The Tyranny of Experts: a book review

I had taken William Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts book with me while visiting Japan early April in the hope of finishing it there, but even Easterly’s vivid prose and often dark humour wasn’t able to detract me from Japan’s fascinating culture and landscapes.

But here it is finally, my review of his latest controversial – and brilliant –  book.

I’ll start off with a short summary of his thesis and main arguments, will move on to a critical review of some of the points he makes and will end by looking at how to use the information from the book to feed my own work as a development/communications professional.

The debate that never happened in the development community

There is nothing wrong with these technical solutions or those who implement them, but it is an illusion that the technocratic approach makes irrelevant the global battle of ideas between individual rights and autocracy.

The main idea of the book is pretty straightforward. There is not one unique form of development but two: what Easterly calls ‘authoritarian development‘ which is planning-based and expert-led, and ‘free development‘ which focuses on problem-solving by individuals.

The problem is that today the former has become the norm in development work, whereas the latter is hardly ever considered, or only marginally. According to Easterly, “poverty is a shortage of rights”, not a shortage of money.

Recent research has somewhat challenged the dominant development position by demonstrating that it was wrong in the following assumptions:

  • development is not about a blank slate, but about taking into account the weight of history;
  • the nation as the centre-piece of development is a limiting view of development, which benefits greatly from the involvement of non-State actors;
  • it is not planification that generates prosperity and growth, but spontaneous solutions to problems that arise. 

While we think development as a concept started withTruman’s famous speech in 1949, Easterly’s shows how the attitude of Westerners in China and Africa between the two world wars actually shaped development thinking more than we can imagine. As such, development was still fraught with racism due to still large colonial empires. In the book I discovered that Jan Smuts, one of the co-writers of the United Nations Charter, was actually a fervent advocate of the white rule in South Africa. This could explain why there is not one single reference to political rights of people in the UN Charter.

The author then looks at each of these arguments to demonstrate how development aid has missed out on the opportunity for a real debate between these two forms of development, and what the situation looks like today with regards to individual rights in the development field.

The examples and studies used are well chosen and Easterly shows his mastery of storytelling by only using a couple of examples from different continents (New York, Ghana, China) that he intertwines skillfully to create a reassuring sense of familiarity with the examples and arguments presented. His arguments on the right to migration, the role of regions vs States and how innovation cannot step from a planification exercise are really worth a read. They really struck a sensitive chord with me and resonate with a lot of other books and articles I read in the past couple of years on social innovation and doing development differently.

Beware of the ‘benevolent autocrat’ bias

But the chapter that I believe is a must-read for all development practitioners and media professionals is the one on the ‘benevolent autocrat’ bias.

Easterly explains how we are seduced by the idea of benevolent autocrats because of several cognitive biases:

  • we mistake the idea that most autocrats are growth miracles, which is false, with the idea that most growth miracles are autocrats (statistically true, since many developing countries are also led by autocrats);
  • there is also a media bias towards covering more benevolent autocrats, which was uncovered in a study of New York Times articles published between 1960 and 2008;
  • the ‘hot hand’ bias exemplified in basketball means that we think someone will be successful again if they were already successful in the past (when in reality, the odds are 50/50);
  • the ‘fundamental attribution bias’ is our tendency to attribute success to individual characteristics of people rather than to external factors; similarly, we attribute too much of a group’s success to its leader and not to group dynamics or external factors. 

To conclude Easterly uses studies and real-life examples to show how cultural, regional and long-term perspectives give a much better idea of what generated or will generate growth than looking at the individual performance of autocrats (or any other policy maker by the same token).

Country development
Autocracies show a much higher variance in growth rates than democracies, which explains why ‘growth miracles’ are often attributed to autocrats.

Taking Easterly’s ideas further

The genius of technocratic development continues to be its ability to serve groups with nearly opposite values. To those in rich nations with antipathies to other ethnic groups, it justifies immigration restrictions; to those humanitarians in rich nations concerned about those who suffer from hunger and diseases, it offers relief from their guilt feeling (the ‘White Man’s Burden’ he epitomised in another book)

Sanitation in New York was a big issue in the 19th century. A bit like in some Sub-Saharan African countries today. So how did New York overcome this problem?

Easterly’s arguments really hit home and are very convincing. The problem is that sometimes they compare things or events that are difficult to compare. One example is comparing New York sanitary situation in the 19th century with that of any poor and health-deprived Sub-Saharan African country today. Even if the data looks like the situation is similar on the ground, there is one element which is completely different. In the 19th century, New York, with all its health issues, was probably still quite advanced in terms of where it stood with regard to its sanitary situation, compared to other places around the world. And it wasn’t necessarily trying to compare itself to other areas when looking to improve.

What happens today, however, is different. We more or less know how to improve the sanitary situation of any poor country, what we don’t control is how long it will take. But most people in the development community, or in the media, will consider that taking half a century to get Burundi to the same level as New York in the early 20th century is unacceptable, because we can calculate exactly how many people will die if every year if we don’t address the sanitation issue in this country.

I’d be curious to know how Easterly takes account of this criticism, if he has a way of answering it, because I can sympathise with this point, but I can’t really see how to avoid it.

Learning from Easterly in our daily work

Since Easterly doesn’t offer a practical guide on how to implement his ideas in everyday development work – and that’s not the purpose of the book anyway, here’s my take on how we can be more attuned in the development community to the dangers of blank slate vs history, the emphasis on nations vs on non-State actors, and planification vs spontaneous solutions:

  • combine budget support to governments and blending mechanisms with support to civil society organisations and other non-State actors. This is happening more and more and there are several aid programmes that only work with non-State actors, such as the EU Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR);
  • support local social innovation and entrepreneurship to generate more spontaneous solutions. The problem here is often linked to traditional evaluation methods. So if this is to work, evaluation of results also needs to be adapted to this new approach, where you measure the second-level impact (ie what were these teachers able to do with the training we offered, rather than how many trainings we offered to how many);
  • move towards a rights-based approach in development work. There are some areas where this is easier to do, on gender issues for example or environmental rights. But it often doesn’t solve the fundamental rights issue (right to vote for example) in the countries where these rights-based approaches are embedded into development projects.
  • switch from goals to values: Easterly is very critical of development goals (the SDGs weren’t adopted at the time of the book’s publication, but the author would certain bark at them now) because as he has sought to demonstrate, planification doesn’t solve people’s problems, it’s people themselves (through markets) who solved problems, directly or indirectly (by voting for those who care about these issues).

For me it helps to see the SDGs not just as goals with indicators to evaluate progress but also and foremost as shared values with a minimum core that all countries and partners in this endeavour should respect. 

How do you make sense of Easterly’s critical approach to today’s development work? Did reading this book change the way you think or work?

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