William Easterly – The Tyranny of Experts

This book has a huge sweep, both geographically and historically, but is essentially a thesis that proposes that autocratic development exponents – whether benevolent or otherwise, whether populist or otherwise – have regularly failed the world’s poor. Teasing out the evidence for this theory, William Easterly begins his historical sweep with the early years of […]


This book has a huge sweep, both geographically and historically, but is essentially a thesis that proposes that autocratic development exponents – whether benevolent or otherwise, whether populist or otherwise – have regularly failed the world’s poor. Teasing out the evidence for this theory, William Easterly begins his historical sweep with the early years of the last century, quoting the US president, Woodrow Wilson.

In January 1919, Wilson advanced the merits of the League of Nations stating: “For the first time in history the counsels of mankind are to be joined together and concerted for the purpose of … improving the conditions of working people – men, women and children – all over the world.”

As Easterly notes ruefully, “Wilson’s 1919 statement gives us an advance hint that this history gets it wrong”. He then goes on to state “the true history of development ideas took shape while racism and colonialism still reigned supreme”. And, indeed, the author argues that the idea of benevolent autocrats steering development is intimately linked to colonialism and its apologists – but adds that, ironically, the autocratic idea also appealed to the anti-colonialists and anti-racists as they aspired to become benevolent autocrats themselves!

If the benevolent autocratic argument had a senior economist champion, then that person, we learn from The Tyranny of Experts, was the 1974 co-Nobel Prize-winner Gunnar Myrdal. He believed that national governments needed to achieve development in spite of “a largely illiterate and apathetic citizenry”.

This patronising opinion was countered by Friedrich Hayek, Myrdal’s co-Nobel 1974 Prize-winner, who believed it was individual rights that held the key to development. The two men had known each other for over 40 years and had spent that time espousing their diametrically opposite viewpoints.

“The period between 1919 and 1949 would bring sharp debates on authoritarian versus free development,” Easterly writes. He goes on to tell us that the illiberal version of development had already defeated the liberal version by 1949 – and, it would seem, that was because the apologists for colonialism attempted to legitimise their essentially racist mindsets and avoid the issue of the rights of the individual.

One such apologist was Lord William Malcolm Hailey, described as Britain’s leading Africanist, although he spent most of his career in his country’s Colonial Service not in Africa but in India. Having retired from the Colonial Service in 1932, he was approached by one of his high-placed friends to direct what Easterly describes as “a massive research project on the development of Africa – it would be called An African Survey”. It was published in 1938.

Hailey’s approach took the autocratic line, and he went so far as to suggest that ‘natives’ might even require coercion. In his view, the state could use “legal compulsion” to “improve the cultivation of cash or export crops or to correct faulty methods of cultivation leading to soil exhaustion and erosion”. Such coercion became “justified if it is shown that it is the only possible way to secure a reasonable increase in the standards of life”.

Easterly also quotes a certain O.G.R. Williams, the head of the West Africa Department in the British Colonial Office, whose 1943 memo called for a development plan which would “serve as a framework to which a good deal of the detailed development plans of the West African Colonies could be related and enable His Majesty’s Government to resist far more effectively and convincingly any tendency to rush them into making undesirable concessions to impatient hotheads”.

The supporters of the autocratic development model did not have everything their own way. For example, in 1946 a chair in colonial economics at Oxford University was created, the first (and last) occupant of the chair was a South African economist named S. Herbert Frankel (a critic of apartheid).

When, in 1951, the UN published Primer for Development, Frankel took exception to its support of technocratic state-led development.

Here’s a taste of what the Primer for Development had to say: “Economic progress depends to a large extent upon the adoption by governments of appropriate administrative and legislative action … We wish to emphasise that the masses of the people take their cue from those who are in authority over them.” But Frankel took the view that there should be a spontaneous solution to poverty, rather than an autocratic, conscious direction from a governing elite.

It is interesting to note that, in Easterly’s opinion, the advent of the World War II led to a growing apprehension amongst Britain’s colonial elite that the war might be lost if they lost the ‘loyalty’ of the non-European peoples that they had colonised and subjugated. Easterly states that “racism was becoming a serious political liability”, and in a move to counter this liability, Lord Hailey (Britain’s ‘leading Africanist’, it will be remembered) attempted to reinvent “yet again the idea of technocratic development as a justification for colonial rule”. The idea was to demonstrate that rapid technocratic development could be best achieved by imposing Britain’s superior abilities throughout the Empire.

But Britain’s supposedly superior abilities did not always triumph and one shining example of the failure of technocratic experts is the story of Ghana’s cocoa industry. During the colonial period, the British administration in what was then called the Gold Coast attempted to introduce coffee and cotton as ideal cash crops for the country. Both failed and Ghana has never developed either crop as a significant export commodity. Nor was the British idea of large-scale cocoa plantations any more successful.

What the Ghanaians knew…
Indeed, the British administration tried to develop six cocoa plantations, at a huge cost to the colonial budget, before giving up on the idea. Instead, the spontaneous introduction of cocoa on small-scale farms – after it had been introduced from Equatorial Guinea in the late 19th century by the Ghanaian trader and farmer, Tetteh Quarshie – had proved far more efficient.

“What they [Ghanaians] knew, and the British did not,” Easterly writes, “was that smallholders could mix cocoa with food crops, making small plots preferable. Modern research has confirmed that mixing cocoa with food crops actually helps the cocoa plants. The food crops offer ground cover and weed control to the cocoa plants. As one modern source puts it, the ‘continuous care’ that smallholders ‘lavished’ on their crop mix of food and cocoa benefited both crops.”

Cocoa also figures prominently in another reference to Ghana’s history. Easterly is never anything but controversial, but his critique of Kwame Nkrumah – the first president of independent Ghana – will surely raise a fair number of eyebrows. Nkrumah is seen as one of the giants of the liberation struggle in Africa, but Easterly takes the man to task for imposing a tax on Ghana’s most profitable industry, cocoa production, to pay for public investment.

Easterly explains: “Although following a technocratic recommendation, the cocoa tax policy also exposed the illusion that technocratic development was politically neutral. Cocoa production was in the Ashanti region. So the tax could just as easily be seen as redistributing income from Nkrumah’s opposition [in the Ashanti Kingdom] to his supporters. The tax only increased the intensity of opposition to Nkrumah among the Ashanti.”

Later, the author notes: “Nkrumah would grow more dictatorial … and his policies slowly strangled both the cocoa industry and Ghana’s entire economy.”

As Nkrumah’s economic advisor and one of the authors of the UN’s Primer for Development, W. Arthur Lewis, was to write in his 1965 book Politics in West Africa: “When we read in the political science books about the ‘charisma’ of the great men now engaged in modernising backward societies”, we should remember the whole apparatus of repression, the one party state, the cult of the leader, and the opportunities for corruption.

But Easterly does not confine his critical gaze to the autocrats of Africa’s independence era, he is equally scathing of near contemporary leaders such as Ethiopia’s late PM, Meles Zenawi, or indeed the former UK PM Tony Blair and the US Microsoft founder, billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates.

“Not even shooting and jailing the opposition, manipulating aid to starve the opposition, seizing the land of villagers and relocating them against their will, and perpetrating violence against villagers who protested, has been enough to shake the technocratic faith that autocrats can be trusted to be benevolent implementers of technical solutions,” Easterly comments with barely concealed anger.

In an earlier chapter, the author had noted that it turns out that “the Ethiopia that entranced Gates and Blair in the new millennium had just lost an important opportunity during Mele’s regime. In 2005, democracy had come close to winning but the development-aid-supported autocracy of Meles Zenawi had violently repressed the movement. Gates was not directly involved, but Tony Blair was not so innocent”.

This is a compelling book that continues to build on Easterly’s reputation as an original thinker on all matters concerning international development.

Strangely, perhaps the best summary of this book’s argument appears in the middle of the book when Easterly writes: “The technocratic approach [to development] – solution by experts – arguably gives us the worst of all worlds. Having experts in charge of solving society’s problems turns things over to agents who face neither a market test nor a democratic test. If they get the knowledge (including localised feedback) wrong they suffer neither economic nor political penalties. If their solutions should happen to work, they get neither economic nor political rewards. So there is nothing to spur them on to scaling up successes anymore than there is anything to motivate them to kill off failures.”

Stephen Williams

The Tyranny of Experts
Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor
By William Easterly
£19.99 Basic Books
ISBN: 978-0-465-03125-2

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