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Quote of the Week

March 22, 2007

United Kingdom Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown is eloquent about one of the two tragedies of the world’s poor. In January 2005, he gave a compassionate speech about the tragedy of extreme poverty afflicting billions of people, with millions of children dying from easily preventable diseases. He called for a doubling of foreign aid, a Marshall Plan for the world’s poor, and an International Financing Facility (IFF) against which tens of billions more dollars toward future aid could be borrowed to rescue the poor today. He offered hope by pointing out how easy it is to do good. Medicine that would prevent half of all malaria deaths costs only twelve cents a dose. A bed net to prevent a child from getting malaria costs only four dollars. Preventing five million child deaths over the next ten years would cost just three dollars for each new mother. An aid program to give cash to families who put their children in school, getting children…into elementary school, would cost little.

Gorden Brown was silent about the other tragedy of the world’s poor. This is the tragedy in which the West spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West had spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get three dollars to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths.

In a single day, on July 16, 2005, the American and British economies delivered nine million copies of the sixth volume of the Harry Potter children’s book series to eager fans. Book retailers continually restocked the shelves as customers snatched up the book. Amazon and Barnes & Noble shipped preordered copies directly to customers’ homes. There was no Marshall Plan for Harry Potter, no International Financing Facility for books about underage wizards. It is heartbreaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children.

Visionaries, celebrities, presidents, chancellors of the exchequer, bureaucracies, and even armies address the first tragedy, and their compassion and hard work deserve admiration. Many fewer address the second tragedy.

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.

William Easterly, The While Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and So Little Good


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