Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Thought on The Tyranny of Experts

William Easterly has a book talk on his new book, The Tyranny of Experts, posted on the Book TV website. Easterly is a widely respected development economist who has worked in the World Bank as well as other locations.

In his talk, Easterly seems to confound "development" and "poverty reduction", "democracy" and "human rights", "experts" and "technocratic solutions"; he seems to feel that an approach that recognizes human rights as important per se and leads to democratic rather than autocratic governance somehow does away with the need to technological improvement to attack real health, agricultural and other problems that people and countries face.

Let me make clear that I strongly believe in human rights. As Easterly suggests, poor people in poor countries too often have those rights infringed upon; I believe assuring people of their rights is an objective of development. I recall that since Jimmy Carter became president of the USA, support for human rights has been identified as an objective of both U.S. foreign policy and U.S. development policy. Of course, that concern has not been uniformly honored by all presidents since Carter, nor by all of their administrations.

So too, I believe that governments should be responsive to the will of their people, and should provide a rule of law that helps assure the human rights of their people. Government "of the people, by the people, for the people" is a great democratic ideal. So too, I would like to see my government less supportive of autocratic and coercive governments. Easterly seems to be correct that the world is becoming more democratic. Still, I recognize that in some countries in some circumstances, people have been willing to put government in the hands of "strong men" in the hope of assuring order.  In countries with monarchies and dictatorships, those in power will often not want to give up power; they may well will reject aid intended to reduce poverty if it is tied to movements towards democracy, rule of law, and guarantee of universal human rights.

Easterly would like to see the World Bank advocate for democracy and refuse services to countries that are undemocratic. He may advocate that position, but the leaders and staff of the Bank are responsible for carrying out the charter of the Bank and the policies set forth by its member nations. While Easterly may convince the member nations to change the policy of the Bank, but until he and others succeed in doing so, it will continue to act as it has.

More generally, different agencies have different purposes. It would not serve the needs of the world if the World Health Organization or the Universal Postal Union were to refuse to work with countries because of their form of government or even because of the countries; denial of human rights. The insistence by member nations that the international financial institutions act apolitically may be based not only on the self interest of autocrats, but on perception that there is a need for apolitical international financial institutions; major donors and private donors may be perceived as capable of imposing enough pressure to promote democracy without the Bank functioning in that way.

It is touching that Easterly seems to believe that the United States government will subordinate its security and economic interests to its interest in development and/or poverty reduction. Clearly the government of the USA has focused its foreign aid on political objectives. It began aid to Latin America in World War II as part of the war effort, and the Marshall Plan as part of the effort to build barriers to the expansion of Communism. It is no coincidence that in more recent decades it has focused major aid programs on Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan, nor that its major aid program to Egypt was created in support of the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel.  So too, some other donors have complex objectives for funding foreign assistance.

The people of the USA seem to me far more willing to support disaster relief than to commit themselves to long range support for holistic development -- what we might call "nation building". Indeed, the electorate seems more willing to support aid that produces great photo ops and sound bites than to deal with fundamentals of building economic, governance, political, or other institutions. They are deeply skeptical of "taxing poor Americans to subsidize rich foreigners" or subsidizing industries abroad that would eventually compete with American industries for markets. The legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government, responsive to the will of the people, fund foreign aid in keeping with those prejudices.

Development versus Poverty Reduction

Individual projects may focus on poverty reduction, but I think of development as being a holistic process "lifting all boats". I suppose people tend to associate national development with improvement in their own condition and that of their families. A government "development" program that helps only the poor while denying economic opportunities to the middle class and to the rich is likely to create class warfare, and unlikely to achieve even its limited goal. (Substitute whatever indicator you like of poverty for "income", and you my doubts remain.)

It also seems to me that development involves social as well as economic objectives and the assurance of human rights. I expect that development will lead to a healthier, more learned population with more opportunities.

Democratization versus Technocratic Projects

Easterly shows a slide in which it is proposed to fight malaria by killing mosquitoes that spread the disease. I would point out that the mosquitoes don't know or care whether you have a democratic or a dictatorial government, nor how fully human rights are protected in a country.  You fight malaria by stopping the transmission of the disease. These days you not only spray insecticides, but use bed nets, treat patients, screen windows, and drain water from places mosquitoes breed. Malaria was long ago eliminated from fascist Italy and democratic America (where it was the most serious health problems in the Jim Crow south among the poor). It was not eliminated by arguing for democracy and human rights.

Experts in public health, agriculture, engineering and other fields (yes, even economics) are needed if development is to work.

Of course, in some circumstances, experts can not function to improve people's lives. Some governments are so venial that they will try to appropriate any benefits obtained improving productivity for their members and supporters. In those circumstances aid donors sometimes focus on benefits that can not be appropriated by others, such as increasing child survival.

A dilemma for donor agencies comes in circumstances in which projects can yield benefits to the poor and where a terrible government also exists. I was involved many years ago seeking to allow the export of life-saving drugs to Castro's Cuba. There were a few drugs that were available in the USA, but not in Cuba, which were needed by small numbers of Cuban patients to save their lives; without the appropriate drug, each of those patients would die unnecessarily. Yet the export prohibition imposed by the United States as part of its opposition to the Castro Communist government kept the drugs from the patients who needed them.

That seems to me a prototypical case. Castro's government would suffer a bit from this U.S. policy that resulted in the death of a Cuban citizen. On the other hand, people would die who were in no way responsible for the policies of the Cuban government. It seems to me that in that situation, the drugs should have been allowed to travel to Cuba.

Thus, I believe that there are situations in which the benefits to the individuals targeted by aid projects are so great that the aid should be supplied even when one does not wish to support the government of the country in which they live nor the policies of that government.

A final Quibble

In his talk, Easterly mentions a situation in which the Ugandan government removed people from a forest so that a project with World Bank support could successfully maintain that forest; the project would not only protect biodiversity in Uganda, but would count as counterbalancing carbon emissions in another country (and would receive funding accordingly). This article seems to suggest that the people may well have been living in and disturbing the ecosystem of the forest illegally, and that a serious assessment had been made of the rights involved. I don't know the facts in the case, but it seems possible that the system worked correctly. Sometimes people do act illegally in ways that damage the environment, and in those cases the rule of law should be enforced.  Lets not always assume that the guy talking has the rights of the argument without checking on the other view.

So What

Professor Easterly makes an important point. The policies of governments are important in development, and policy dialog with governments to encourage democratic reforms and protection of human rights is an important function for development agencies; that dialog is most effective if backed up with the credible threat of denial of financial aid.

Still, holistic development is a process by which many things must be done well, and indeed improved ways of doing things must be institutionalized. Goods and services will be better produced and distributed, laws will be better made and enforced, people will learn more and better, etc. The process of development is best accomplished when it utilizes expertise. Projects are a useful way of conceptualizing the steps in a continuing, long term process.

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