Double standards, grateful dictators

Published by The Observer (4th May, 2014)

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (Perseus)

Last year I flew to Kenya to meet an Ethiopian farmer who had been beaten, tortured and forced off his land in the lush Gambela region of his country. In his sonorous voice, this man told me a sorry tale of armed soldiers arriving suddenly in his village and wrecking his simple life; he now lives in the world’s biggest refugee camp, separated from his wife and six children. With him were three friends, one blinded from childhood, who told similar horror stories of murder, rape and violence.

This gentle farmer is suing Britain for funding the one-party regime behind a Stalin-style programme of ‘villagisation’ that is throwing thousands of people off their traditional lands for redistribution to friends of the government or sale to foreign investors. The case is a clear example of the blinkered way an obsession with aid and technocratic solutions to poverty can lead democracies and do-gooders to climb into bed with brutal despots.

So it was not a surprise to meet Mr O – his name kept secret to protect his family – again in the pages of this impassioned polemic. It takes aim at misguided governments, myopic global institutions and self-appointed gurus such as Bill Gates and Tony Blair who praise the progress of autocracies, brushing aside human-rights violations that set back social and economic advancement. “The dictator who the experts expect will accomplish the technical fixes to technical problems is not the solution; he is the problem,” writes Easterly.

This critique of what the author, a professor of economics at New York University, terms “authoritarian development” is correct. He skewers the failure of technocrats to respect the rights of those they claim to be saving from poverty as they impose putative remedies, often imported from abroad with little regard to local conditions. He shows autocracies have a worse record for economic growth than democracies, and argues civil liberties are essential to ensure the free exchange of ideas and innovation that drives success. The word “innovation”, he points out, was originally a term of abuse.

The core argument, indicated by the title and made in slightly laboured style, is that freedom must be central to the fight against poverty. But for all its questioning of western arrogance and double-standards, this is not another critique of aid; that battle is increasingly won in academic circles. Instead, and far more interestingly, Easterly – a former World Bank economist – shows off his own expertise as he sweeps through the history of development and economics.

It is usually assumed development aid began with President Harry S Truman’s inaugural speech in 1945, with its famous pledge to relieve the suffering of the world’s poor. But the author goes back further, tracing its history to China after the turn of the last century. He blames Britain too, saying a colonial official named Lord Hailey used technocratic development to replace racism as justification for colonial rule, amid wartime fears of uprisings from oppressed subjects. This set the tone for the cold-war support of dictators.

His case is shored up with fascinating examples sprinkled throughout the book. These range from the unlikely evolution of the Korean car industry through to the story of Akwapim farmers in 1880s Ghana who discovered by chance that the best way to grow the imported crop of cocoa was on small plantations, mixed with food. The British insisted it should be grown on big plantations, failing to believe that “primitive local farmers” had found the most efficient means of production; then after independence these smallholders were almost taxed out of business on the advice of foreign experts.

Closer to his own home, Easterly tells the story of a block in New York that shows the power of spontaneous development by individuals. Over three centuries, it evolved from being a large farm through to homes for the wealthy, then it was whorehouses, followed by thriving textile factories, only to be spared demolition and colonised by artists before becoming apartments for the rich again and upscale stores.

Such examples highlight how development bubbles up best from below, especially when people are given freedom to challenge conventional wisdoms – although it would have been good to have seen more positive suggestions for change beyond his critique. He also demonstrates the amazing historical legacy of reform, pointing to one study showing Italian cities that retained freedom in the 12th century remain richer today, and others revealing how slavery still impacts on happiness, trust and success in Africa. Easterly’s own research claims that 78% of the income differential between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa can be explained by technologies that were in place by 1500.

This is a provocative book that will rile the development world. But it deserves to be read by all those technocrats who jet around the planet with their simplistic top-down solutions, often ignoring rights they themselves take for granted. Ultimately, it is a timely blast against the complacency of those who think progress and prosperity can be detached from politics. “We must not let caring about the material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor,” says the author, rightly.

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