Top positive review
Development needs no dictator
Reviewed in the United States on October 26, 2017
“Many think “The Tyranny of Experts” is about foreign aid. It isn't. Easterly says so repeatedly. The book is about busting a myth: that a dictator aided technocrats can take a country from Third World to First without regard for human rights.
Easterly builds his argument in several, informative steps. First, whether a country is rich or not today depends on its past (was it, for instance, a target in the slave trade?) and is not easily modified. Development comes from spontaneous solutions undertaken by many individuals acting independently. It cannot be planned. Autocrats stifle individual creativity under a thick maze of rules and decrees. They also prey on their people. They hamper development.
Second, studies has so far found no policy with a certain impact on growth, which is anyhow hard to measure (data on GDP widely differ.) Some autocracies grow fast but they may just be a lucky: for every Singapore there are a Congo, a Syria, an Egypt and many other failures. Others simply grow fast because they start from a low base, like China. Behind many success stories lies serious human-right abuses, like in Ethiopia. The best predictor of national GDP growth is the region's GDP growth, which has nothing to do with national policies.
Third, technocrats came in as human rights step out. US foundations began offering aid to China as Chinese immigrants were cut off from the country. The British drew a development plan for their colonies when they became fearful of losing them, development instead of freedom. How many dictators still look for legitimacy through “growth policies”?
Indeed, no “national objectives” exist, only individual ones. National objectives are objectives of some people at the expense of the others. (The “America First” chorus, who sings very loud at the time of my writing, should take notice.) A very interesting chapter picks apart the idea that skilled emigration is bad because it damages the home country: why should the home country's interest come before the emigrants'?
If you have read “The Elusive Quest For Growth” and “The White Man's Burden” you will be familiar with Easterly's style. He gives a few examples (here: forced displacements in Uganda and Kenya); finds intellectual forebears (here: Hayek and Myrdal); discusses the history of the idea and presents the current literature--including his own number-crunching. The number-crunching should be mandatory reading in any development economics class: it shows how little government policies can do to bolster economic growth.
Very interesting are the “interludes” (historical parallels to today's developing countries). In the previous books, there were different vignettes. Here we are entertained by the story of one Manhattan block, which almost makes up a book within the book. The block of Greene Street undergoes several changes: from farmland, to warehouse, to brothel, to garment factory, to slum to an apple store. All of them impossible to predict. It is the best poster of unplanned development.
What to make of the argument? I'm of two minds. I am more skeptical of the praise heaped on the autocrats of China, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and the like. But I also feel Easterly may be attacking a straw man. Most development experts I know of do not work with Tyrants because they love tyranny. They work with tyrants because there is no alternative. The leader of an important vaccination campaign remarked that he had to shake many hands dirty with blood but he felt that the end justified the means. And there is a genuine return to economic expertise, too: economists cannot turn Swaziland into Switzerland but can tell you how to bring down inflation or how to design a more efficient tax system. It is enough to pay their consultancy fee and bring some relief--even in the most oppressive state.
Overall I feel the central point stands: do not fawn over the Kagames and the Menawis of this world. Remember that development is up to every citizen, not to the government or to you, the foreign expert. Think twice or thrice before recommending a policy that hurts some people in countries where the people have no voice.
“The Tyranny of Experts” offers plenty of food for thought. To be satiated, I read it four times. So should you, at least once.