Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly
The rights of the poor have been unduly ignored by the development community. Technocratic illusion – the belief that technical solutions alone can alleviate poverty – has permeated official agencies and philanthropic organizations, leading well-intended experts to prioritize technical fixes over individuals. To truly serve the poor, development efforts must instead aim to support the political and economic rights of individuals against the unchecked power of the state. This is the argument put forth by Will Easterly, a renowned economist and development expert, in his influential 2014 book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor.
According to Easterly, overreliance on top-down technocratic solutions in international development has led experts to neglect the root cause of poverty – the absence of individual rights – and unintentionally perpetuated atrocities against the poor. Experts have consistently imposed their solutions without fully understanding local dynamics and considering the potential negative consequences of their interventions. Easterly compellingly argues that such failure to support the rights and capabilities of the most vulnerable has undermined individuals’ ability to generate their own spontaneous solutions to local problems, hindering development.
Although he presents an exhaustive and convincing account of the ways in which the development community has failed the very people it is supposed to support, Easterly does not offer an alternative model for the role of the expert. However, work by Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom offers valuable insights that help fill this gap. According to her analysis, experts have an essential role to play in supporting local self-governance. In other words, experts must first seek to understand and learn from communities, then to provide local institutions with the tools necessary to promote informed negotiations and generate effective spontaneous solutions. This paradigm shift, which emphasizes humanism and expert humility, is long overdue in development.
From the outset of The Tyranny of Experts, Easterly unflinchingly challenges the development industry’s prevailing approach to assistance. His main argument is that heavy reliance on technocratic solutions – such as “fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements” – has failed to promote individual rights and thus undermined poverty alleviation efforts (pg. 5). He criticizes the role of technocrats, planners, experts, international institutions, and governments, arguing that the development industry often prioritizes grand plans and centralized solutions that disregard the local context and the rights of the poor. Easterly is especially critical of international institutions, such as the World Bank, for providing funds and technical support to autocratic leaders, thus offering tacit support for oppressive administrations, and potentially further entrenching bad actors. The technocratic approach, he argues, is misguided at best, and outright malicious at worst.
In the first section of the book, Easterly sketches out the history of development, showing how technocracy first served as a palatable disguise for overt racism against the poor in developing regions. He argues that the legacies of colonialism and imperialism are evident in the technocratic approach to development, which fails to recognize the humanity and capabilities of poor individuals. Easterly provides examples from Maoist China, British colonial Africa, and Colombia to show how the “technocratic consensus on development” solidified. In each case, the technocratic approach provided the justification for experts to work alongside authoritarian leaders to implement development initiatives from the top-down, without regard for the rights of citizens. Easterly argues that technocracy still reigns supreme in modern development economics: “The sleight of hand that focuses attention on technical solutions while covering up violations of the rights of real people is the moral tragedy of development today,” (pg. 6).
Easterly argues that technocratic development is characterized by three fundamental flaws: it ignores history, in favor of the Blank Slate; it prioritizes the well-being of nations over the well-being of individuals; and it supports conscious design solutions as opposed to spontaneous solutions. He addresses each of these components in turn.
First, he rails against the Blank Slate approach, which “tends to ignore history and to see each poor society as infinitely malleable for the development expert to apply his technical solutions,” (pg. 25). Such thinking allowed for the widespread adoption of ‘best practices’ development. Technocrats, supported by institutions, indiscriminately apply one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions and implementation practices onto complex realities. This approach, Easterly argues, is not only ineffective but coercive. It requires that individuals “give up their previous institutions and accept the experts’ new technical solutions,” (pg. 28). This subsequently constrains individuals’ ability to collectively solve problems collectively and generate prosperity.
Second, Easterly challenges the convention that pits nations as the focus of development initiatives, rather than individuals. He writes that development experts “seem to care more about Zambia than about Zambians,” (pg. 199). Obsessive nationalism, he argues, has led development to place undue emphasis on the state’s power and ability to pursue economic growth. Current debates – or lack of debates – about migration provide one example of nationalist obsession in development. Easterly points out that migration often allows individuals to escape from dire situations. However, “development – based only on maximizing the economic potential of one piece of territory – has a hostility toward the rights of individuals that is revealed whenever those individuals want to migrate,” (pg. 204). Consequently, not only is individual freedom constrained, but global development is also stunted.
In the final section of the book, Easterly addresses “the biggest development debate of them all,” (pg. 10): conscious design of development by experts versus spontaneous solutions by individuals. Drawing on the work of Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith, Easterly argues that top-down technocratic solutions often fail because experts “do not have enough knowledge or incentives to get it right for the reality of what is happening at the bottom,” (pg. 276). Instead, he argues that “free development” yields better outcomes because individuals can specialize and trade, while allowing the market to solve knowledge problems and align incentives. Furthermore, in this environment, individuals are rewarded for solving new problems through experimentation and innovation, driving technological development. In this way, respect for individual rights gives rise to the spontaneous solutions which drive long-run growth and development.
Finally, Easterly dismantles the myth of the “benevolent autocrat,” explaining how the idea has seduced development practitioners into granting too much credit to individual leaders who invoke economic or political reforms. He argues that concentrating power in the hands of a few decision-makers, even if they claim to have good intentions, is not an effective or sustainable way to address the complexities of poverty and economic development. Again, he returns to the necessity of protecting individual rights to foster the spontaneous solutions that sustain growth. He concludes that “development may have to give up its authoritarian mindset to survive,” (pg. 349). It is high time that mainstream development shakes off its fascination with benevolent autocrats and technocracy and focuses on the rights and well-being of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Easterly’s critiques of mainstream development approaches are compelling and well-founded. For far too long, practitioners, academics, and institutions at large have failed to prioritize the rights of the poor when designing, advising, and implementing development initiatives. However, besides arguing for protection of individual rights, Easterly does not offer an alternative model for development experts. By the end of the book, readers may wonder, is there any role for experts in development? If so, what is it?
The work of Elinor Ostrom, a ground-breaking political scientist, and economist who won the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2009, may offer some answers. Although her work focuses primarily on issues related to collective action and governing the commons, her insights can help answer the open questions at the end of Easterly’s provocative book. Like Easterly, Ostrom is highly suspicious of top-down technocratic solutions. She argues that “policy analysts who presume that they have the right design can be dangerous…they are indeed isolated from the problems. This leaves them with little capability to adapt and learn in light of information about outcomes resulting from their policies. All too often, these ‘optimal’ policies have Leviathan-like characteristics to them,” (2005, pg. 256). Ostrom also points out that well-meaning interventions often destroy the “very social capital – shared relationships, norms, knowledge, and understanding” that allow local populations to coordinate and solve problems (interview, 2003).
Ostrom, like Easterly, is thus wary of brute top-down intervention and adamant about the importance of expert humility. However, unlike Easterly, Ostrom offers clear advice for the role of the expert in development. She argues that the “task of the expert is, first, to learn and understand, and second, to act as a catalyst for self-governance, rather than as a social planner imposing, more or less subtly, their views upon others,” (Tarko, 2017, pg. 15). In other words, the role of the expert is to observe, then to offer context-specific insights to inform deliberations among the people and the actors the people have granted authority to represent them. In this way, the expert supports local institutions and strengthens local capacity to generate effective spontaneous solutions. This humanist approach is thus centered around the individuals and communities the expert aims to serve, rather than the nation-state or region – a paradigm shift that Easterly would likely applaud.
This approach is crucial for all experts engaged in economic development. For example, take, for instance, experts in the realm of public health. As some critics argue, there is simply no need to rediscover some solutions, particularly with respect to medical interventions. Economist Carol Graham asks, “Should we sit back and wait for [deprived populations] to demand things like malaria medicine, mosquito nets, and polio vaccines from the bottom-up while millions of kids are dying,” (2015, pg. 98). Surely, the answer is no. Health is a necessary precondition for the full expression of individuals’ rights. However, suppliers must also listen to the needs that the recipient populations express. Development history abounds with examples of well-intended practitioners inadvertently providing the wrong interventions because they failed to consult and listen to local populations. Again, the role of the expert is first to listen, accumulate information, and then provide the necessary feedback or resources for the communities they are supporting.
The cutting critiques leveled by Easterly make it clear that expert hubris and lack of respect for individuals have characterized mainstream development from its inception to this day. If future development is to correct its past injustices and support the world’s most vulnerable people, humanism and humility are crucial. Ostrom offers a better way forward. She shows that the role of the expert is to learn from and support local communities, strengthening self-governance and catalyze bottom-up spontaneous solutions for development. Embracing such an approach in development can foster true empowerment, accountability, and respect for individual rights. Development must be guided by the needs and voices of local communities to build a world in which both the rich and the poor can be equally free.