Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Tyranny of Experts: Book Review

March 11, 2014

Bill Easterly, an academic economist and author of The White Man’s Burden has a new book out.  It is called The Tyranny of Experts, subtitled Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, and it’s published this month by Basic Books.

 It’s an odd jumble of a book. 

 Its central moral assertion is an appealing one:  far too little weight in public policy and economics is given to the rights and freedoms of ordinary people in poor countries, and far too much to the prerogatives of rulers and governments and to the ideas of the “experts” who underpin them.  And, furthermore, the more economic and political freedom poor people have, the more likely they are to work out ways of getting richer, more secure and happier without being bossed around by governments, aid agencies and the like – who can be incompetent, tyrannical or corrupt, and often all three.  Here’s the key passage, which also contains a key problem about the book:

 “This book argues that the cause of poverty is the absence of political and economic rights, the absence of a free political and economic system that would find technical solutions to the poor’s problems.  The autocratic dictator whom the experts expect will accomplish the technical fixes to technical problems is not the solution; he is the problem.”

 The book opens with a dramatic fictive device: a supposed military-led killing and mass eviction of farmers in rural Ohio in 2010.  The point, of course, is that this would have caused total outrage and the strongest political reaction and retribution – except that it happened not in Ohio but, allegedly, in Mubende District, Uganda, and in Easterly’s telling has resulted in little or no investigation and no consequences for the perpetrators.  Furthermore, the incident was (again allegedly) connected to a World Bank forestry project, which in Easterly’s telling is symptomatic of the complicity of the Bank, and “development experts” more generally, with tyranny.

But here is also where some pretty slithery argumentation begins.  This kind of thing happens, Easterly says, because of a

“technocratic illusion…that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements.  We see this in the Bank’s actions in Mubende: we will see the same belief prevalent amongst others who combat global poverty, such as the Gates Foundation, the United Nations, and US and UK aid agencies.” 

Leave aside for the moment whether those “others”, including this foundation, actually believe in and live by this “technocratic illusion”: the smear, by association, of ignoring or trampling of people’s rights is obvious, and has to be deliberate.  You believe in “technocratic solutions”?  You are “implicitly” (convenient weasel word!) an advocate of “authoritarian development”, which “silences the squeaky wheel – perhaps with a police raid and a prison term”.  So much for USAID’s support for democratic movements; so much for UK/DfID’s financing of democratic elections; so much for the Gates Foundation’s financial and advocacy support for civil society groups….you get the picture.

 This approach is also applied, mutatis mutandis, in the book’s treatment of Ethiopia, which is launched with a critique of Bill Gates’ gratification at its recent progress in reducing child mortality.  This discussion describes Bill G as “the funder of nearly everything and everybody in development”, and notes (possibly enviously, for Easterly is certainly no slouch in seeking media attention) that Gates “tends to get large-type headlines”.  So we already kind of know where this is going.  There follows an account of Bill G’s endorsement of the Millennium Development Goals as a clear target which helps to mobilize and focus effort, and quotes his enthusiasm for progress on child mortality in Ethiopia, especially after the government launched a special program in 2004.  In 1990, says Easterly, the WHO estimated Ethiopian under-5 mortality at a dreadful 198/1,000.   By 2010 this was claimed to be down to 81, with accelerating improvement 2005-2010 after the new program came into being, and this 59% reduction therefore showed a good chance that Ethiopia would achieve the MDG target of a two-thirds reduction in child mortality. 

 Not so fast, says Easterly.  Firstly, there was a margin of error for both the 1990 base-year number of 198 (179 to 209), and for the 2010 number of 81 (65 to 93 in that case).  And five years is way too short to observe a trend.  And there are these other UN-sanctioned numbers which indicate that the 2010 number was 106, not 81, so that’s a smaller percentage reduction over the whole period, and moreover the 2005-2010 reduction was much smaller.  Oh, and anyway, Ethiopia had and continues to have very poor birth registration statistics, so there is large uncertainty around the base year and all the numbers anyway. 

 Gosh, who knew?  A very poor and predominantly rural African country has poor statistics, with large estimation margins of error!  And there’s consequently substantial uncertainty about exactly how much progress is going on!  And five-year intervals are far too short to discern trends, even though that doesn’t stop the author from comparing and commenting on different estimates of those five-year improvement rates!  And therefore Bill Gates is clearly misguided, or worse, in saying that “measuring results, and then using those measures to continually refine our approach, helps us….”! 

 You would be forgiven for thinking that something is going a bit off-piste with the argument here.  You would also be forgiven for not doing what I nerdily did, and consulting the Millennium Goals Indicators produced by the UN’s Statistics Division, described as “The Official United Nations Site for the MDG Indicators”.  Their latest Country and Regional Progress Snapshots, posted 31 January 2013, indicate that Ethiopia had 1990 under-five mortality of 204 (a little higher than that original 198 number quoted earlier, but insignificantly so), and a 2012 estimated level of 68.3, for a percentage change 1990-2012 of 67%.  Without doubt these estimates are as fragile and uncertain as any of the other numbers discussed by Easterly and quoted above.  Nevertheless, on their face they would appear to indicate that Ethiopia has very recently met the child mortality MDG, and at a minimum that the trajectory of improvement seems to be being sustained.  So Easterly’s skeptical huffing and puffing about Bill Gates’s view of the Ethiopian child mortality evidence could still prove to be justified, I suppose….though, on the basis of the latest UN official statistics, more likely not.

But to Bill Easterly, despite the pages he spends on them, these statistical details are mere illustrations of his larger theme: that untold economists and development experts are all proponents of what he calls the Blank Slate view of poor countries and people, to be written on by technocrats with their ineffective and often oppressive solutions and -- maybe “implicitly,” maybe not -- usually in the service of autocrats and oppression.  Looking at relatively short-run and uncertain data and trying to make sense of them, in this telling, is just another marker of Blank Slate culpability (p.125).  So it is in the case of Ethiopia’s government, about which Easterly shows genuine anger, and so it is as the Blank Slate shows up intermittently through 350-odd pages meandering through British colonial racism in 20th century Africa, China between the wars, Colombian underdevelopment and the malign influence of its 19th century elite, and much else, including an extended and ultimately puzzling account of research into the 19th to 21st century micro-history of Greene Street in what is now SoHo in New York City.   Interspersed with all this are some (sometimes interesting, sometimes trite) accounts – parables, really -- of the superior problem-solving genius of ordinary people when economic and political freedom allows markets and human choice to operate.  At the many moments when one feels that this whole enterprise is in danger of becoming seriously unhinged, Easterly will pop in yet another random reference to Gates, World Bank, etcetera, as the avatars of the Blank Slate and the tyranny of experts – just as well, because we would otherwise surely be in frequent danger of losing the plot.

 All this said, the book has its diversions – lots of interesting if recondite information, idiosyncratic accounts of now largely forgotten economists like Arthur Lewis, Laughlin Currie and Gunnar Myrdal, an analytical discussion of why the nation-state is a poor unit of analysis for thinking about economic growth except, er, when it isn’t, and Easterly’s own take on Hayek and Adam Smith as the intellectual foundation of free societies.  I was trying to make sense of this whole jumble when it occurred to me: reading this book is like nothing so much as sitting for a while in an agreeable bar in the late afternoon.  You fall into conversation with a pleasant, learned and somewhat impish stranger, who yarns away about one thing after another – intriguingly enough, though with much salt needing to be sprinkled along the way.  It’s all fine and entertaining in its fashion, but after a while your companion is becoming just a little too insistent: a Theory seems to be involved, its outlines hard for you to discern but for your companion apparently crystal-clear and explanatory of just about everything.  He grows more emphatic about his elusive point, his finger tapping significantly on the bar.  Not a bad way to spend a couple of idle hours, but it’s still a relief after a while to take your leave, ever so politely, and stroll out into the evening sunshine.

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