throw out the development experts, bring in … everybody?

Bill Easterly – the development industry’s angriest critic* – had a column in the Financial Times this week.


[I didn’t realize, as I wrote this off-line on my commute home yesterday, that Chris Blattman was writing something closely related at more or less the same time.]


He starts out with a reasonable argument that experts don’t know that much about how to make poor countries grow:


The report of the World Bank Growth Commission, led by Nobel laureate Michael Spence, was published last week. After two years of work by the commission of 21 world leaders and experts, an 11- member working group, 300 academic experts, 12 workshops, 13 consultations, and a budget of $4m, the experts’ answer to the question of how to attain high growth was roughly: we do not know, but trust experts to figure it out…


Why should we care about the debacle of a World Bank report? Because this report represents the final collapse of the “development expert” paradigm that has governed the west’s approach to poor countries since the second world war. All this time, we have hoped a small group of elite thinkers can figure out how to raise the growth rate of a whole economy. If there was something for “development experts” to say about attaining high growth, this talented group would have said it.


What went wrong? Experts help as long as there are useful general principles, such as could be established by comparing low-growth and high-growth countries. The Growth Commission correctly pointed out that such an attempt to find secrets to growth has failed. The Growth Commission concluded that “answers” had to be country specific and even period specific. But if each moment in each country is unique, then experts cannot learn from any other experience – so on what basis do they become an “expert”?


Unfortunately, Easterly then turns expert!  What’s the magic bullet?


The answer is freedom for multitudinous individuals to figure out their own answers. (emphasis added)


The evidence provided is a quote from Friedrich Hayek (another expert) and five examples: “old, despotic, poor Europe compared with modern, free, rich Europe,” “South Korea compared with North Korea, former West Germany compared with East, New Zealand compared with Zimbabwe.”


I don’t disagree that freedom leads to growth, and I make no defense of development “experts,” but this analysis is about as helpful to poor countries in implementation and evidence as, well, saying “we do not know, but trust experts to figure it out.”


* I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Easterly this week, and he is pleasant and funny.

* Easterly is the development industry’s angriest critic among mainstream economists.  Outside our profession, there are definitely angrier.

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