For the past seven weeks, we have used this column to examine four different reports that, in light of global climate change, looked at potential challenges in food production, particularly in developing countries. Most of the discussion concerning increased food production in developing countries has looked at the technological changes that could provide farmers with the tools they will need to adapt to a changing climate.
This week’ discussion takes a different turn. In a talk that he gave to the World Affairs Council of Northern California (http://tinyurl.com/o48mpl2), William Easterly discussed his new book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, in which he moves away from technical fixes and argues that economic and political rights are crucial to the development process. Easterly is Professor of Economics and Co-director, Development Research Institute, New York University. He has spent 30 years as a development economist, 16 years of those the World Bank. Easterly has also written The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics and The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.
In his talk, he says, “it saddens me that…too often we development economists, those of us who fight the global war on poverty, have been on the wrong side, that we have been too often on the side of the autocrats and not on the side of those who are fighting for their freedom.” He then goes on to explain how—from his perspective—that has occurred. According to Easterly, many well-intentioned people have bought into three basic simple myths.
The first myth is the belief in the technocratic solution (experts have the answers) to poverty—spraying chemicals for malaria, providing pills for vitamin deficiency, building terraces to prevent soil erosion, drilling bore holes to provide water. The belief was that this would end poverty. It didn’t.
The technocratic solution to poverty and underdevelopment “fails to ask two very important questions:” 1) who is going to provide these technocratic solutions? And, 2) “why didn’t they do them already?”
Easterly says, “the answer to the first question…is usually some combination of development experts like me advising local governments in poor countries who are usually autocratic. So our basic model is wise experts from the West advising autocrats in the Rest.” With regard to the second question it must be remembered that autocrats have little motivation to solve these problems; they don’t have to face real elections.