Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In October 2015, the featured blog post is "Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths" by Brian Levy.
In his 2014 book, The Tyranny of Experts, Bill Easterly uses his rhetorical gifts to make the case for ‘free development’. In so doing, he takes his trademark blend of insight and relentlessness to a new level. But in this moment of history that has been described by democracy champion, Larry Diamond as a “democracy recession”[i], is it helpful to argue by taking no prisoners and not letting inconvenient truths get in the way?
Easterly, to be sure, communicates powerfully two big and important ideas. The first is that, as per his title, behind a seemingly technocratic approach to development are some inconvenient political realities. As he puts it:
“The implicit vision in development today is that of well-intentioned autocrats advised by technical experts…. The word technocracy itself is an early twentieth century coinage that means ‘rule by experts’” (p.6)
In surfacing the implausible assumptions which underlie a world view of ‘rule by experts’, Easterly does us a service. One cannot engage effectively with today’s difficult realities on the basis of a vision of decision-making which ignores the inconvenient truths of self-seeking ambition, of contestation over ends among competing factions, and of imbalances of power which marginalize the interests of large segments of society. (Of course, as this essay will explore, many of these difficult realities arise – in different ways – in both predatory authoritarian and messily democratic settings.)
The second powerful idea is The Tyranny of Experts paean to freedom – “a system of political and economic rights in which many political and economic actors will find the right actions to promote their own development”. (pp. 215-216). With eloquent libertarian rhetoric of a kind which Ayn Rand would no doubt have applauded, Easterly argues that:
“we must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor”. (p.339)
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The extraordinary historical document transcribed below was recently found at the California State Library in Sacramento. It records an interview of Napoleon Bonaparte made by a reporter of the San Jose Weekly Visitor (today the San Jose Mercury) dated July 14th, 1865, which for unknown reasons (sic) was never published.
Question: Thank you for allowing us the time. Why breaking your silence with an interview now?
Answer: I am turning 96 next month and I know that my last days are fast approaching. It is important to set the record straight.
Q: Didn’t you die in Santa Helena in 1821?
A: During my trip to what was supposed to be my final exile, Talleyrand had secretly arranged for me to be transferred to the Schooner Casuarina, which after several weeks at sea finally took me to the port of Yerba Buena, today’s San Francisco. We arranged for one of my doubles who usually played the role of a decoy during battles, Chef d'Escadron Deschamps, to be imprisoned which is why he was seldom seen at Longwood. He died there and is now buried at Les Invalides in Paris. He is a real hero.
Q: Why the West coast of America?
A: The weather is great. I purchased an old olive grove near San Jose and have farmed it ever seen, just like my family did for generations in Corsica. I have developed two new varieties of olives and invented a more efficient press for making olive oil.
Q: History sees you as a war-monger…
A: Nothing farther from the truth. I was always attacked by coalitions defending the old monarchies, but I know that I was on the right side of history. My main objective was always to consolidate the Revolution, and its principles of fraternity, liberty, and equality.
Q: By equality do you mean the abolition of classes recently postulated by German philosopher Karl Marx?
A: What I mean is equality of opportunities, under the principle that we are all born free and equal under the law. Trying to equalize people within a society leads to dictatorship and abuse of power. Civil and economic freedom is the essence of a true democratic society and lasting peace.
Duncan Green provides a series of lightbulb moments from a recent conference bringing together historians and campaigners.
Part of the feedback on last month’s post calling for a ‘lessons of history’ programme was, inevitably, that someone is already doing it. So last week I headed off to Kings College, London for a mind expanding conference on ‘Why Change Happens: What we Can Learn from the Past’. The organizers were the History and Policy network and Friends of the Earth, as part of its excellent ‘Big Ideas’ project (why haven’t the development NGOs got anything similar?) About 70 people, a mix of historians and campaigners. Great idea.
The agenda (12 UK-focussed historical case studies on everything from resistance to the industrialization of farming post World War 2 to municipal activism in Victorian Britain to why England (though not Scotland and Ireland) hasn’t had a famine since the 16th Century) was great, as was the format (panels, followed by table discussions, no Q&A).
James Deane, Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action, reflects on Brian Levy's recent book, Working With the Grain, and the interaction of governance and media development goals.
I was prompted to write this post by Brian Levy, the rightly respected governance guru of the World Bank, now Senior Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University. Brian is the author of Working With the Grain: integrating governance and growth in development strategies, one of the most influential books on governance right now. We met at the OECD DAC Governance Network last week, which is where donors get together to share their insights into how to better support improved governance in their development strategies. I was asked to respond to a presentation Brian made on his book.
Against the Grain
My initial reaction when I first heard of Against the Grain was, I confess, a kind of resigned frustration. I thought, “Here we go again. Another academic apologia telling us how it didn’t really matter how horrible, authoritarian or power-hungry a government was. As long as they ‘got the job done’ (in terms of reducing poverty), it was fine by the donors who supported them.”
That reaction was partly prompted by the title of Brian’s book. By coincidence, I have on my shelves at home the memoir of a hero to many in the media world, Geoffrey Nyarota, the renowned editor of Zimbabwe’s Daily News, among other newspapers. The blurb for that memoir says this: “The newspapers [Nyarota] edited were often the lone voice of dissent against a government that had betrayed its people. They chronicled the decline of the country under the Mugabe regime, and how the freedom achieved in the war of liberation was replaced by wholesale government corruption and oppression”.
Nyarota entitled his book, Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Zimbabwean newsman.
"Everybody since the ‘60s has been saying the nation is a fiction, the nation is an imaginary unity, but people didn’t connect the dots and say all human endeavors sprang from the same principle.”
- Yuval Noah Harari, author of the international bestseller Sapiens. He is a professor and lectures at the Department of History, Faculty of Humanities, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Please Do Not Teach This Woman to Fish
Is there anyone out there who doesn't think small business is the lifeblood of any economy? From Washington to Warsaw, politicians and pundits just can't speak highly enough of plucky entrepreneurs. Even in poor countries, entrepreneurship is one of the most important forces underpinning economic growth, but the best way to raise living standards and reduce poverty is not necessarily to make everyone an entrepreneur. So why do so many costly development programs apparently ignore this fact? Once upon a time, people who wanted to fight poverty believed in direct approaches that solved identifiable problems one by one. If you wanted to make farmers more productive, you gave them fertilizer. If you wanted to boost manufacturing, you set up factories. To help both of these sectors grow and export goods, you built roads and ports. These kinds of investments quelled hunger and raised incomes in many countries. But recently, an indirect approach arose with promises of still greater benefits.
Where Next for Aid? The Post-2015 Opportunity
This joint ODI-UNDP paper looks at whether development aid will remain important in the post-2015 era, and asks how the old aid model should change in response to a dramatically new world and new sustainable development challenges. The paper suggests that the label “international public finance for sustainable development” – or IPF4SD – is a more accurate description of the types of interventions that need to be funded in the post-2015 era. This finance will also be needed over the long-term. The authors suggest ways in which these funds could reliably be raised over the long-term, as well as how the architecture which mediates IPF4SD could be improved.
Foreign aid in its modern form originated in the early 1940s. Following the Second World War, Europe faced a critical shortage of capital for physical reconstruction. The response was the commonly known Marshall Plan under which the USA transferred some 2-3% of its national income during the peak years to help reconstruct Europe. The achievements under the Marshall Plan spawned hope about the effectiveness of foreign aid in other contexts. The attention of rich nations turned to the emerging independent developing nations in the 1960s. The multilateralism of aid at the time was seen as more efficient and less political than bilateral aid leading to considerable expansion of the activities of the UN, World Bank, and other multilateral agencies.
Historically there have been many who claim that not enough aid is given. The immediate post-War period witnessed large-scale funding through the Marshall Plan and growing aid to developing countries, focusing on technical assistance. In 1951 a UN commission recommended an increase of aid, to about $5 billion a year, to help countries increase economic growth to 2%. The most commonly quoted Partners in Development report argued for an increase in aid to 0.7% percent of Gross National Income of donors and to increase the efficiency of aid.
Conditions changed abruptly towards the end of the 1970s with the second oil shock, leading to the international debt crisis. Macroeconomic imbalances became widespread among developing countries. Focus in development strategy and policy shifted to internal policy failure. Achieving external and internal balance was widely perceived as an essential prerequisite for renewed development. Trade, not aid, became the dominant slogan among many leaders and economists. The optimism around 1970 was followed by ‘structural adjustment’ and stabilization of economies, and ‘aid fatigue’. Nevertheless, throughout the 1980s there were calls for increasing aid. The 1990s witnessed sharp reductions in Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) with the end of Cold War and tightening budget constraints in donor countries.
A major convergence of economic and political factors around the early 1990s led to a widespread feeling of there being a problem in the field of aid-promoted development policy. Policymakers at a global level faced a new set of problems in the context of a shift arising from the end of the Cold War. Aid could move away from being regarded largely as a geopolitical strategic tool. In addition, the Asian economic crisis and the lackluster performance of sub-Saharan Africa posed serious challenges.
While there is now a consensus that institutions and history matter for understanding development outcomes, the development policy community has largely failed to take the third (seemingly logical) step, which is to recognize that historians—and the discipline they represent—might matter. Historians hardly speak with a single voice or from a unified perspective, but at best their absence from policy discussions leads to lost opportunities to enrich the quality of scholarship and expand the range of policy responses; at worst it results in partisans erroneously or selectively invoking ‘history’ in support of their cause, or to claims (as one of us heard in a recent meeting) that “the history of the Middle East is largely a black box” merely because the methods historians deploy are not always those preferred by economists. Needless to say, it is almost impossible to imagine the reverse situation, namely a prominent policy issue in which there was a consensus that economics matters but that economists were somehow not consulted.
"Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things. And they rarely know what they're doing."
Quoted from Why the West Rules—For Now