Chinese mainland. The cost to the US of that deployment was negligible, and the benefit to the world was enormous.

One Comment

  1. evicious

    Can military intervention be interpreted as a form of aid? This is where I disagree with Kristof. Yes, Truman’s decision to protect Taiwan in 1950 helped Taiwan to exist as a free economy and now a (relatively) stable democracy – one of the most secure democracies in the region. But this was hardly a form of aid. In my view, American military intervention sought to contain communist China and protect the geopolitical interest of the United States and the West. Taiwan is part of an important geographical line of defense (along with Japan, Korea, and the Philippines) for the United States. Had Taiwan been in a different geographical location (say, Tibet or Mongolia), would Truman or any other U.S. president gotten involved?

    At least in the case of Taiwan, American military intervention wasn’t there to protect democracy, freedom, or any other ideologies that we find comforting. The Taiwanese government today is more of a democracy than ever before: martial law has been lifted, freedom of speech and other rights have been restored. But its people still live under constant military threat from China. Where is the U.S. in military (or even diplomatic, for that matter) intervention now?

    It isn’t that “nobody was concerned to stop the killings in Darfur.” Darfur probably does not present the same kind of economic and geopolitical interest as Taiwan for the United States to invest in military intervention.

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