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.
When I started work in international development in London in the late 1990s, a more experienced colleague gave me the following insight. At some point, she said, I would either catch the bug and stay in the field or I would not and leave it to go and do something else. And it is usually some agenda within the broad field that would get you hooked, she added. She was right. I caught the bug and stayed in the field, and the agenda that excited my passion was and remains governance: efforts to improve governance systems in developing countries in order to do real and permanent good. The reason was obvious. I had moved to London from Lagos, Nigeria, having participated actively in the public affairs of the country; and I had left thoroughly convinced that unless governance improved in Nigeria there was no way that the abundance in the country would lead to improved welfare for the vast majority of its citizens. That remains my conviction.
In those days working on governance issues was exciting; for, it was like joining an army on the march, one that appeared ready to sweep everything before it. There was definite intellectual energy in the field. Practitioners had poise and confidence. Initiatives were being dreamt up by different donor agencies. Funds were pouring into the field. And we began to see a new breed of development professional: the so-called ‘governance advisers’. But behind it all, I suppose, was a powerful zeitgeist: the Berlin Wall was down, communism was on the ropes, and liberal constitutional democracy appeared to have triumphed with resounding finality.
But now, in late 2015, it all feels very different globally. In the words of the B.B. King classic: ‘The thrill is gone’.
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
Freedom on the Net 2015
Internet freedom around the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year, with more governments censoring information of public interest and placing greater demands on the private sector to take down offending content. State authorities have also jailed more users for their online writings, while criminal and terrorist groups have made public examples of those who dared to expose their activities online. This was especially evident in the Middle East, where the public flogging of liberal bloggers, life sentences for online critics, and beheadings of internet-based journalists provided a powerful deterrent to the sort of digital organizing that contributed to the Arab Spring. In a new trend, many governments have sought to shift the burden of censorship to private companies and individuals by pressing them to remove content, often resorting to direct blocking only when those measures fail.
The hidden digital divide
Data is fast becoming the universal currency that defines personal status and business success. Those with unlimited access to information have a clear economic and social advantage over those for whom it is not readily to hand. For example, people who can go online can access education and the global marketplace more easily. They also have the political knowledge to demand transparency from their government. When the term digital divide was coined in the 1990s, it simply referred to the growing inequality between people with any type of internet access and those without. On this basis, clear gaps were visible between rich and poor countries, between cities and rural communities.
“Conservatives are not our enemy. They are our neighbours.”
-Justin Trudeau, a Canadian politician and the prime minister-designate of Canada. When sworn in, he will be the first child of a previous prime minister to hold the post; he is the eldest son of the 15th Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, and Margaret Trudeau. Trudeau was elected in the 2008 federal election to represent Papineau in the House of Commons. He won the 2013 Liberal Party leadership election, and in 2015 federal election, he lead the Liberals to a majority victory, moving the party from third-place with 36 seats to first place with 184 seats. It was the largest-ever numerical increase by a party in a Canadian election.
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)
Katy Wright, Oxfam’s Head of Global External Affairs, stands back and assesses its campaign on inequality.
The most frequent of the Frequently Asked Questions I’ve heard in response to Even it Up, Oxfam’s inequality campaign is “how equal do you think we should be?”
It’s an interesting response to the news that just 80 people now own the same wealth as half the world’s population put together, and the best answer was that given by Joe Stiglitz to a group of UN ambassadors: “I think we have a way to go before we worry about that.”
So how far do we have to go, exactly? The good news is that inequality is no longer just the concern of a small number of economists, trades unions and social justice campaigners. It’s now on the agenda for the international elite.
That partly reflects a growing realisation that inequality may be a problem for us all, not just those at the bottom. The Spirit Level raised questions about the impact of inequality on societies, and the rise of Occupy pointed to a growing political concern.
More recently, research papers from the IMF have demonstrated extreme inequality is at odds with stable economic growth, and that redistribution is not bad for growth. Significantly, this shift in focus from the IMF has been driven by Christine Lagarde. To the outside world, the IMF now officially cares about inequality, as do Andy Haldane at the Bank of England, Donald Kaberuka (outgoing head of the African Development Bank), and Alicia Barcena of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, to name a few.