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Washington is home to a legion of people whose professional lives revolve around fighting poverty and improving public health at the global level. William Easterly argues that the idea of expertise in the field of development is fundamentally misguided — and that strategies that have been embraced actually neglect the rights of many of the world’s most vulnerable people. Kojo chats with Easterly about why he’s calling for a full-scale reconsideration of global economic development theory.
- William Easterly 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"
MS. JEN GOLBECKYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" and I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo. There are a legion of professionals in Washington, D.C. who claim expertise in the field of global economic development. People whose careers are built on the idea that the intellectual and financial capital of western countries can be leveraged to lift the world's most vulnerable people out of poverty.
MS. JEN GOLBECKWilliam Easterly spent 16 years of his life working at The World Bank but he since turned against much of the expertise to which that institution and others like it subscribe. And now he says many of the most widely accepted ideas in the global development field actually neglect the rights of the poor people they're designed to help. Joining me in studio is William Easterly. He's an economics professor at New York University and director of its Development Research Institute.
MS. JEN GOLBECKHe's the author of several books, the most recent of which is titled "The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor." Bill, it's good to have you here.
MR. WILLIAM EASTERLYThanks, Jen. Good to be here.
GOLBECKIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Bill, you're a self-described recovering expert. And I noticed on your linked-in page last night that you listed your position at The World Bank as troublemaker. One of the basic issues you've had with conventional expertise about poverty in the developing world is that expertise is a technical problem that can be fixed with technical solutions. What do you mean by that and what do you feel is the most -- why do you feel that this is one of the most central planks of modern development theory?
EASTERLYWell, it's a very appealing and seductive idea that you have a problem like Malaria and you have solutions like sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets so you don't get bit by mosquitoes. You're not getting Malaria. It seems like a quick technical fix. But we're failing to ask the question, if it's so easy why wasn't that technical fix done already? Why is there so much poverty and so many of these problems already? And we're failing to look at the political roots of poverty and the denial of basic rights to the poor that keep them in poverty.
GOLBECKAnd so the claim that you're making isn't so much that it's bad that these groups aren't necessarily going in and providing mosquito nets, but rather that the focus should be more on these roots of poverty than on the technical fixes?
EASTERLYYeah, well, the problem is as these folks go in and do the technical fixes, they're working with the dictators in power, such as in Ethiopia or Uganda, a couple of examples I'll give in a moment. And they think it's sort of neutral to work with a dictator but it's not. The dictator is not doing things for the sake of the population. He's doing things to keep his own hold on power, to stand power through any means necessary, including stealing land from farmers.
GOLBECKTo what degree do you feel like the acceptance of technical expertise in this field sends a message to the countries that you need advice from someone on the outside?
EASTERLYYeah, I think that's part of the problem. There's this paternalistic attitude that poor people don't know how to solve their own problems, that we know so much more than they do. We're going to go in and fix these problems. And, you know, this is really misguided because these technical answers have been around for 75 years. There was a report on -- during colonial times it was written in 1938 that proposed some of the same solutions to Malaria that we're still using today.
EASTERLYThe problem has never been the shortage of technical answers, as the experts implicitly assumed, as it's been the oppression of the poor that has kept these technical answers from being implemented by governments who really don't care about the poor.
GOLBECKAnd early in your book you describe a hypothetical situation in which farmers in Ohio have their land taken away from them at gunpoint and their crops burned to the ground, all in the name of making room for commercial forestry. The World Bank promises an investigation. Journalists cover the story but the investigation never happens and life goes on. The point that you're trying to make with this is that this is a ludicrous hypothetical situation that would never happen in the United States.
GOLBECKBut it has happened in places like Uganda. So tell us more about this and why do you think this is?
EASTERLYYeah, that story really did happen in Uganda in a district called Mubende where a World Bank forestry project wound up having men with guns show up at the homes of farmers in Mubende, burned down their houses, torched their crops, killed their cattle, keep them at gunpoint from rescuing their own burning homes. And there was tragically an eight-year-old child who died in this fire. And then they marched these 20,000 farmers away at gunpoint and said, this land is no longer yours. It was sold to a private forestry company and the money given to the government coffers for the government to stay in power.
EASTERLYAnd so this shows -- this story kind of illustrates what happens when you neglect the rights of the poor. You actually wind up doing harm to poor people instead of doing them good because you have forgotten about their fundamental rights, to their own human rights, their own land rights. This is the problem in aid and development. It's a fundamentally misguided neglect of the rights of poor people.
GOLBECKWe already have some callers. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can also call. Do you think institutions that support global development often do so while ignoring the rights of the poor people they're aiming to lift out of poverty? Or do you work in development and have thoughts or disagreement with Bill Easterly's book? You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. And let's take our first caller, Ego -- I hope I'm saying your name right -- from Manassas. You're on the air. Go ahead.
EGOYes, the name is Ego. I'm from Manassas and I've always believed that institutions like The World Bank, the IMF, they knew exactly what happened in Uganda. We know what happened on the Green Revolution in India. It didn't produce any rice. It didn't produce more agricultural and food for the people of India. It helped provide it to escalate to higher proportions in India.
EGOAnd the same story goes on in every developing country. And your guest said the IMF and the World Bank, they are paternalistic. And that is true. You take it from who becomes the president of the World Bank. It must be a U.S. (word?). Who becomes the managing director of IMF? It must be a European. And these people are thinking from Eurocentric and American perspective or whatever. They don't even know what is going on in the developing countries.
EGOAnd then, they come up and say, if you democratize, that will reduce poverty. Democracy has not reduced poverty in any part of the world. It has to be an organic movement that addresses the people's issues and gets them to where they need to go. A man that is hungry is not concerned about who is governing them. It's the man who can put food on his table. The man who can make sure that his child goes to school or gets medical attention when there is illness or injury. That is the person that matter to this person that is poor.
EGOSo democracy, IMF formulations, they're only for that poverty in the developing world. (unintelligible) ...
GOLBECKEgo, thanks very much for your call. You've raised a lot of interesting issues. Let me get Bill Easterly's response here. A lot from Ego there.
EASTERLYYeah well, Ego, let me respectfully disagree that poor people don't care about democracy. I think the farmers in Uganda whose homes were taken at gunpoint, they very much care about their lack of democratic rights. if they had had democratic rights they could've protested and stopped the government from doing this. There would've been a free press in Uganda that would've dramatized the story. And Ugandans would've been outraged democratically.
EASTERLYI mean, think about an example in the U.S. New Jersey governor creates a traffic jam at a bridge. There's so much political heat. Nobody will ever again think of doing anything like that. And yet, a far more tragic and serious thing in Uganda led to no accountability whatsoever for the Ugandan government, which meant that it could happen to these poor Ugandan farmers. That's why it happened to these poor Ugandan farmers.
GOLBECKWhy do you feel it's important and significant to note that the aspirations for freedom that run underneath documents like the American Declaration of Independence are aspirations for the freedom of poor people, not economic elites?
EASTERLYYeah, let's remember in 1776 we Americans were much below the level that Africa is at today. We're at a low level of education, a very high level of disease. And yet, you know, we aspired to freedom in that -- at that level of income. Dissidents in Africa who are in jail now have penned eloquent letters in their own campaign freedom, their struggle for freedom, their willingness to die and go to jail for the cause of democratic freedom. I don't believe this line that poor people don't care about their freedom.
GOLBECKAnd where do you think this aspiration for freedom, or the recognition of it, typically fits into the ethos of D.C. think tanks or in places like the World Bank?
EASTERLYIt's virtually nonexistent. They just don't get it. They think development is something that we experts do to them, and them are the poor, hopeless, helpless victims that are just waiting for our help.
GOLBECKStaff from this show traveled earlier this year to Ethiopia, a country that suffered an epic famine a few decades ago. And one that at different points in time has been a mascot of sorts for different developmental theories. But you say Ethiopia, whose strong central government has been criticized for shrinking the space for civil society there, is a delusion. How so?
EASTERLYYeah, well, we perpetually have this fantasy of a benevolent autocrat who's making development happen. And Ethiopia is a good example of this. The longtime dictator, Meles Zenawi, who was in power from 1991 from 2012, when he died of natural causes, he was praised by USAID, by Bill Gates, by the World Bank, because of doing great things for Ethiopia's development. But at the same time he was shooting down demonstrators in the street after rigged elections.
EASTERLYHe was putting a peaceful blogger named Eskinder Nega in jail. He was one of those who I was thinking of about the aspiration to democracy. Eskinder Nega has penned an eloquent letter about how democracy is not esoteric virtue of the West, it's a ubiquitous expression of our common humanity. And Meles has done one outrage after another against human rights. Including another forced resettlement scheme, like the one in Uganda. He's moved farmers at gunpoint out of their own villages into government model villages and sold the land to foreign companies.
GOLBECKThe Center for Global Development's David Roodman wrote of your book, that you avoid grappling with the quandary facing development experts, but people in the field sometimes have to choose between working with the governments to save lives. Or walking away in order to not buttress suppression. What do you say to that?
EASTERLYYeah, I'm very familiar with that argument. I think what that argument leads to is an attempt to sort of sensor the discussion that we're having on democracy and development. It's saying because of our -- our aid efforts have not figured out a way to deal with undemocratic governments, that we're not allowed to talk about democracy at all in development. So we have a group of aid operators who feel that they have to, you know, even praise the autocratic governments they're working with, as Bill Gates and USAID did.
EASTERLYAnd they're making a negative contribution to the worldwide debate on democracy and development. They are saying, you know, autocracy is good for development, where I think the evidence and the morality of the cause is just the reverse. Democracy and freedom is good for development.
EASTERLYSo, you know, in taking the aid problem, we're letting this miniscule industry, relative to the size of the whole economy and the whole population of the developing world, kind of set the agenda for the debate and exclude democracy, take it off the table. And that's -- they're censoring the debate in a way that should not be allowed. We should have an open debate on this.
GOLBECKSo are you proposing an alternative where, say, the World Bank or some organization like that, instead of going in and doing these projects, like building a dam or a power plant or a road, would be going in to encourage this kind of democracy? If so, how does that happen?
EASTERLYWell, it's not fundamentally about what us, about what we do to fix the problem. I mean, it is a no-brainer that you should not give a lot of aid to every oppressive government like Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia or Museveni in Uganda. That should be a no brainer. But that's not fundamentally where the heart of the issue is. The heart of the issue is that poor people are already fighting for their own rights and they're already making a lot of progress. Democracy has actually increased around the world over the last several decades, in every region of the world, Africa, Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe.
EASTERLYAnd the point of the -- the whole point is that we should be on the side of those poor people who are fighting for their own freedom and not be on the other side. Be on the side of the autocrats where we're promoting ideas of development that sing the praises of autocrats and give an ideological justification to autocrats as being the ones who do great things for ending poverty, when it's just not true.
GOLBECKSo do you see a role for international organizations or governments to support those democratic movements?
EASTERLYI think there are times when there can be a role. I mean, Ukraine might be an example now. Where there's a government that's struggling against great odds to move towards greater freedom, democracy, greater association with the free countries of Europe. And aid could play a role in kind of smoothing the hardships during that transition. I think that is a possible role. But, again, we're not at the center of this story. The people at the center of the story are the people who are fighting for their own rights.
GOLBECKSo if isolationists are on one end of the spectrum of engagement, and aggressive interveners are on the other, where do you fall?
EASTERLYYou know the aggressive interveners -- it depends on whether we're talking about imposing democracy by military force, which I definitely do not believe in. That's a ridiculous concept. If democracy and freedom are about the right to be uncoerced, then it's ridiculous to send an army to coerce you to have the right to be uncoerced. It's just nonsense. The whole neocon agenda in Iraq was ridiculous. I think, you know, I think there's a nongovernmental level where people take inspiration from each other in different parts of the world.
EASTERLYI think Eskinder Nega, in jail in Ethiopia, takes courage from the -- that there are some of us in the West who are supporting him. I had the moving experience of meeting his wife, Serkalem, in D.C. several weeks ago at an event. And it was a very moving experience. First she thanked me and I felt, you know, well, my part in this is so incredibly small compared to yours.
EASTERLYYou are making this incredible family sacrifice for the cause of freedom in Ethiopia. You know, that the father of your 10-year-old son is in jail, you're separated from him. He's going to be in jail for 18 years. Those are the people that we should be supporting, that we should be on the side of. And they do take encouragement from our support.
GOLBECKWe're going to take a quick break. If you have called in, please stay on the line. We'll take your calls after the break. If you'd like to join us, you can call 1-800-433-8850. I'm Jen Golbeck and you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck, from the University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Bill Easterly about his new book, "The Tyranny of Experts." If you'd like to join us to talk about international development you can call 1-800-433-8550. We're going to jump right in to take some calls. Everybody who's called, please stay on the line. And we'll start with John, in Vienna. John, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JOHNHi. I just think that Professor Easterly is painting these issues with too broad a brush. I mean, his perception of the problem is accurate, but just to use Mozambique as an example, where I worked in the early 2000s, ending the telecommunications monopoly and getting new mobile providers in there. That didn't solve the problems of repressive state.
JOHNDidn't solve poverty problems. But here we are in 2014 and cell phones are ubiquitous, costs are affordable, and that was a development project that just put one more factor on the side of democratization that ended up over a longer period of time of having a really good affect. And I worried about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if you will.
GOLBECKSo, John, thanks for your call. I mean, John raises an interesting point here, which is similar to the mosquito net point that I brought up earlier. You know, if you have these technical solutions, they potentially can help poor people have the facilities and capabilities to work for democracy. And so is it worth doing those kinds of technical projects, even if they aren't solving this underlying issue?
EASTERLYYeah, well, the cell phone success you talk about is one I very much agree with as a huge success throughout Africa. And that's not primarily an aid. It's not even a little bit of an aid success. It's really a success of private entrepreneurs in Africa, including really courageous and resourceful entrepreneurs who kind of patched cell phone towers together out of trees and scrap metal. You know, starting a whole industry and making Africa flourish.
EASTERLYI think that shows essentially the point -- one of the important points that I want to make, development is mainly driven by the homegrown initiative of people who aspire to their own greater freedoms. And part of that is the freedom to borrow technologies from foreign sources where technologies have been invented elsewhere that can really help them. Sometimes that's done through the private market. Most often done through the private market, when they just buy these products, as poor people are buying cell phones all over Africa.
EASTERLYAnd if aid can help a little bit in that, that's fine. That's great. I have nothing against that. Again, the complaint I'm having about aid is not about any of these direct technical things directly. It's the way that aid is justifying and praising and has an ideology of development that is fundamentally authoritarian, that praises and works with the authoritarian state as if it were the source of development, as if it were the solution of development, when it's really the problem. It's really the obstacle of the development.
GOLBECKWe have a call from Get Aucho (sp?) , in Washington, D.C. You're on the air. Go ahead.
GET AUCHOHi. I just wanted to mention the fact that the Western countries' support for the repressive governments in Ethiopia and other countries are making the lives of those people very, very hard because, you know, this -- especially the Ethiopian government been in power for over 24 years. They just change faces. And they just brutally, brutally take -- massacre their own people.
GET AUCHOEven last week, you know, they killed a professor on the street just for voicing their opinions. And if you keep on, you know, supporting a government like that, you know, what precedent are you setting? I mean, it's just a -- even when people are massacred you're giving a lip service, not doing anything just because your interests -- those governments are helping your interests there. I mean it's just devil's thunder.
GOLBECKGet Aucho, thanks very much for your call. So he raises this point where our interests, whether in the U.S. or in the West, we have interests in these countries and that may affect whether or not we're willing to work with their governments.
EASTERLYYeah, well, I agree with everything he said about the damage being done. Yes. It is -- certainly has something to do with the fact that both Uganda and Ethiopia are our allies in the War on Terror. That we just feel like we need to autocrats as allies.
GOLBECKAnd John Kerry kind of raised this point directly last week. I believe he was in Ethiopia and said, "We're working with them on these terrorism issues and they're a great partner, but, oh, by the way, you arrested this blogger and we need to work on these human rights things." So there's some…
GOLBECK…acknowledgment of it, but still -- and now that's the government and not the development community, but…
EASTERLYYeah, I mean, the Ethiopian government operates with such impunity relative to USAID, that it arrested these nine bloggers and journalists right on the eve of John Kerry's visit. And, you know, when John Kerry makes these two statements the Ethiopian government is very clear about which one to take seriously. You know, the support for the War on Terrorism is obviously far more important to the U.S. than its concern about the bloggers.
GOLBECKFour years ago this show did a week's worth of live broadcasts from Haiti, which is another country where legions of NGOs and aid workers have worked over the years in the name of public health or emergency release or fighting poverty. The journalist, Jonathan Katz, who was there when the earthquake hit in 2010, said on this show last year that for as long as Haiti existed there have been foreigners trying to fix it. Where do you think that compulsion comes from when it comes to countries like Haiti?
EASTERLYWell, I think it's part of our paternalistic mindset that we think that we're the solution to other people's problems, that they can't solve their own problems. I mean, Haiti has this very tragic, long history of autocracy that has a lot to do with why it stays poor. Haitians themselves are certainly able to thrive. There's a thriving immigrant community of Haitians in the U.S.
EASTERLYIn fact, most of the Haitians that have ever escaped poverty, have done so by moving to the U.S. And they've been an extremely valuable resource for the Haitians back home, as they've sent back technology and remittances and contacts to do more trade and establish more prosperity back home.
GOLBECKThere's always been a rivalry of sorts between people who work in the field in country, and so-called armchair academics, who are accepted to have expertise over a region if they haven't spent time living there. Where does this fit into your critique of expertise?
EASTERLYYeah, this whole idea of being a country expert or being an Africa expert, I think, is part of this sort of paternalistic mindset that you can become an expert in someone else's society. I mean it's certainly good to be as well-informed as possible about any local culture where you working, but you can never reach the status of being an expert.
EASTERLYAnd that mindset that you possibly could, that you could know well enough how to kind of engineer someone else's development is really the heart of the development, what's going wrong in development today, this arrogance of experts, which leads to the tyranny of experts.
GOLBECKIf the end goal in a place like Haiti is a functioning government, not a place propped up by dozens NGOS, what big picture things have to happen to get it there?
EASTERLYWell, I will say, humbly, as a recovering expert, that I don't know. I think it will -- I think -- I'm pretty sure the answer is going to involve very few NGOs and it's going to involve a lot, a lot of Haitians, including the Haitian Diaspora that I talked about before.
GOLBECKWe got this email from Davis, in Gaithersburg. He says, "Are China's motives in places like Ethiopia more transparent then those of the United States? It would seem that they're making investments that benefit their economic interests, not being a part of some charitable mission to make the world a better place. Is that better or worse in Bill's view, or just more honest?"
EASTERLYI guess you could say China is more honest about its aid. It doesn't pretend to be supporting democracy, as the U.S. does. It doesn't pretend to express concerns about imprisoned bloggers in Ethiopia. When -- but, you know, fundamentally the U.S. and then China are doing the same thing in Africa. They're acting in their interests and the interests of their own national security or their own economic interests.
GOLBECKThis I a really big topic that you've brought up. I think we've just started to touch on it. But I'd like to thank you for joining us. Bill Easterly is an economics professor at New York University, and the director of its Development Research Institute. He's also the author of "The Tyranny of Experts: Economist Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor." Thanks very much.
EASTERLYThank you, Jen.
GOLBECK"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein, and Stephanie Stokes. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. The engineer today is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. We encourage you to share comments or questions with us, by emailing to Kojo@wamu.org, by joining us on Facebook or by tweeting @kojoshow. I'm Jen Golbeck, sitting on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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