“It’s time to recognize the principle that men and women really are created equal,” Professor William Easterly declared at a promotion of his new book Tyranny of Experts. Lauren Corr was there for Tutawaza.
Speaking to a room full of students, professors and development industry professionals at New York University’s Development Research Institute, Easterly outlined his perspective on a rights-based approach to international development.
He began with a story from Uganda where 20,000 farmers were forced off their land for a tree-planting project by a company with World Bank financing. This event took place in February 2010. Little was heard throughout the Western world about it. Under international pressure, the World Bank reached an agreement with the Ugandan village to provide funds for a community-run cooperative. However, the ripple effect felt throughout the community further prolongs what Easterly refers to as “concealing the moral double standard on human rights” exacerbated by the “experts” who implement development projects in developing countries. “The all-powerful autocrat is not the solution; he is the problem,” says Easterly.
Easterly identified three myths that he believes plague international development.
The first is the problem of development projects with “value-free, morally neutral technical solutions” that consistently ignore the rights of the poor. The Uganda case fits this pattern – improving the value of the land at the expense of the farmers’ livelihoods. Those implementing such projects are the “powers that be” or Western “experts.” Those Western experts give what are thought to be benevolent autocrats in developing nations a checklist of solutions and assume it will be implemented. However, this process overlooks the rights abuses that are taking place as a result of authoritarian development.
Easterly refers to the second myth as the “blank slate.” Most post-colonial countries attempting to develop are not coming with a blank slate. Easterly urges development professionals who are searching for an answer on how to succeed at development not to start by excluding those countries that succeeded at development. Back in the early 20th century, Western examples of development were thought not to be applicable in developing nations. Colonialism was in full force and those in the Western world could not imagine people in the third world fighting for their personal rights. To this day, colonial authoritarian development is widely implemented, he says.
However, Easterly says colonial authoritarian development did not work and a new way of development, one grounded in a focus on human rights, must become the new way forward. This must be done even if it is politically convenient to adopt the authoritarian way of development. Many development experts implementing so-called solutions have pretended that bad governments are in fact good ones; that practice has resulted in the ever-growing development problems to date. Easterly says autocrats are not naturally benevolent; they do the right thing only when they are held to account and pressured by demands for individual rights. This is why Easterly believes in the importance of individual rights and freedoms so that people can change their own countries for the better.
The third myth that plagues international development is what Easterly calls “authoritarian growth miracles.” Easterly points to China’s recent development success as a prime example of this myth. Successful growth leads development experts to ignore the fact that a government is non-benevolent. As a result, human rights abuses are ignored.
Easterly finished by asking for an end to the silence on human rights within development. More work needs to be done on advocacy and human rights in developing nations, encouraging individual freedoms and promoting free development.