The Failures of the Top-Down Aid Model

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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Why are the problems with the top-down aid model? Why is the humanitarian aid system flawed?

In his book The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly posits that the top-down aid model is disconnected from its recipients and is a recipe for under-delivering. However, there are cases to be made for both sides of the argument.

Continue reading to learn more about the flaws in the global aid system.

Why Aid Is Flawed

Easterly argues that, however well-intentioned, efforts undertaken by the world’s wealthy countries to aid the global poor have had a dismal track record.

According to Easterly, the $2.3 trillion in aid that Western governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) distributed to the developing world from the 1950s through 2006 (when The White Man’s Burden was published) has had almost zero effect on global poverty, mortality rates, or overall quality of life.

To Easterly, this is evidence of one thing—the global humanitarian aid system is fundamentally flawed.

The Refugee Crisis and the Humanitarian System

These criticisms have only gotten stronger since the book was published in 2006. In a 2017 paper, Paul Spiegel, a former top official at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), argues that the existing humanitarian aid system is no longer suited to deal with the problems of the 21st century—especially the global refugee crisis that has seen over 65 million people around the world forcibly displaced from their homes due to conflict and environmental disasters resulting from climate change. 

Spiegel contends that the aid system was created during a time in global history when conflicts were more localized and shorter in duration, meaning that refugees and displaced persons were mostly a temporary phenomenon. Thus, a “Band-Aid” approach was appropriate, one that would help people address their most pressing needs on a temporary basis. 

But today’s conflicts are wide-ranging, more violent, and decades in duration, making the existing aid model wholly unsuited for the present moment. Spiegel recommends having the major aid organizations, like the World Health Organization and the UN, cede some of their power to national governments to let them more flexibly deal with the refugee crisis on their own borders.

William Easterly: The Top-Down Aid Model Doesn’t Work

Easterly attributes the failure to misguided ideas within the aid community about how best to help the global poor.

The aid community, he writes, prioritizes centralized, and tightly directed top-down aid distribution—all controlled by rich countries (primarily the United States and Western Europe), far from the developing world they mean to serve.

Because the aid community is so disconnected, it creates ambitious, unrealistic plans, overlooks local concerns, and rarely holds itself accountable for its failures.

All in all, Easterly writes, it’s a recipe for overpromising and under-delivering.

Notable Foreign Aid Successes

Although Easterly’s general critique throughout The White Man’s Burden is that the foreign aid community produces lackluster results due to its unwieldy structure and distance from the countries and people it is meant to serve, it’s worth looking at the extraordinary strides that have been made through global humanitarian and development aid.

According to the Brookings Institution:

-Extreme poverty (defined as subsisting on less than $1.90 per day) has fallen from 1.9 billion people (36% of the global population) in 1990 to 592 million (8%) in 2019.
-Maternal, infant, and child mortality rates have dropped by half.
-Once-endemic diseases like smallpox and polio have been all but eradicated, while deaths from malaria have dropped by half since the dawn of the 21st century.
-Life expectancy around the world rose from 65 years in 1990 to 72 in 2017.
The Failures of the Top-Down Aid Model

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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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