Interview with William Easterly

William Easterly is Professor of Economics at New York University. He is Co-Director of the Development Research Institute and editor of the Aid Watch blog. He is author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. This is an abridged version of an interview I conducted in NYC on 3 May 2011.

You talk about the concept of paternalism in global development. I’m curious what the concept of feminism means to you, and what relevance it has for understanding global development.

I think it has tremendous relevance in two dimensions: paternalism and equal rights. Both of these are extremely important in understanding what’s going on in development right now. Both what’s wrong with it, and what needs to be made right. Most of the time, I talk about the paternalism of rich people toward poor people. I don’t think there’s much explicitracism in aid and development, but there is still a condescending or superior attitude toward poor people, that we can fix their problems. I think there is a gender dimension as well, though I haven’t really talked about it much in my work. I think I could talk about it a lot more.

It’s not an accident that the word paternalistic is the notion of father taking care of and supporting. A lot of discourse in aid is often about helping women and children. Aid agencies offer this appealing image of innocent women and children that are helpless and need our help. But who is the “we” that is implied by that? Our help. Who is at the other end? If you go through a bunch of aid brochures online, I bet that in the vast majority of them you will not see any adult males. You will only see women and children. Even just in the sheer visual imagery we use in aid, it’s really about rich, white males indulging their own paternalistic fantasies for rescuing non-white women and children.

It seems to me that some of the most insidious examples of bad aid have to do with women and children.

There’s a very powerful incentive to use that imagery for campaigns. They’re about the victims being women and children, but we’re covering over a lot of stuff. We rich white males – speaking as a rich, white male – are trying to alleviate our own guilty conscience not only toward the poor of the world, but also toward women in our own society. There’s still a lot of sexism and discrimination in our own society. We move the gaze away from that inequality and toward another remote part of the world to indulge our paternalistic fantasies.

Yet in crises like Darfur, women really are exponentially more vulnerable. How do you portray this reality so that women aren’t tokenized?

Of course women are vulnerable to violence and rape in a way that men are not. But we should not go all the way to the stereotypes that aid and development people want to sell. Women in poor countries – and this is a big generalization – are incredibly resourceful. They’re achieving an awful lot. So, to peddle this stereotype of the helpless , pathetic woman that can’t do anything on her own – that’s really destructive and will definitely result in bad aid. Whereas if we find ways to let women tell aid givers what they need so that they can help themselves, that’s going to be much more successful.

I think there’s a sense that if you portray women in the developing world as resourceful, then people will think “they don’t need our help.”

I agree, it’s a very difficult balance. Obviously you have to reach the indifferent rich people with something that will motivate them to be involved in solutions to poverty and violence. Yet you want to motivate them in a way that doesn’t lead to a bad solution. If you portray a woman as a faceless victim, that’s incredibly demeaning and that really robs her of dignity. Are you serving your own organization’s purpose when you put out a stereotype of a faceless woman who’s a victim, and are you disrespecting the fundamental human being that’s behind that image? What’s really at the heart of development is recognizing that everyone has equal rights. I think the most fundamental thing that needs to happen in development is the recognition of equality in rights: poor, rich, male, female, every ethnic group and every religion.

What do think of some of the stories that [NYT columnist] Nicholas Kristof portrays? He’s gotten flack for “exploiting” stories of women and girls in order to evoke responses.

I respect Kristof. He’s done a lot of good with his awareness raising – much better than some of the others who raise awareness, like rock stars and movie stars. He crosses the line sometimes, but he’s on the right side of the line a lot of the time. It’s impossible for anyone, including me, to be pure in this business. It’s just so difficult and complicated.

What do you mean by “pure?”

I mean to get things exactly right in terms of motivating people to get involved, not discourage giving, and yet at the same time respect the dignity of poor people.

Right, I think it has to be an ongoing process, but a self conscious one, a very self aware one.

Self awareness is very important. One thing I’ve learned from other people is the idea of reciprocity. Any time you’re portraying a victimized woman in the Congo a certain way, turn the tables and try to think how you would feel if you were that woman and someone in a rich country far away was portraying your story. If you don’t pass that test – if you say, ‘no I would hate that,’ then you shouldn’t do it. Reciprocity is really at the heart of equality. It’s incredibly important for us to hang on to that.

Let’s go back to that concept of equal rights, and how you see the concept of feminism reflecting that in global development.

Equal rights is this long, never-ending struggle that’s basically about trying to fight double standards. Rights have always been characterized by some double standard, and progress tries to erode. The battle in American history, which is also a story of development – development is not just about Africa – has been the battle to correct the double standard. Men are not superior to women; white people don’t have one set of rights, and black people another. We white males would prefer to forget that this was very recent in our own society, and this is why we’re so happy to transfer our gaze to some far away society that has some more extreme problem.

Confronting that history honestly makes us realize that this is the fight: to keep eroding, eroding, and eroding that double standard. We’re still a long way from equal rights for women in the US. Recognition of that also helps us appreciate that when we talk about women’s rights in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, we come in with our own skeletons in the closet. That should make should make us more aware of how hard these problems are to make progress on and we should not paper them over with all these development buzzwords, which is unfortunately what’s happening. There’s this horrible lexicon we use to signify some awareness of women being oppressed in poor countries, but it stops a long way short of confronting the full injustice of who is responsible, and the power relationships that lie behind it. They talk as if correcting oppression against women is just a matter of awareness raising and education. If you just write lots of report with words like “mainstreaming gender” and “empowerment” the problem will go away. Create a new UN agency for women, and that will solve the problem. But rights are about power.

I think one of the most poignant examples of this lack of power – for women in this country and around the world – is in reproductive health and rights. I’m thinking about the global gag rule, for instance.

Yes – the worst kind of paternalism is the notion that you have superior morals, and you impose them on someone else. Especially when that’s based on a religion that’s different from the people you’re helping, it’s just incredibly arrogant. If we’re going to be serious about respecting the rights of women in poor countries, we have to let them play by their rules. That’s why these conditions on aid are incredibly patronizing and coercive. Everyone should have the right to make their own choices, not have someone else make choices for them, like we don’t allow you to use condoms because we’re hung up about birth control, or we don’t allow you to access abortion because we’re hung up on our own religious views.

Have you seen the issue of abortion increasingly become a global development issue? It seems like the elephant in the room that no one wants to touch.

It’s one of these really divisive issues that aid and development people are really afraid of. One thing that’s in very short supply in aid and development is courage. Nobody has the courage to step up and deal with controversial issues. If you want to give them a little bit of credit, you could say they’re scared of offending their funders. But in the end, and I’ll try to be as generous as possible, depending on your funders is not a good excuse to do something so fundamentally disrespectful and unequal.

What’s an example of a great aid project you’ve seen that benefits women?

Cash transfers is the first thing that comes to mind. The best women-centered programs are not necessarily women-centered programs. Cash transfers are for families, and in practice it often works out that they strengthen the power of women within the family. I also do not embrace some of the stereotypes of men in poor countries – that they’ll automatically spend the money on alcohol. It’s such an insulting stereotype. Yes there’s some truth to it, in poor and rich countries, but if we demonize men that’s not helping. Let’s just be practical about that. It’s about a power relationship that foreigners can’t to do much about, but we can try to find programs that relatively strengthen the power of women within the family. Cash transfers do seem like they do that, certainly more than microcredit.

Microcredit is the really fashionable flavor du jour, although it’s gotten a bit tarnished now. We’re imprisoned in these stereotypes. We want this heroic image of the female entrepreneur boosted out of poverty by a microloan, going from making $1 a day to owning her own factory. That just doesn’t happen, and it was completely unrealistic from the beginning.

Right, it’s telling a story that we want to hear but doesn’t really have any bearing on the lives of poor people. I think we saw this with the Greg Mortenson “Three Cups of Tea” situation.

The way the Mortenson story fell apart just showed how much he was trying to fulfill peoples’ expectations about heroic stereotypes. It’s a very paternalistic story: this rich white man stumbles accidentally onto a village, and then rescues all the girls in the village.

How many disillusionments do we need before we stop trying to create that false story?

Can’t we just be honest with ourselves, that life does not conform to Hollywood storylines, in any area? Aid is no different. Aid is just as messy and complicated as any other area of our lives. Once you accept that, then you don’t get so discouraged. There are lots of good things that can be done: medicines, education, cash grants. In the end, there is a lot of historical and contemporary evidence that development helps women. Development helps women gain greater power over their lives, to make their own choices and to stand up to male oppressors.

Is there a need for more women in global development, or perhaps more feminists?

What’s really needed is a lot more straight talk in our conversations about what’s going on, that there’s still is a lot of oppression of women going on in poor and rich countries. We need to acknowledge that fact and not hide it behind buzzwords. Honesty makes it easier to find the things that will change power relationships. We have to also recognize the unintended power of development to strengthen women’s positions. Economists talk about development increasing the demand for brains relative to brawn. As economies get richer, the demand for brains goes up and that strengthens the position of women because they have the brains, and now a lot more bargaining power.

It’s funny to me that honesty turns one into a dissident in global development.

I know, it’s strange.

That’s where I see the role of feminism, and in global development too: continually questioning the institution, an appreciation for the process, and a whole lot of self-awareness. The more dissidents the better.

I agree!

Jessica Mack is a global reproductive rights advocate and feminist blogger. She is senior editor at Gender Across Borders, a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine Blog, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.