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Bill Easterly’s new book: brilliant on technocrats, flawed on rights, wrong on aid and hopeless on China

June 3, 2014
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This review first appeared in the June issue of the IMF’s Finance and Development magazine.Tyranny of Experts cover

I loved the premise and conclusions of William Easterly’s new book. The intervening 300 pages gave less cause for celebration.

Easterly sees development as hijacked by technocrats: “The technocratic illusion is that poverty results from a shortage of expertise, whereas poverty is really about a shortage of rights.” The founding of the World Bank is the moment of original sin (the IMF gets off lightly). The resulting polemic is sweetly written, packed with fascinating human interest stories to bring alive what could have been dry conceptual debates.

For Easterly, the individual is hero, either unleashed to transform the world or confounded by the malignity of politicians. It is a quintessentially American, even Hollywood, take on the human condition. His view of power is summed up in the title of the chapter on institutions: “We oppress them if we can.”

Easterly’s gurus are Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek; he reserves his scorn for development economists like Gunnar Myrdal and W. Arthur Lewis, who created a special economics that discarded free choice and individualism.

The book contains thought-provoking accounts of the origins of the technocratic approach, which Easterly dates to 1919 (not Truman’s 1949 speech, customarily cited as the dawn of aid). He sees it as rooted in attempts to divert attention away from the rights agenda, whether over U.S. anti-Chinese discrimination in the 1920s and 30s, Britain’s attempts to resist postwar decolonization, or the struggles over civil rights in the 1950s and 60s. He traces a direct lineage to more recent wars (Cold; on Terror; on Drugs), where a focus on technocratic development enabled a convenient blind eye to be turned when rights violators lined up on the West’s side.

This readiness to forget rights was music to the ears of dictators of all stripes, who grabbed the planner approach (or at least its language) as a way to ignore the opposition and consolidate their own economic and political power. He sees this abandonment of individual rights as the “moral tragedy of development today.”

gandhi and metrics h-t aid thoughtsThere is much to agree with here: his criticism of the blank slate approach, which ignores national and local specificities; the abuse of individual rights in the name of some higher national purpose; and the efficacy of spontaneous solutions rather than conscious design (neatly equating planners with anti-evolutionists).

Easterly even comes out as a growth skeptic: “If there is one number to which the rights of millions will be happily sacrificed, it is the national GDP growth rate.”

But his argument founders on the China (or more broadly east Asia) question. Confronted with the historic reality that high-speed growth in east Asia has taken place under a variety of autocratic systems (the so-called developmental states), advocates of the American Dream confront two options: either accept that there may be trade-offs between growth and rights or try to explain away the east Asian miracle as a triumph for individual rights and market forces.

The World Bank attempted the latter with its much-derided East Asian Miracle of 1993, but Easterly makes that exercise in spin look positively timid: “There is more evidence for attributing the rise of China as an economic superpower to the anonymous spread of the potato than to Deng Xiaoping’s economic policies.” This is desperate stuff.

By entering the terrain of rights, he expands on his earlier book, The White Man’s Burden, which put forward a distinction between searchers and planners—a dichotomy I have found very useful over the years. But his grasp of rights is selective and flawed. For Easterly, rights are always individual, never collective—no mention of trade unions, women’s or indigenous movements, or producer organizations.

Moreover, this portrayal of heroic individuals struggling for rights draws extensively on U.S. history, but completely ignores the institution that in IMF F&D logorecent years has done more than any other to promote human rights: the United Nations. That those contemptible planners and bureaucrats in New York should be advancing rights for all sorts of marginalized groups around the world clearly contradicts the premise, so they must be airbrushed out of the picture.

Finally, Easterly’s conclusion is that if you care about rights, you should oppose aid. Mine is the opposite. Done well, aid can support poor people’s struggles (individual and collective) for their rights, something I have seen firsthand in numerous countries in my work for Oxfam.

If you want to dig deeper, here’s Bill Easterly defending his critique of aid against Owen Barder and links to some of the other reviews and blog coverage (it’s generated quite a bit, haven’t had time to check if these links are just to the positive ones, but surely Bill wouldn’t let anyone mess with the data like that?)

 

2 comments

  1. I completely agree with this review, especially the critique of Easterly’s understanding of rights. Inexplicably, he names political and economic rights as ‘fundamental human rights’ (and therefore addresses his analysis to those rights), but excludes social and cultural rights, which clearly have the same status in international law as economic rights. I wonder if it’s because accepting the equal footing of all of those rights demands a recognition of the central role of governments (and therefore, the need for external assistance in the way of aid) to support the realisation of the right to health, education, housing, etc.

    I’m surprised that there was no one in Easterly’s team of collaborators/editors with a sufficient understanding of the legal and normative human rights framework to point this out, especially given the centrality of human rights to the premise of the book. An example of the tyranny of economists? :)

  2. I was also struck by the book’s problematic approach to rights. Its claim that the debate about the role of rights in development has been missing ignores a rich array of literature on the topic. Disappointingly, this precludes the more interesting discussion about whether rights programming itself has become too technocratic, as you highlight. Perhaps that will be the topic of the sequel!

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