Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts

William Easterly argues that efforts to help poor countries achieve economic growth have gone astray because western experts impose top-down recipes for growth (a kind of Stalinist approach that mixes hubris and incompetence):

The conventional approach to economic development … is based on a technocratic illusion: that the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements.

The problem, as Easterly shows in this book and in his previous books (including the terrific White Man’s Burden), is that these technical solutions fail because western experts rarely understand the intricacies of the local environment, and, more important, the politics and institutions in the countries they seek to help. Often, technically flawless development projects fail because of corruption and abuse in the country that is being helped. The gleaming power plant operates for a few years and then falls into disrepair because the absence of an effective legal system that enforces property and contract rights makes it impossible to collect bills or protect against squatters.

The solution? It turns out to be human rights:

What you can do [about global poverty] is advocate that the poor should have the same rights as the rich…. This assertion of the rights of the poor is needed now more than ever…. This books argues [that] an incremental positive change in freedom will yield a positive change in well-being for the world’s poor.

Easterly does not explain what any of this means. Which rights should we advocate? How should we insist that they be implemented? What should we do to governments that refuse to take our advice? I suspect that if he gave these questions some thought, he would realize that any serious effort to compel or bribe poor countries to recognize rights would look like the development activities that he criticizes. Indeed, his bête noir, the World Bank, famously tried to implement “rule of law” projects that were supposed to enhance rights. These projects failed for all the reasons that all the other development projects failed.

Easterly provides no evidence that if we advanced human rights in poor countries, well-being in those countries, or even respect for rights, would improve. In fact, there isn’t any.