Loving the San Francisco Bay Area... Community development, urban ministry, trying to defeat poverty, faith, religion, politics, good music, the quest for the perfect pizza, the Yankees, motorcycles... All in a 'day's life'

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Book: White Man's Burden - thoughts for Labor Day Weekend

I'm reading a fascinating book that has some of the same themes that run through Bob Lupton's recent writing. It's called 'White Man's Burden" by William Easterly. (I get the feeling some of you have read this already.) You can find it here. The title of the book is somewhat unfortunate, it's meant to be sarcastic.

There are some amazing points here, stuff NCUD and others at CCDA have been talking about for years. I encourage you to check it out - here's a couple of great excepts from the first chapter:

"But I and many other like-minded people keep trying, not to abandon aid to the poor, but to make sure it reaches them. Rich countries have to address the second tragedy if they are going to make any progress on the first tragedy. Otherwise, the current wave of enthusiasm for addressing world poverty will repeat the cycle of its predecessors: idealism, high expectations, disappointing results, cynical backlash."

"Let’s call the advocates of the traditional approach the Planners, while we call the agents for change in the alternative approach the Searchers."

"The Planners have the rhetorical advantage of promising great things: the end of poverty. The only thing the Planners have against them is that they gave us the second tragedy of the world’s poor. Poor people die not only because of the world’s indifference to their poverty, but also because of ineffective efforts by those who do care. To escape the cycle of tragedy, we have to be tough on the ideas of the Planners, even while we salute their goodwill."

"Yet helping the poor today requires learning from past efforts. Unfortunately, the West already has a bad track record of previous beautiful goals. A UN summit in 1990, for example, set as a goal for the year 2000 universal primary-school enrollment. (That is now planned for 2015.) A previous summit, in 1977, set 1990 as the deadline for realizing the goal of universal access to water and sanitation. (Under the Millennium Development Goals, that target is now 2015.15 Nobody was held accountable for these missed goals."

"As for the actions of the West, asking the aid agencies and development workers to attain utopian ideals makes them much worse at achieving the doable things called for by the Searchers. It also makes them much less accountable for making specific things work, as the focus on the Big Goals of the Big Plan distracts everyone’s attention from whether more children are getting twelve-cent medicines. Acknowledging that development happens mainly through homegrown efforts would liberate the agencies of the West from utopian goals, freeing up development workers to concentrate on more modest, doable steps to make poor people’s lives better."

"Idealists, activists, development workers of the world, you have nothing to lose but your utopian chains. Let’s give more power and funds to the many Searchers who are already working in development. You don’t have to immediately eliminate world poverty, bring world peace, or save the environment. You just have to do whatever you discover works with your modest resources to make a difference in the lives of poor people."

Interesting and provocative thoughts on a weekend we celebrate the working person! To me, it fits well into the CCDA redefinition of 'Redistribution' into 'giving the poor the necessary skills and resources to work their way out of poverty'.

What do you think?


  1. I am encouraged and challenged by this post, particularly the last line- "You don't have to immediately eliminate world poverty...just have to do whatever you discover works..." I think people often don't do anything because the large issues are so overwhelming. Celebrating and highlighting what is working in small communities let's us see the possibilities and allows for the work to fit each context appropriately. I stand by the idea that the work has to be done by the people there if it is going to be sustainable and I think that's where many of the big "utopian" goals have failed. We want the big results without the patient, plodding work.

  2. Yes. The challenge is that many time funders like the big audacious goals and fail to recognize the plodding work that we must do to create effective grass roots change. Crissy, our challenge is to talk the big talk but be effective creators of 'true' transformation in the community. Like I've heard in CCDA circles, it takes at least 20 years of living in a community to begin to catalize the change process.