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William Easterly

William Easterly

New York University professor of economics William Easterly discussed foreign aid and development programs and their effects on immigration and xenophobia in the developed world in a lecture delivered on Oct. 10. The talk referenced his book The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor.

Easterly’s talk emphasized the tendency of the world’s wealthy nations to use large foreign aid programs as a substitute for opening its doors to migrants from poorer nations. He proceeded to show how the increased advocacy for aid programs instead of immigration contributes to xenophobia through exaggeratedly negative stereotypes of ethnic groups.

“Aid was a nice political out for the humanitarian lobby in the rich countries and the US,” Easterly said. “It did convince the humanitarian lobby in the US to assuage its conscience about the evils of racist immigration restrictions.”

Using both historic and recent events as examples, Easterly demonstrated the shift from opening borders to migrants to donating foreign aid, such as Chinese migrants in the early 20th century and Norway’s generous foreign aid policy today.

The talk illuminated the problem of foreign aid programs indirectly supporting human rights violations of aid recipients by allocating the majority of funds to oppressive regimes in poorer nations.

“It just seems that there’s this serial indifference to human rights in the aid world,” Easterly said. “And one thing that has happened with the War on Terror is that there’s actually been an increase in aid going to the most oppressive and violent regimes in the world.”

Easterly also spent time explaining how advocacy for foreign aid to poorer nations directly contributes to racist sentiments at home through the overuse of stereotypically negative images of needy ethnic groups to elicit compassion in wealthy nations.

“Development has been guilty of itself creating some of these xenophobic stereotypes," Easterly explained. "It tends to fuel negative images of poor people, and that has been done for very good-hearted reasons."

Dubbed “disaster pornography,” images of starving children or child soldiers in Africa are often cherry-picked or even staged by the media for broadcast in developed countries, where they appeal to voters’ compassion and empathy, according to Easterly. Easterly drew on several variants of cover art depicting images of malnourished African children for the popular Bono song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” as a prime example of this phenomenon.

“It breaks my heart that there really still are emaciated children, but also that all of Africa is portrayed as typified by an emaciated child,” he added.

In concluding his talk, Easterly re-emphasized the fact that foreign aid advocacy is performed with good intentions, but has unintended consequences that harm the very populations it aims to assist.

“I want to try to, again, keep recognizing that this has been done for very good humanitarian reasons, but there are other ways to achieve the same humanitarian goals without engaging in negative, xenophobic stereotypes.”

In addition to teaching at NYU, Easterly also serves as the Co-Director of NYU’s Development Research Institute. He has written two other books: The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics and The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Harm and So Little Good.

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