Who is the African child on the cover of William Easterly’s new book?

ImageUPDATE: A reader, C. Mwangi, just brought to my attention this quote from William Easterly’s 2009 review of Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid.

Moyo is onto something important but, as she says, seldom discussed openly. One of development’s dark secrets is its still-influential origins in the “poor people are children” view, a view with a deeply rooted and very long history. The “development” metaphor was itself is a biological one: poor people “develop” from childhood (poverty) into adulthood (prosperity). Some of the signs of this mindset are subtle but unmistakable. Just think of who was pictured in the last glossy “aid to Africa” brochure you saw? I am willing to bet it was African children. As David Rieff said in his classic book A Bed for the Night, “There are two groups of people who like to be photographed with children: dictators and aid officials.” And of course, you don’t let children manage their own affairs; the adults must do it for them.

The rest of the review, originally meant for publication in the LRB, is available here.


They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but if it wasn’t for Bill Easterly’s reputation for sound thinking on matters to do with Development, I would not have pre-ordered his upcoming book The Tyranny of Experts.

Seriously, as a new year resolution can we all promise never to fall into the temptation to include anonymous African children (invariably looking poor and shabby with flies on their faces or carrying guns, among other things) on the cover of books on poverty and development?

PLEASE? It is no longer good form (and never has been), especially coming from people who ought to know better. Were the boy’s parents or guardians consulted? Do they even know that their kid is on the cover of Easterly’s book?

The book title suggests that Easterly cares about the forgotten rights of the poor, yet the use of the cover image violates an important right of the poor: the right against unfair objectification. There is research out there suggesting that African states face an FDI inflow penalty simply because they are African. Images like these on the cover of books do not help the cause to reverse this reality.

To be fair (as a commenter pointed out to me on twitter) it is the publishers who decide these things to drive sales. But authors still have a right (and in my view, a duty) to ensure that this sort of stuff doesn’t happen.

I feel bad calling out Easterly on this because he is one of the more nuanced and very sane development economists/practitioners out there (and there are certainly far much worse instances of this phenomenon out there); but the habit of using a whole region and its peoples as shorthand for poverty, underdevelopment and dysfunction has to stop. And it starts with each and every one of us.

Quick Hits On Development

Dear readers, this is your quarterly reminder to remind your friends (because I know you wouldn’t fall for this) in the development industry to shake off the messiah complex they may have developed in the course of their work.

1. Satire, courtesy of I Studied Abroad in Africa:

You go to one of those fabulously elitist schools where everyone talks about privilege, classism, racism, sexism, etc. as if they don’t practice it in real life. But in order to really see the world, they decide to go somewhere where they can understand what their privilege looks like. So they choose AFRICA! Yay! A whole continent dedicated to helping [non-Africans] people understand what it means to be poor and undeveloped.

2. Bill Easterly on the Ideology of Development: This is an old piece (from 2007) but which should be required reading every week for development expats experts and the wider Global Bleeding Hearts Industrial Complex.

The ideology of Development is not only about having experts design your free market for you; it is about having the experts design a comprehensive, technical plan to solve all the problems of the poor. These experts see poverty as a purely technological problem, to be solved by engineering and the natural sciences, ignoring messy social sciences such as economics, politics, and sociology [This is also a warning to all you mono-issue activists out there. Life is complicated. Accept that fact and move on].

3. And this is how the Canadian International Development Agency, CIDA, defines international development on its website (granted it is in the youth, 13-16, section, but still):

International development is the term used to describe the activities that developed countries, called donor countries, like Canada, carry out to help poor or developing countries lift themselves out of poverty and raise their standard of living to one that is closer to the standard of living we have in Canada. About 2.6 billion people (about two out of five) live on less than $2 per day.

To reduce poverty, donor countries, like Canada, provide developing countries with technical expertise, goods and money.