Waylaid Dialectic

September 21, 2010

William Easterly: Libertarians all talk

Filed under: Aid,Governance,Institutions,Social Justice — terence @ 1:06 pm
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Meanwhile, in a helpful post at AidWatch, libertarian aid blogger William Easterly outlines in a diagramme one of the main shortcomings of modern libertarianism: when it comes to issues such as human rights and dictatorship in developing countries, libertarians are all talk and no action.

Of course, there are times when there is no better option than not to act, but it seems to me that to declare from the outset that you’re against all intervention, whilst at the same time professing to care about human rights, is simply another strategy for thwarting change and protecting privilege, while appearing ethical yourself.

Easterly’s post is a good illustration of this. Aid agencies face a real dilemma when dealing with authoritarian states: if they provide aid they may, in effect, be propping such states up, on the other hand, if they withdraw aid they may do nothing to bring about regime change and simply harm the very people they were hoping to help. Or worse, as recent research appears to show [pdf] (h/t the Monkey Cage), rapid aid withdrawal may well lead to armed conflict.

What’s more, it’s very hard for an aid agency to openly criticise a host country: official government aid agencies aren’t actually mandated to do this (criticism must come from their political masters) and, for NGOs, criticism usually leads to being expelled – in other words withdrawing your aid.

Which isn’t to say that aid agencies should never criticise repressive regimes or that they should never withdraw their support. Rather, as I’ve pointed out before on this blog, the point is that there is a dilemma. A challenge with no easy answers. This is the sort of thing aid agencies have to negotiate all the time. And it would be nice if at some point William Easterly would stop polishing his own halo long enough to acknowledge this.


  1. Exactly.

    I’ve gotten over having an issue with Easterly. He’s got his schtick and that’s that. But even so: exactly.

    I’m starting to feel like the criticize-aid-relentlessly bit is coming to close to having run it’s course. Time to start articulating viable options for redress, in my opinion. Viable options that are more than some kind of hyped-up “vlogging” or Kiva-clone or magik bullet (I sat through a one-hour presentation on – and I swear, I’m not making this up – ZINC as the heretofore missing ingredient that will erradicate pain and suffering in Africa). WTF?

    In my experience, aid work is *always* about those dilemmas. It’s about making impossible choices that will always be second-guessed and criticized by some. No matter what.

    Sorry… that was a rant. Good post.

    Comment by J. — September 22, 2010 @ 1:53 am

  2. Thanks J.

    – I agree. I think the statement about aid work always involving dilemmas is almost true by definition. i.e. if there wasn’t a dilemma the problem would have resolved itself ages ago and the region/programme/project wouldn’t fall under the purview of aid agencies and NGOs.

    And I think you highlight one of the adverse consequences of “teh Aid it sux” discourse. Which is that the image it creates of relentless aid failure increases the intellectual space for vacuous new cures. Which is to say that, if people were better informed – i.e. that aid is difficult by its very nature and that much of what we do at present works somewhat – they’d be considerably less likely to keep dreaming up daft miracle cures.

    Comment by terence — September 22, 2010 @ 10:15 am

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