William Easterly: The Problem With Humanitarian Aid

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The White Man's Burden" by William Easterly. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the major problems with humanitarian aid? How does bureaucracy get in the way of aid efforts?

According to economist William Easterly in his book The White Man’s Burden, the bureaucracy surrounding international aid efforts is getting in the way of progress. The bureaucratic system causes a lack of accountability, coordination, and clear goals.

Continue below to learn more about Easterly’s problems with humanitarian aid programs.

The Dysfunctional Aid Bureaucracy 

Easterly extends his critique of the prevailing foreign development aid model to the structure of the aid organizations themselves. He writes that the problems with humanitarian aid are that they are saddled by inefficient bureaucracies that lack accountability, overlap or compete with one another, and don’t have clearly defined goals.

Lack of Accountability

Easterly contrasts the behavior and incentives of the aid bureaucracies with those of the private sector. Private-sector bureaucrats (like managers, customer service agents, and salespeople) are responsive because of market incentives: Customers will take their business elsewhere if they don’t feel they’re being treated well.

But international aid workers lack this accountability mechanism, largely because they tend to be based in the rich countries themselves—far away from the places they’re meant to be helping. This means that they are responsive to politicians, voters, and donors in the rich countries—not to the impoverished people they ostensibly serve.

The Aid Community and the Principal-Agent Problem

The competing incentives of the aid community—the need to please the rich donors in their home countries while simultaneously working on behalf of the poor people they’re meant to serve—is similar to what’s known in economics and in managerial studies as the principal-agent problem. This arises when a party engaged to carry out a task (the agent) has poorly designed incentives that lead them to engage in behavior that works against the interests of the party they work for (the principal). 

In this case, it’s best to think of the people in developing countries as the principals and the aid organizations as the agents. Although the aid organizations are meant to be working on behalf of their principals, in reality, they have a strong incentive to do things that will result in getting more money from the rich countries (to pay their own salaries and expand their staff), as well as favorable press coverage (to make themselves look good). As a result, these agencies tend to focus on the kind of high-profile, flashy, attention-grabbing initiatives that generate lots of donations and clicks—but do little to help people in the developing world, and in fact, draw vital resources and attention away from their most pressing needs.

Lack of Coordination

Easterly writes that the aid community is also plagued by a lack of coordination among agencies. There are too many aid agencies, and many of them have overlapping or conflicting portfolios and missions.

This makes it difficult to figure out which agency is responsible for solving which problem, and it creates wasteful and time-consuming red tape that prevents people on the ground from getting the help they need. The lack of coordination also creates a problem for donors. Because of the multitude of agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), it’s difficult for donors to figure out where to contribute their money. This means they end up spending resources inefficiently, because there’s no central agency to direct donors to the best and most effective use of their money. 

The Benefits of Collaboration Among Aid Organizations

Nonprofit experts write that the coordination problems that Easterly describes can be avoided or overcome through more effective collaboration between nonprofit organizations. Partnerships or collaborations can help mission-oriented organizations pool administrative resources like accounting, purchasing, office supplies, and transportation—lowering overhead and freeing up resources to allocate to direct programming. By joining forces, nonprofits or aid organizations can also expand the range of services they offer by tapping each other’s experience and talent—especially if they have related, but different, missions. 

For example, an aid organization focused on improving irrigation systems in developing countries can partner with an aid organization that works to teach farmers more sustainable agriculture practices to offer a more comprehensive set of services to agricultural workers.

Lack of Clear Goals

Easterly writes that all bureaucracies need clear, defined goals. This enables others to hold these organizations accountable, because they can evaluate how they performed relative to the benchmarks they set.

To move toward accountability, Easterly recommends that aid bureaucracies develop clear portfolios and stake out specific areas of expertise by clearly defining which problems they are working to solve and creating specific metrics to gauge performance.

In general, Easterly writes that this means having fewer objectives and scrapping the grandiose, top-down plans in favor of more realistic, tangible, measurable goals. Narrowing their focus will enable these organizations to develop subject-matter expertise and cultivate useful knowledge.

Crucially, Easterly writes that the aid community needs independent evaluations of its work and progress. He argues that these independent evaluators could be drawn from the ranks of business and academia.

Tracking Progress

In Measure What Matters, John Doerr argues that the best way to track progress toward goals and develop useful metrics is to identify your company’s objectives and key results (OKRs)

Your objective is your ultimate goal, what you and your team exist to achieve. All objectives must be measurable, concrete, and action-oriented. Your key results are the rungs on the ladder leading to your objective. These are the sub-goals that facilitate the achievement of your ultimate objective. 

To implement the OKR system, Doerr advises that you need to start by identifying the most important tasks your organization needs to accomplish within a set timeframe. Once you’ve identified your company’s objectives, you then direct departments, teams, and individuals to identify their own objectives. Every objective, regardless of whether it’s an individual or department objective, should align with the company’s top objectives.
William Easterly: The Problem With Humanitarian Aid

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Here's what you'll find in our full The White Man's Burden summary:

  • How the global humanitarian aid system is fundamentally flawed
  • Why bottom-up aid models work much better than top-down models
  • Why the West can't change bad governments

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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