A Lexicon for the Lords of Poverty


White Man's Burden author William Easterly touches off a slightly bitchy conversation at Cato Unbound with a call for more accountability and feedback in foreign aid. Deepak Lal responds with a doom-and-gloom assessment of why that's a nonstarter, but waits until the end of his response to hit at an underappreciated (IMO) problem with aid programs in the field; namely, the people running them:

The unpalatable truth for the many well meaning people who are moved by world poverty and want to do something is that, over the years, alleviating world poverty has become a large international business from which a large number of middle class professionals derive a good living. They have been aptly described by a former East African correspondent of the Economist as the "Lords of Poverty."

I was basically the Lords-of-Poverty-correspondent at Burma's Myanmar Times in 2003, which involved reading 70-page tripartite regional action plans, attending task force meetings, going to regional conferences, and following humanitarian aid workers around in doing the various things they do to avoid having to actually be around poor people. The average aid "action plan" is something like a Tom Friedman column composed entirely of passive verbs—pomposity minus agency. But it will almost certainly make use of all the buzzwords Easterly likes in each and every tortured paragraph: Sustainable! Results-based! Community-driven! That strikes me as a bigger problem than the fact that aid workers currently have no incentive to become innovators; they already think they have.