William Easterly responds to my blog post about his new book

As some of you already know yesterday I wrote a post complaining about book publishers’ habit of using images of poor Africans (and especially children) on the cover of books on global poverty and underdevelopment. In my post I used the example of William Easterly’s new book, The Tyranny of Experts, which has the image of an African child, face partially obscured by text and in a torn t-shirt, on the cover. The post got a fair amount of attention on twitter and last night William Easterly emailed me about it (see email below). As suggested by Easterly in the email, let’s keep the conversation going in the comments section and elsewhere.

Dear Mr. Opalo, thanks for your comment in your blog. I understand your concern about exploiting images of African children, I have voiced the same criticisms myself. The book itself is a strong protest of paternalistic and racist tendencies in development and a demand to recognize poor people’s rights, including their right to be treated with dignity and respect. I would be happy to send you an advance copy.

The exploitative images usually fall into two categories: either (1) a smiling adorable child meant to imply gratitude for the aid donors as paternalistic saviors, or (2) a child with extremely degraded conditions such a swollen belly or flies mean to evoke pity. I respectfully submit that my book cover is in neither category.

I would be happy to continue the dialogue further, and you are welcome to post this response on your blog.

Best wishes, Bill Easterly

Many thanks to William Easterly for responding to the post. It was nice to hear from such a legend in the field of development economics.

10 thoughts on “William Easterly responds to my blog post about his new book

  1. Thanks very much for your response and for engaging in the conversation (and thanks to Ken for getting the discussion started!).

    While it’s true that pictures of flies and swollen bellies are among the worst offenders, I do think the ragged clothing falls into the same category.

    When looking at portrayals, I often think about how I’d feel if that’s how I was portrayed, and how I think my Rwandan, Zambian, and Senegalese friends would feel if it were them. I wouldn’t want a picture of myself in ragged clothes on the cover of a book, and I don’t think they would either. While children may be less concerned, I think parents could be embarrassed by such public use of an image of their child looking unkempt. Would they feel proud to have the world see their child and his torn clothing as a representation of “the poor?”

    Are you able to share how/why that photo was selected for the cover? Did the child or his parents consent to the photo being taken or used for the book cover? I’m very curious to learn more about how these decisions are made. Thanks again!


  2. I’m not really sure from this response why the image is supposed to be so different from the two generic types mentioned.

    It’s true that it doesn’t show the child smiling, surrounded by flies or with a swollen belly. However the image does show a child with torn clothes and with coloring and layout clearly intended to create a grim image.

    From reading the description on Amazon this book focuses on freedom (presumably political), accidental technocratic limitations on freedom and freedom’s potential economic benefits. It could show a street march, a split cover showing an image of an expert in Abuja opposite an image of a village, a photo taken from some local success story in South Africa or Senegal or something of the sort.


  3. I don’t think the image strictly falls in the two categories that have been outlined by Mr Easterly however, it still falls under the sensationalist ‘poverty porn’ style of imagery that is usually used by many in the development world. I love this quote on stories told about Africa, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adieche. So why is poverty porn so bad? In all its nuances including William Easterly’s book cover, “in addition to violating privacy and human rights, poverty porn is damaging to those it is trying to aid because it evokes the idea that the poor are helpless and incapable of helping themselves, thereby cultivating a culture of paternalism. It is the leveraging of pity, whose flip side in the world of aid and development is a combination of guilt and superiority, which sets a cultural stage for disrespect and disconnect.”


  4. 3 quick points:

    1-I thought it was worth mentioning that this particular child’s face was at least partially obscured–not to say that makes it ok.

    2- Also, there are ways to use a photo of a child appropriately. I would have liked to have heard Easterly comment on whether this boy and his parents parents gave permission for the pic (and whether they also get an advance copy of the book).

    3- As an aspiring tyrannical expert, I’d like an advance copy too.

    Editor, RwandaWire


  5. I personally think that obscuration is actually the most important here and changes completely the message the photo alone would convey. Ingenious trick.


  6. Pingback: Top posts of 2013 « An Africanist Perspective

  7. Thanks for bringing this up. Interestingly, in a research organization for which I used to work, I tried to include an additional signature/mark line in our consent form relating to the use of pictures or audio from the interview for educational purposes. This was a standard part of a consent form as I learned it in anthropology. I was told it was unnecessary.

    The informed consent process is far from perfect but I was pretty surprised.


  8. Did the publisher use the image regardless of Mr Easterly’s express wishes to the contrary in order to *stay on message and sell copies* ? Commerce old chap, can be so demeaning.


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