111 of 119 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2014
The fact that top-down development methods are great on paper but have not produced benefits ("so far") is a point Easterly has made before, heavily influencing yours truly in the formation his own argument against naive interventionism and the collection of "humanitarians" fulfilling their personal growth and shielding themselves from their conscience... This is more powerful: the West has been putting development ahead of moral issues, patronizingly setting aside the right of the people to decide their own fate, including whether they want these "improvements", hence compounding failure and turning much of development into an agenda that benefits the careers (and angst) of "humanitarians", imperial policies, and, not least, local autocrats *without* any moral contribution. Talking about a sucker problem.
To put it in an aphorism, they didn't ask the people if they would rather get respect and no aid rather than aid and no respect.
61 of 66 people found the following review helpful
William Easterly, an economics professor at NYU, has written several iconoclastic books on economic development. His latest book is his best, in my view. The book provides a history of development policy from the early twentieth century onward. Easterly analyzes how what he labels "authoritarian development policy" -- state-run, top-down policy -- came to dominate the field of development so thoroughly.
Easterly sees the consequences of this dominance as being tragic, with governments and their hired experts having run roughshod over the interests of poor people. His book provides many examples of callous remarks by development officials dismissing the hardships their policies have imposed on people whose lives were plenty hard enough to begin with. Easterly is skeptical of the technocratic, data-driven policies that Bill Gates has been associated with in recent years, doubting the reliability of both the data these policies are based on and the rosy assessments of the outcomes of the policies.
Easterly worked for years at the World Bank and had a ringside seat at the formulation and implementation of the Bank's polices, most of which he now sees as ineffective and, often, counterproductive. He certainly has the credentials to make these arguments; it will be interesting to see what counterarguments the development policy establishment makes. I would hate to think that Easterly's arguments will be ignored, but he notes that similar arguments in the past have been.
Much as I like the book, I do have a few caveats. I like the fact that the book is fairly brief and very readable -- I probably wouldn't have read it if it hadn't been! -- but the scholarship seemed a trifle thin to me. Particularly the first few chapters, which deal with the origins of development policy as found in British policy during the later stage of the empire, policy in Nationalist China, and U.S. policy in Latin America, seem to rely heavily on a few secondary sources. Even then, I'm not sure how thoroughly he has read some of these sources. For instance, in discussing Harry Dexter White's views at the Bretton Woods conference, he relies on Steil's recent book on Bretton Woods. But Steil makes rather a big deal of White's having turned out to be a Soviet agent, a fact that Easterly doesn't mention, although it would appear to provide additional insight into why White supported authoritarian policies.
Easterly also indulges in a little too much "roadmapping" of the "as we saw in the last chapter" and "having discussed x, we will now discuss y" and "once we finish discussing y, we will discuss z in the following two chapters." Kind of reminded me of an undergraduate term paper.
These are quibbles, though. Easterly has written an important book. One that I hope Bill Gates and the rest of the development policy establishment feel obliged to come to grips with.
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on April 3, 2014
This book is full of surprises.
In The Tyranny of Experts, the author of the seminal book The White Man’s Burden drills down into the history of economic development around the world in search of its causes. What he finds has little to do with any of the factors bandied about among contemporary development professionals.
“The conventional approach to economic development, to making poor countries rich,” William Easterly writes, “is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements . . . 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.”
Instead, Easterly maintains, the fundamental pre-condition for successful development is democracy paired with deep understanding of local history. He calls the establishment of the World Bank “the moment of original sin . . . in which the Bank disavowed the ideals of freedom . . .”
Academia has been good to William Easterly. Presumably, when he was forced out of the World Bank because of his outspoken criticism of the Bank’s support for corrupt regimes and pro-Western favoritism, he was looking for a platform on which he could continue his campaign to shift the consensus among development professionals from top-down “solutions” to support for bottom-up, grassroots initiatives. He’s gotten that platform, but his position on the faculty of New York University has also moved him to dig more deeply into the intellectual roots of his thinking. The Tyranny of Experts is one result.
This book is intellectually very ambitious. Easterly finds the common denominator for successful development not in policies, procedures, or leaders but in an environment in which the rights of poor people are respected. On the most fundamental level, he insists, the biggest success stories in development are to be found in what we’ve grown used to calling “the West.” In these rich countries, democratic government accountable to voters left them essentially free to exercise their genius for innovation. Variations on the capitalist system provided the incentives for individual initiative and hard work, the result of which has been a meteoric increase in per capita income during the past two centuries in the West, compared with a slow increase for the Rest. Yet development professionals ignore the stunning, long-range success of the West and turn instead to models based on short-term (and usually temporary) growth spurts.
In recent decades, it has been fashionable to point to China as proof that development is best facilitated by “benevolent tyrants.” Easterly finds this argument unconvincing for at least three reasons:
(1) The major boost to Chinese productivity, and hence the biggest factor in increasing the country’s per capita income, was the grassroots movement among farmers freed from collective farms to till their own land. This development began taking hold in 1978, at the same time as Deng Xiao Peng’s accession to power, but had as much to do with the Chinese breakthrough as Deng’s actions as Secretary of the Communist Party. In fact, it was only in 1982 that the Party made official the dispersion of landholding that was already widespread throughout the country.
(2) Easterly proves that the only factor that correlates closely with sustained, high-octane development is regionalism. China, after all, lies in East Asia, home of what Easterly calls the “Gang of Four” breakthrough economies (otherwise known as the “Asian Tigers”): Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Statistical analysis proves that’s no accident.
(3) The anonymous spread of the potato “increased the calories, vitamins, and nutrients produced by a given amount of land, thus sustaining a larger population” and offers “more evidence for attributing the rise of China as an economic superpower” than any conscious policy of the Party, much less of Premier Deng. I found this claim so puzzling that I checked out Easterly’s facts: lo and behold, the American Journal of Potato Research reported more than a decade ago that “China is now the world’s largest potato-producing country, and nearly a third of the world’s potatoes are harvested in China and India.” (Who knew? I can’t recall ever seeing potatoes in a Chinese meal!)
One of the most valuable aspects of this book is Easterly’s habit of finding revealing truths in areas others never consider. The importance of the potato to China is just one example. Another is his conclusion that “one of the regional factors that held back African development was that Africa had too many nations.” (It’s obvious — once you read the book.)
The Tyranny of Experts is a brilliant inquiry into economic history, with excursions into political science, sociology, and other disciplines. By making a solid case for individual initiative as the driving force in development rather than the policies of leaders, William Easterly has made a major contribution to the field. However, there in one major area in which I take issue with the author.
Economist that he is, Professor Easterly uses per capita income as the exclusive measure of development. This choice is problematic both because it’s a poor reflection of the well-being of poor people (who are, after all, the principal concern of the field) and because it presumes that economic growth — the output of more and more stuff — is necessarily good. If I earn $700 per year (about $2 per day) and Bill Gates earns $2 billion, it’s small comfort to me that our “per capital income” is $1,000,000,350. And if Mr. Gates consumes enough water and electricity to maintain his 66,000-square foot house that could otherwise meet the needs of . . . well, lots of people, that’s far from good for the planet — or for you or me. (Not so incidentally, Easterly calls out Bill Gates for special criticism for his exaggerated faith in quantifying change.)
Incidentally, I also note that in two references in his book to those who comprise “development professionals” Easterly includes only staff of the World Bank, the United Nations, and the overseas aid agencies of national governments. He excludes NGOs, many of which employ large numbers of professionals working in development programs throughout the Global South. I find this peculiar.
There is so much more that’s worthy of comment in this outstanding book that I can’t possibly do justice to it in this short review. All I can say is, if you’re involved in any way in economic development work, or simply concerned about ending poverty, The Tyranny of Experts is essential reading. Despite its flaws, it’s simply brilliant.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2014
The Tyranny of Experts is a good read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in economic development and political change (specifically democratization). Although at times his prose comes across as overly pedagogical, Easterly's writing is entertaining as he pulls together various development histories ranging widely across time - from Northern Italy's free cities in 1154 A.D. to the British Empire in the early 20th Century to Uganda in 2010. The central argument is that the development community that has engaged the "developing world" since the end of World War II (specifically from Truman's initiation of post-war foreign aid in 1949) has focused on economic growth to the exclusion of political rights for the people in countries that are being developed. According to Easterly, development experts have made three critical mistakes: (1) development programs have treated countries/cultures as if they are "blank slates," ignoring specific historical circumstances and dynamics; (2) policies and measurement of "development" have focused on the national level, whereas development may be at the same time more localized (progress taking place within specific communities) as well as more regional (the broader economic/environmental/social setting of development clearly has a strong regional component) than this analysis acknowledges; and (3) development experts have chosen to consciously design solutions to problems, whereas historically a free market has been the best problem-solver.
To make his point, Easterly examines a broad range of statistics, anecdotes, documents and quotes from development experts and organizations. Criticizing the supposedly apolitical approach of organizations like the World Bank, he shows how development institutions have undermined individual rights. In this he is certainly not alone - much of the book reminded me of a kind of cross between Michael Goldman's "Imperial Nature" and any of Paul Farmer's books about individual rights and development (perhaps "Pathologies of Power" would be a decent comparison). A significant contribution Easterly makes to this body of development literature is that he includes a brief and selective analysis of how cultural values, individual rights, and economic growth go hand in hand. Drawing on academic studies, he shows how democracy and cultural freedom work in a virtuous feedback loop; where oppression has taken place, social trust tends to be very low, which hinders the development of democracy and individual rights. This is a significant insight, although clearly made previously by the studies that Easterly cites.
Surprisingly, while Easterly examines the British Empire and American international engagement from the standpoint of political rights, tracing the strand of imperial-minded racism that tainted the origins of the development community, he attributes economic growth in Britain and America almost solely to political freedom (more by declining to mention empire and territorial expansion outside of the political context than by making this argument explicitly). Yes, there is a statistical link, as he recognizes, between the existence of checks on authoritarian power in Western European countries at the beginning of Atlantic trade and their benefit from that trade (p. 137-139). Furthermore, individual incentives play an important role in invention and technological development as well as trade and weathering economic shifts. Yet I feel that this book comes up short by being somewhat selective in the histories that it tells as well as glossing over the exploitation permitted (some would say created) by markets. We can agree that individual rights are essential and valuable as ends in themselves. While criticizing the development community for overlooking history, Easterly holds up the countries with individual rights for their citizens as examples for other societies/political entities to follow yet gives short shrift to the history of economic development in these countries themselves. America grew to its current status as a world economic leader because of individual rights, but also because of the expropriation of land in North America, the development (alongside individual rights) of an expansionist attitude in culture, and financial power that extracts value from beyond its own borders. Individual rights in Britain at the beginning of Atlantic trade may have helped the island nation gain technological advantages and dominate sea trade, but raw materials from the empire and the exploitation of workers in Manchester factories also played a large role in getting Britain to where it is today. Easterly's selectivity suggests that there is a lot of work to be done in bringing a broader history of development to light.
To a large extent, development has become a business that is about sustaining itself, whereas it should be about ultimately eliminating the need for a development community. In advancing this viewpoint, Easterly is doing a service to many. Having worked in both local and international development organizations, I will say that despite my reservations, Easterly achieves his goal of contributing to the development debate in a way that opens the floor for future conversation and research.
The bottom line: While it may not be completely groundbreaking, I do think Easterly's latest book does a good job synthesizing information on the recent history of development and pulling together various strands of theory (economic, political, and cultural) into the development debate. It is a worthwhile read.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 30, 2014
The Tyranny of Experts, by William Easterly, is an important book which deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in economic development. Easterly argues persuasively that in viewing economic development as a technical problem requiring expert solutions, development economists have strengthened the hands of autocrats and deprived the poor of their rights. His examination of economic growth experience suggests that leaders matter very little for either good or ill – the influence of leadership is overshadowed by other factors such booms and busts in commodity prices.
“This is not good news for the experts. If leaders do not drive growth, then the experts advising them do not drive growth either. The experts had promised to deliver high growth in return for giving them and their autocratic pupils more power. There is no evidence that they have delivered. The growth-payoff justification for the Tyranny of Experts has turned out to be spurious”(p326).
Bill Easterly argues that proponents of the technocratic approach to economic development have failed to establish that it delivers greater development in exchange for sacrifices in individual freedom. He does not argue that such aid always requires sacrifices in freedom. The technocrats who claim rigorous evidence in favour of some forms of development aid (e.g. treated mosquito nets and deworming drugs) can reasonably claim that such assistance expands opportunities available to individuals without in any way restricting their freedom.
Easterly’s point is that by viewing development as a purely technical problem, the technocrats systemically overlook the human rights abuses of the autocrats they help to keep in power. He cites the example of Meles Zenawi, an Ethiopian autocrat who has been praised by Bill Gates and Tony Blair for reductions in child mortality that may not actually have happened. Zenawi used aid funds to blackmail starving peasants into supporting his regime and he forcefully relocated farmers in the Gambella region to model villages so that he could sell their land to foreign investors.
In some other instances there is a more direct link between aid and the abuse of individual rights. For example, the book begins with the story of a World Bank funded forestry project in the Mubende district of Uganda. This aid project involved the forced evacuation of local farmers to enable a British forestry company to take over their land.
Bill Easterly presents evidence that poor people value freedom as an end in itself, but his defence of freedom is not based entirely on those grounds. He argues that freedom promotes individualistic values that favour economic development. By contrast, autocrats promote the interests of the kingdom (or state) above those of the individual and foster collectivist values that are inimical to economic development. That view is consistent with the recent history of rapid economic growth in countries such as China, as well as with the longer history of economic growth in high income countries. Easterly points out that the rapid economic growth in China can be related to the major change toward greater freedom that occurred in China after 1978.
My only reservation about this book is that Bill Easterly’s attack on strong political leaders (and their expert advisers) seems to me to involve too much collateral damage. As Easterly acknowledges in his discussion of China, autocrats sometimes permit greater freedom. However, I am more concerned to defend the strong leadership of democrats like Margaret Thatcher than that of autocrats like Deng Xiaoping.
My reading of history (as well as my own experience in the economic advice industry) suggests to me that strong political leadership is not always at variance with “spontaneous solutions arising from political and economic rights”. Some strong political leaders have been able to use democratic processes to overcome interest groups which have been using their political muscle to restrict freedom. Surely the relevant choice is between freedom and its alternatives.
Bill Easterly recognizes that voting is not a sufficient condition for individual rights, but in my view he does not pay sufficient attention to the current problems of democracies. Our political institutions are not always good enough to ensure that political rights produce spontaneous solutions to our economic policy problems. In recent years weak leadership in quite a few democracies has permitted an explosive growth of public debt which has ended up subjecting citizens to the “tyranny” of experts in the IMF and ECB.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 29, 2014
I read the Tyranny of Experts in two sittings. The book masterfully combines evidence from many economic studies, historical facts, and moral philosophy, and it does so within a brilliant organizational framework that shows how the systematic abuse of the rights of individuals in developing countries has resulted from the self-serving justifications by developed countries since colonial times. The author is meticulously cautious in his treatment of evidence; he never overreaches, but rather is content to open a conversation about human rights in the developing world that others are all too content to foreclose. I have very much enjoyed all of Bill Easterly's prior books, but the quality of writing and thinking in this book outpaces them all. It is simply a must-read.
Charles W. Calomiris
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2014
Easterly’s book seeks to address the following question: Why has so much development aid from the West done so little good for the Rest? He opens with a history of the “development industry”, from its inception with Western aid and advice to post-Imperial China in the early 20th C, through WW II, the end of the British Empire and the set-up of the World Bank, IMF and UN. He shows that, ironically, one of its major roots was the desire to perpetuate colonial empires by putting a more benevolent twist on their “raison d’etre” (Oh, it’s not for our benefit, it’s for yours!). The reigning development model’s origins were thus colonialist and racist, and these themes pop up again and again in the early years of its genesis. Development aid later morphed into a potent tool of Cold War statecraft, aimed at maintaining/expanding the sphere of influence of the both West and communist world.
Historically, the basic premises of the development experts were that the poor themselves are essentially ignorant, apathetic, and incapable of improving their own lot, without really looking at why that might be. The resulting development model was (and is) top-down, driven by the unholy alliance of Western “experts” and autocratic national leaders who were often those responsible for, and most interested in, keeping the poor in the conditions noted above! The experts and their sponsoring Western gov’t’s and agencies justified their embrace of autocrats as making implementation of their enlightened plans (which usually ends up more like coercion) much easier than would “messier” democratic processes and that, in fact, workable democracy was impractical anyway at the primitive level of development of the people they were supposedly trying to help. This often resulted in the trampling of individual rights, little in the way of prior consultation with, or benefits for, the supposed beneficiaries.
He then goes on to examine the historical antecedents of the differing levels of development in the real world, looking for underlying predictor variables. The most significant is respect for the individual and his/her personal and property rights, both of which have been routinely ignored by development experts and their allies. Legal recognition and societal respect for these rights allows the fertile process of individual innovation, testing, failure and ultimate winnowing down to successful ideas and inventions, to occur, very much analogous to the process of natural selection that drives the evolution of life. Here he gets back to looking at a theme introduced at the beginning of the book: Frederick Hayek’s (and Adam Smith’s) view of the primacy of respect for individual (including property) rights as a driver of economic prosperity. He analyzes the most oft-cited apparent contradiction to this pre-condition: the recent rise of China under autocratic leadership, and argues that while respect for individual rights still lags well behind the West there, relative to the relationship of state to the citizenry under Mao, things have improved markedly and that this is reflected in the acceleration of economic growth and prosperity.
In the final analysis, Easterly advocates for this as the most basic approach to development, which would be right in line with the ideas of Peruvian development economist Hernando de Soto (The Mystery of Capital), whom I’m surprised he never mentions in the book: Economic development comes from the bottom-up, not the top down, and is best fomented by establishing a strong legal (and societal) respect for individual rights. This will be reflected in a vibrant market economy, free interchange of ideas, people and goods; and a more rapid path to a better life for all of those who participate.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2014
I heartily agree that there is a tyranny of experts in "development" theory and work who do not really let the poor be protagonists of their lives. I also agree that there is not enough freedom allowed to the poor and that human rights should be considered in how aid is disbursed.
But Easterly's book is inadequate for a number of reasons which I will just note. I developed this more in a blog entry I wrote.
Easterly's concern is too focused on what I might call "economic freedom" as opposed to "state intervention." He seems to see little middle ground between "free enterprise" and "the authoritarian state" - or development agencies.
Easterly seems to see most everything in black and white terms with several dichotomies:
• Free development versus autocratic development
• Conscious direction versus spontaneous evolution
• Blank Slate versus learning from history
• Nations versus individuals
• Individualistic versus collectivist values
I don't think the world - or human society - is so structured.
I also think his view of development is narrow, since it is focused on economic development. There is more to development than money. I think there can be really just societies where the incomes are low. It's not always a question of money.
There is much more that I find problematic - partly because I believe he is working from a faulty understanding of what the human person is. His individualist understanding of the person owes more to some US and European economists than to a careful philosophical consideration of the person.
There are also problems in his logic, especially in the way he intimates - while denying - that correlation and causation are linked.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2014
There are valid moral and ethical reasons to advocate individual rights and challenge the philosopher kings. Easterly understands this question, but as an economist, his focus is on the comparative well-being of those with and without rights, with and without philosopher kings.
Philosopher kings (my term) includes the purportedly benevolent autocrat, along with advisors and experts, many of them funded by well-meaning but paternalistic organizations such as the World Bank and the Gates Foundation, about whom Easterly has nothing good to say.
Simply from the title, it is predictable that individual rights trump philosopher kings. But the book is by no means a sermon to the choir. Easterly himself once advocated expert guidance from above, and as a convert to a different point of view, he says much that’s worth listening to.
There are several aspects to Easterly’s argument.
He describes culture and history, in direct conflict with the expert school (blank slate approach) that prefers to ignore history. He learns that cultures with a tradition of individual rights as much as a thousand years ago tend, even today, to be more prosperous than cultures with a collectivist tradition.
He demonstrates that both Adam Smith’s specialization of labor and the virtuous circle of innovation are amplified by population density, particularly from the days when transportation and communication were more difficult than they are today. This is at least part of the reason for the prosperity of northern Europe and east Asia (before and after the disasters of the 20th century). North America inherited culture and technology from Europe; south America had a lower proportion of immigrants from northern Europe, and is still a step behind. Sub-Saharan Africa suffers most from this effect (but even more from philosopher kings).
He argues convincingly that the growth in China (and its neighbors) is due to the advance in freedom; change in freedom begets change in growth, even though the absolute levels of freedom and prosperity remain less than ideal.
And as for the ability of the presumed benevolent philosopher king to cause positive outcomes, Easterly points out that room for development is greatest in the Rest (as he calls it), where autocratic rulers are more common, and that statistical spread could account for some of the high growth periods. After all, commercial and technology imitation make it conceptually straightforward for the Rest to grow rapidly (part of the China story). Then Easterly looks further into specific philosopher kings and the growth that accompanied their regimes, and discovers a difference in attributable growth rate of zero, admittedly with substantial statistical uncertainty.
Finally, Easterly points out that autocrats are not necessarily benevolent. Certainly, from Frank Dikotter’s books, one would never imagine Deng Xaioping as a liberal reformer, merely at best as a less brutal Mao. Easterly points out that, just as political freedom is often wrested from below, so are economic rights. He argues that the reduction of brutality permitted the Chinese population to exert increased rights, even against the intention and will of the government.
There are surprises here. One of the big ones is Easterly’s description of four serious data-based attempts to measure economic growth, whose evaluations differ by as much as 6%. When we understand that average growth is 2% and an economic miracle is 6%, measurements that differ by 6% are evidence of a lot of noise. Even when these organizations issue subsequent corrected numbers, they still differ substantially. Long-range data has less noise, but is subject to more variation due to political environment, natural events, foreign affairs, any number of other factors. The lesson is to regard any growth number with a great deal of skepticism.
This book is a summary of Easterly’s work and conclusions. The detailed graphs, charts and numbers are accessible through the footnotes, but do not appear here.
As always, there are objections and qualifications to a favorable review:
Easterly thinks the free market debate necessarily presupposes that an autocrat decides whether the market should be free. This is admittedly true of regulated economies, but is hardly fundamental to the debate itself.
Easterly believes in market failures and the need for government to provide some services. He appears to believe that government officials are not subject to incentives, but will faithfully serve the public interest in distinction to their own. Easterly believes that the democratic process can and will succeed in blocking the advance of tyranny. Fortunately, these views are not central to the point of the book.
Easterly never defines his concept of rights, nor does he enumerate them. A weakness in the rigor of the presentation, this is also not fatal: he uses the term in much the way that most of us would understand it.
Easterly does not point out how money poured into autocratic governments merely enriches the despots and generally leaves the poor worse off than before. This would arguably be a political point rather than an economic point, but it should be stated.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2014
A enlightening book. As a person who comes from a country ravaged and destroyed by the so-called experts and their "great schemes", this book opened my mind towards another answer to the question of "what's wrong in my country?" and simply the answer is the lack of rights and freedoms. This book provides a lot of objective and pragmatic arguments towards the discussion on development, while narrating some interesting historical narratives that create a very powerful context for these arguments.
While I have question marks over some chapters and some of his far-fetched conclusions, and I while I found myself muttering "correlation is not causation" a few times while reading, the author nonetheless attracts the reader with these very same arguable conclusions, alongside many others which in my opinion are spot-on.
Every person planning to go into or already into the field of development must read this book and its references in order to enrich his/her context with regards to this modern-day-economics-dominating topic.