Letters to the editor, New York Times Book Review (April 2, 2006)
A Piece of the Puzzle: Virginia Postrel's review of William Easterly's "White Man's Burden" (March 19) has much in common with the book itself. Both are thoughtful and courageous attempts to explain why recent calls to "make poverty history" by quadrupling aid will disrupt more than assist citizens in the fragile, neo-colonial political economies of Africa. Both, though, struggle for solutions because they treat poverty as a technical, rather than a deeply political, problem.
The primary purpose of foreign aid, as it has been since its conception after World War II by European nations hoping to bind their colonies to them in fact if not name, is to maintain the military and economic power of the rich nations by buying cooperation and forestalling state failure and radical challenges. For the United States and France in particular, with their far-flung military forces and investments and their policy of not trusting to markets for their strategic minerals, efforts to "end poverty" are just a small piece that must fit itself into the foreign aid puzzle.
Development within the framework of domination is as unlikely today as it was in 19th century British-ruled India, 20th century French-ruled West Africa, or apartheid South Africa, all of which had legions of development experts and substantial anti-poverty programs. Wide-spread poverty will remain part of the world economy until the United States and other rich nations stop propping up cooperative regimes that spur civil wars and stop blocking countries' transitions from producing raw materials to refining and retailing. Even then, as shown by the persistence of poverty in the booming economies of countries like China, India, and South Africa who escaped the North's military and economic halter, "making poverty history" will depend on governments' choices about sharing opportunity with the poor during the painful shift from a traditional to a modern economy.
To talk of reducing poverty is fine, but to talk of ending it before there are changes in power relations between and within countries is silly. A quick look at the pledge by the World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz, to change Africa "from a continent of despair to a continent of hope" shows why. African commentators were bemused by this pledge, since most Africans live in modest but functional fashion, and much of what despair does exist can be traced to Wolfowitz's current and previous employers. The World Bank, controlled by its United States and European majority, helps trap Africa in its low-growth role as exporter of raw materials, and the worst poverty is found in refugee camps created by civil wars against thugs who were armed and aided in return for cooperating with American military, covert, and mineral operations: Savimbi in Angola, Mobutu in the Congo, Doe in Liberia, Barre in Somalia, and Nimeiry in the Sudan. Today's American aid to regimes that cooperate with the "war on terrorism" plants the seeds for the civil wars, and the poverty, of the future.
Caleb Stewart Rossiter, Washington.
The writer teaches in the School of International Service, American University