Module 3: Planning versus Searching

William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden is one of the most well-recognized critiques of international aid and the top-down agencies that provide it. In his book, Easterly communicates his extreme displeasure with the exorbitantly mismanaged foreign aid that Western governments’ provide to countries “in need.”

“This is the tragedy in which the West spent $2.3 trillion on foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get twelve-cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths … to get four-dollar bed nets to poor families … to get three dollars to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths … It’s a tragedy that so much well-meaning compassion did not bring these results for needy people.”(1)

And even for the impoverished countries that do receive the aid they’re supposed to, Easterly says successful utilization is impeded by minimal on-the-ground training and lack of attention to local social, cultural, and political realities. Malaria nets intended for the poor “are often diverted to the black market, become out of stock in health clinics, or wind up being used as fishing nets or wedding veils.”(2) In Zambia, a program that disbursed free bed nets resulted in only 30% of clients using them.(3) A Washington-based non-profit organization called Population Services International (PSI), though, has figured out a way around misuse by selling bed nets to the poor in Malawi. For 50 cents, mothers who visit rural antenatal clinics can purchase a bed net. The nurse who disseminates the nets gets to keep nine cents for herself, which ensures that she will be held accountable to keep the nets in-stock. PSI also sells bed nets for $5 in the wealthier urban districts of Malawi. This profit subsidizes the cheaper nets sold at countryside clinics, thus allowing the program to pay for itself.(4) This approach has “increased the nationwide average of children under 5 sleeping under nets from 8 % in 2000 to 55 % in 2004,” and “a follow-up survey found nearly universal use of the nets by those who paid for them.”(5)

Easterly suggests that the powerful difference between these two approaches is a mindset of planning vs. searching. He would claim that the first example, in which bed nets are delivered and dispersed haphazardly and in large amounts, is the result of a decision by a Planner, a someone or a bureaucratic group with grand ambitions who implement their scheme without consulting local experts or illness orientations. The “agents of change in the alternative approach” are the Searchers.

“In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward. Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand. Planners apply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the Top lack knowledge of the Bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the Bottom. Planners never hear whether the Planned got what they needed; Searchers find out if the customer is satisfied.”(6)


“A Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors. A Searcher only hopes to find answers to individual problems by trial and error experimentation. A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions. A Searcher believes only insiders have enough knowledge to find solutions, and that most solutions must be homegrown. A Planner doesn’t learn from mistakes (or even from successes), a Searcher’s principal source of learning is from mistakes.”(7)

Community developers would do well to keep in mind that often the most effective, far-reaching, sustainable development projects are not those that were the most ambitious, most expensive, or most well-researched by international experts. Oftentimes the most successful projects are those that are born out of piecemeal trouble-shooting, innovative problem-solving, and local brainstorming for local issues.(8) All too often on the multinational, hierarchical level of development work, professionals and academic theorists commit “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” formulating complicated conclusions that claim to articulate how things should be done, but fail to appraise real-life application.(9) Figuring out how to generate the most impact for the most people is perhaps best determined by first figuring out how the most people could contribute their proficiencies, assets, and unique understanding of their local circumstances to progress.

Go To Module 4: Historical Perspectives on Development and Under-development >>


(1) Easterly, W. The White Man’s Burden. (Penguin Group, 2006): 4.

(2) Ibid, 13.

(3) Ibid, 14.

(4) Ibid, 13.

(5) Ibid, 13-14.

(6) Easterly, W. “Planners vs. Searchers in African Agricultural Aid.” Pro-Poor Livestock Policy Initiative (PPLPI): April 2008.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Easterly, W. The White Man’s Burden. (Penguin Group, 2006).

(9) Cobb Jr., J., and Daly, H. For the Common Good. (Beacon Press, 1994): 25.