Winter 2015 – Save the Pawns

Too many aid agencies treat people in developing countries like chess pieces

The Tyranny of Experts opens with a striking anecdote:  In 2010, soldiers removed 20,000 people from their Ohio farmland at gunpoint. The farmers and their families had lived on the tract for decades, but they had to make way for a British company’s forestry plantation, a project that was backed by the World Bank’s private-investment arm. The soldiers burned some residents’ grain stores and houses, in the process killing an eight-year-old boy trapped inside a building.

You might struggle to recall the atrocity. Author William Easterly explains why. While the events he reports happened as described, they didn’t unfold in rural Ohio. The setting was East Africa—specifically Uganda.


Easterly has devoted much of his career to analyzing global development, a catch-all term for efforts by rich countries to economically improve poor ones. These undertakings have varying goals—some aim to increase access to education, some to decrease the rate at which young children die from disease, others to teach tropical farmers better growing techniques. A professor at New York University and a former World Bank economist, Easterly has for years critiqued the technocratic approaches that he says dominate the field. The subtitles of his first two books illustrate his perspective: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Harm and So Little Good, and Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics.

“Morally neutral approaches to poverty do not exist,” Easterly writes in his latest book. “Any approach to development will either respect the rights of the poor or it will violate them.” There are real risks to liberty in the dominant approach he describes today: a class of experts (often brought in from foreign countries) works with government bureaucrats in a poor country to decide the future of its people.

“The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich,” he writes, “is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements.” In Uganda, the World Bank experts saw the forestry project as a solution to poverty, and had no objection to seeing the government displace thousands of local residents by force. Yet the timber plantation, Easterly notes, was no help to the families who were forced from their land. It’s hard to believe that the farmers’ land rights would have been so easily discarded—or that the resulting violence would be so obscure—if these decisions had indeed been imposed on Ohioans.

This book finds instructive anecdotes in many historical times and places—pre-communist China, Colombia during “La Violencia,” Benin after it escapes colonialism. Easterly makes clear that today’s consensus about how to promote development predates its “official birth” under Harry Truman in 1949. He goes back to Woodrow Wilson’s 1919, when colonial and racial condescension was rife, and the world knew less about the damage the “best and brightest” can do to any society, even with the best of intentions.

The default approach of development organizations, he says, is implicit acceptance, if not outright support, of whoever happens to control a country. Poor citizens are rarely consulted in any meaningful way. Experts who see poverty as a set of technical problems ignore how political institutions—or political oppressions—have created those problems. Too many modern development efforts, Easterly argues, wind up overlooking the commonest cause of poverty: “the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.”

Throughout this book, Easterly returns over and over to three modern illusions. The first is the belief that conscious design can bring about development much more quickly and easily than spontaneous solutions—which the author insists will surface wherever people are afforded economic and political rights. A related theme is that technocrats favor the collective abstraction of a “national interest” over the reality of individual interests.

The third theme is that outsiders often ignore historical, cultural, and local considerations, approaching a poor country as if it were a “blank slate.” Easterly describes how foreign economists advised Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s post-independence dictator, to use government investment to develop industry. Nkrumah followed their prescription. To raise the funds needed, he taxed cocoa, one of the few industries already succeeding in Ghana—but a crop which happened to grow in the mountains inhabited by his main opposition. The taxes eventually throttled Ghana’s cocoa business and wider economy, while Nkrumah exerted himself more and more to repress the opposition.

Easterly’s examples are sometimes more loose anecdotes than continuous narrative. But they support his thesis that residents of poor countries rarely have any say over how billions of development dollars are channeled. And that few of the development experts who wield that power ever question this arrangement.

Today’s development problems, Easterly argues, come down to a “debate that never happened” between two Nobel-winning economists of the twentieth century. Swede Gunnar Myrdal saw national governments as the necessary mechanism of development. “From the development point of view,” Myrdal wrote, “the prevailing attitudes and patterns of individual performance in life and at work” are “deficient.” He advocated “putting obligations on people and supporting them by force” so that national development could be attained.

Austrian Friedrich Hayek, on the other hand, championed the benefits that arise from a society’s spontaneous order, in which individual rights allow people to freely choose, and they migrate naturally to the optimal arrangements for exchanging goods, services, and ideas. Hayek saw no reason that poor societies couldn’t prosper in the same way that Western ones had centuries earlier. The missing ingredient was simply giving the residents of impoverished countries those same economic and political rights.

Myrdal’s view won over the international aid apparatus, says Easterly, because it’s the one in which technocracy is necessary. If expert design instead of evolved solutions is placed at the heart of development, then central planners will have lots of job opportunities. If history, language, and local knowledge are defined as irrelevant or even retrograde, then many pedigreed experts will need to be brought in from the outside. “The sleight of hand that focuses attention on technical solutions,” Easterly writes, “while covering up violations of the rights of real people, is the moral tragedy of development today.”

Philanthropists face some of the same risks as government agencies when it comes to helping the overseas poor. Private donors too can be tempted, as an illusory “shortcut,” to apply their expertise to help a population without respecting the individuals themselves. But philanthropists can also make decisions, much more nimbly than government agencies, to avoid actions that undercut the individual rights and dignity of poor people. These things, wise helpers will recognize, are not only as important as material needs on moral grounds, they are also the only reliable long-term bases for material prosperity.

Tate Watkins is a journalist and coffee-farm developer in Haiti.

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