Spare the Advice

‘The Tyranny of Experts,’ by William Easterly

“The technocratic approach ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty — the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights,” he writes.

Book review by Howard W. French, ‘The New York Times,’ April 18, 2014

Almost from the birth of “development” as a concept in modern political economy, poverty has been regarded as a problem in search of technical solutions. The key, we’re told, is finding the correct mixture of policies to promote agriculture, reform financial markets or improve health. With the right mix of prescriptions, results come down mostly to ­implementation.

The emphasis on technical solutions, from tariff regimes to industrial policy, has empowered experts, who have gradually come to constitute a formidable self-reinforcing constituency. Even when they disagree on the details, as often happens, they seem unanimous in their belief that what poor countries most desperately need is outside advice.

In his bracingly iconoclastic “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor,” William Easterly weaves together a number of sophisticated arguments to explain why this is all wrong. Easterly, a New York University economist and author of “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good,” has earned his skepticism the hard way. He frequently describes himself as a recovering expert, a sly reference to his career at the World Bank, which receives withering criticism throughout.

The book ranges widely around the globe, far back in history and across academic disciplines. One moment, the author is expounding on the importance of the 12th-century Battle of Legnano, in northern Italy, a milestone on the road to individual rights. In the next, he’s describing the causes of persistent poverty in Colombia, the powerfully enduring legacies of the Atlantic slave trade on West African societies, or the braided histories of European decolonization and the American civil rights movement.

A book so full of learned digressions could feel disjointed. But Easterly’s stories unfailingly reinforce a select number of crucial themes, the boldest being that the people of the so-called underdeveloped world have been systematically betrayed by the technocrats in charge of the global development agenda. “The technocratic approach ignores what this book will establish as the real cause of poverty — the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights,” he writes.

“The Tyranny of Experts” opens with an account of an outrage supposed to have taken place in rural Ohio in 2010, when 20,000 local farmers were dispossessed of their land at gunpoint, their homes and crops burned to make way for a commercial forestry. For the space of a page, the reader wonders if the story is true, and if so, why she’s never heard of it. It’s because the author changed the location for effect. The dispossession occurred in Uganda, which is ruled by Yoweri Museveni, an autocrat long promoted by the West. The forestry’s funding came partly from the World Bank, which had recently published a major document on the role of government in development that, Easterly reports, characteristically offered little or no role to “liberty, freedom, equality, rights or democracy.” He explains the West’s fondness for autocrats saying it comes from the misguided belief that they are best equipped to achieve results in the rough and chaotic conditions in poorer countries.

Easterly’s other major claim is that technocratic advisers attach little importance to the historical background of the countries they work on. He offers the example of the World Bank, in 1949, whipping up a 950-page development plan for Colombia in less than a year, in which recommendations weren’t specific to that country. These advisers also ignore evidence saying the greatest benefits to a society come from the spontaneous, uncoordinated actions of mostly small actors whose talents are allowed to flourish, as opposed to top-down initiatives involving the state or outside donors.

The author’s persistent emphasis on liberty, and his touting of the “Invisible Hand” might tempt some readers to write him off as a doctrinaire conservative, an inclination that might be encouraged by Easterly’s frequent citation of intellectual favorites of the right like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek. It’s the odd conservative, however, who would read history like Easterly, who blames much of the failure of development as a Western movement, and a great deal of misery in Africa specifically on the twin legacies of imperialism and racism. He brandishes this claim of racism liberally but not gratuitously; his point being that paternalism and a belief in the incapacity of others is an unexamined foundation of development ideology. “Locating the formative years of development between 1919 and 1949 highlights a critical point,” Easterly writes: “Development ideas took shape before there was even the most minimal respect in the West for the rights of individuals in the Rest.” Western racism, he asserts, spared no one, but in Africa it was at the very heart of the concept of development.

He introduces us to “Lord Lugard, the longtime governor general of Nigeria, whose 1922 book ‘The Dual Mandate’ was the bible for British colonial officials in Africa” and who “offered a tidy if disturbing view into colonial attitudes: ‘In character and temperament the typical African of this race-type is a happy, thriftless, excitable person, lacking in self-control, discipline and foresight.’ ” “In short,” Lugard concluded, “we are dealing with the child races of the world.”

And what of those conservative paragons? Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek become much more generous of spirit in Easterly’s reading than many of us will recall. “Smith understood that not all problems could be solved by the Invisible Hand of the market,” he writes, while Hayek comes across as a fierce proponent of individual liberty who favored a minimum income guaranteed by the state and attacked British Conservatives as ­“paternalistic.”

Easterly concludes by addressing the question of whether autocrats perform better than democratic leaders. By this point, he has already skewered many current Western autocratic darlings, like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. Now he takes on China, the most promising role model of the autocracy camp, to point out that China has grown precisely because it has increased liberty since the totalitarianism of Mao Zedong.

There are moments in this book when one can sense oneself in the presence of an opinionated and all-knowing expert. But I found myself returning to the introduction, to Easterly’s acknowledgment of the humility and rigor true development work entails. “There is a fear of inaction and indifference on the tragic problems of global poverty,” he writes. But “it is critical to get the principles of action right before acting, and it is that task to which this book is devoted.”


Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

By William Easterly

394 pp. Basic Books. $29.99.

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