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. Yes, this is long, but it’s an abridged version of an interview I conducted in NYC on 3 May 2011.
(Author: Jessica Mack)
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 explicit racism 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.