International Development’s Appalling Human Rights Record

By Hugh RobertsMay 30, 2014

International Development’s Appalling Human Rights Record

The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly

INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT, which encompasses some of the most expansive, perplexing and fateful questions and absorbs a vast amount of resources — emotional, intellectual, political and financial  — has largely been pursued since its inception as a technical subject. There have been many conscientious objectors to this technocratic approach, but there is something indomitable about William Easterly, and he has struck the development establishment where it is weakest: its appalling human rights record.

Easterly has been at the forefront of recent efforts to illuminate this record, which he catalogued from Cameroon to Cambodia in The New York Review over three years ago.[i] It involves, principally, national development agencies from USAID to a handful of European ministries, and a network of international institutions, above all, the World Bank. It can only be described as a habitual complicity in the violation of the most basic rights of some of the world’s most vulnerable and voiceless people.

This complicity takes various forms. Development aid can be used directly for political oppression. Ethiopia, for example, is one of the world’s largest recipients of aid, which equals about half the government’s budget. Here, funds from the major American, European and international development institutions have been systematically used to crush political opposition and blackmail starving peasants, providing or withholding food and education according to political loyalty, for instance, or using donor-sponsored training courses to indoctrinate party ideology and root out dissent.[ii] Development projects can also enable the rapacity of local and international elites. The Tyranny of Experts opens with the burning of the homes and farms of 20,000 Ugandans in 2010 to make way for a timber plantation sponsored by the World Bank.[iii]

The main service of the development establishment to oppressors of the poor is a relentless effort to recast moral and political problems as technical problems with technical solutions. In global or local discussions, the development technocrat can be counted on first to change the subject from oppression to solely material concerns and then to be a reliable source of legitimacy. The tyrant has little to fear from the technocrat’s abstract, decontextualized language, or his belief, in Easterly’s words, “that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics or nutritional supplements.” Even the most human issues, like government itself, are technicalized, becoming matters only of expertise and capacity.

The technocrat does not wrestle with raisons d’état or ally with tyrants out of some tortured moral calculus (though he is used as cover for the former); he is simply above politics. Ethiopia, which remains at the center of this debate, is a case in point. I visited in early 2009. Meles Zenawi’s subjugation of the country was going splendidly: he had just won the local elections by over 99 percent and jailed an inconvenient newspaper editor. But when, during a meeting with officials of Britain’s Department for International Development, I asked what could be said about human rights to the government, my question was dismissed as a non sequitur.

This was only a mild case of political blindness compared with some of Easterly’s examples. Two years into Columbia’s La Violencia the World Bank issued a 950-page study of Columbia’s challenges that made no mention of politics or violence.[iv] Six weeks into the Rwandan genocide, World Bank officials published an anodyne report on the country, urging budgetary and regulatory reforms.[v]

Shortly before the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi was driven to set himself and his region on fire, this was the assessment of his country by the leading financial institutions and development agencies, recorded by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay:

Tunisia, it was said, showed “remarkable progress on equitable growth, fighting poverty, and achieving good social indicators.” It was “on track” to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. It was “far ahead in terms of governance, effectiveness, rule of law, control of corruption and regulatory quality.” It was “one of the most equitable societies” and “a top reformer.” Overall, we were told, “the development model that Tunisia has pursued over the past two decades has served the country well."[vi]

There is unlikely to be a complete chronicle of the development community and human rights. But it is clear the major development institutions have been, on the whole, the useful idiots of the world’s tin pot dictators.

The Tyranny of Experts takes aim at development’s scientific pretension, particularly its misuse of statistics. Eschewing politics, many development experts issue advice, praise, and blame according to GDP. But as Easterly shows, we understand remarkably little about changes in economic growth: research into growth rates has mainly revealed our inability to explain them. From year to year we don’t even know what they are. The leading measures of growth tend to vary by several percentage points, and in some developing countries different measures can show either contraction or miracle growth; in others there is no useable data at all.

Even with all the data in the world, Easterly demonstrates, there are no morally neutral approaches to poverty. To claim, like the President of the World Bank, to have “non-ideological evidence-based policies,” simply precludes discussion. One might add that any school of thought claiming to be value-neutral just ensures the baggage gets on board uninspected. Easterly marshals a wide variety of arguments and evidence for why freedom brings greater prosperity than authoritarianism. Most high growth may happen under autocrats, but most autocrats do not oversee high growth. If anything, they have underperformed against democrats in the post war period. Even in East Asia it is hard to attribute success to dictators: hard-won changes in economic freedom and opportunities to play catch-up seem more decisive. These are questions of “relative evidence rather than absolute rigor,” as Easterly says, and his contribution is not to prove a simple relationship between freedom and prosperity, but to undermine any economic arguments for why tyrants should be supported.

It seems incongruous that much of a book about the tyranny of experts is spent describing how society should work, but Easterly does just that. In fairness, it is, after  F.A. Hayek, a “spontaneous order,” unplanned and unwilled, but should we believe  in this Immaculate Conception? Recent years have seen spontaneous reaction against  features of this order. Easterly (whose blithe experience of working in a car factory is the opposite of Simone Weil’s) wants Adam Smith and, in particular, specialization to be at the heart of global development. But what should we make of Smith’s warning in The Wealth of Nations that specialization would eventually make us “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”?[vii] These are among the kind of questions that should animate international development; if it can be roused it from its fixation with tinkering in the private lives of the poor it would be a liberation.

Economists are discovering history, and it is unclear if it will serve to sophisticate a mechanical understanding and a Panglossian sense of progress, or merely as raw material for their rage de vouloir conclure. The “pioneers”, as Easterly calls Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson, are more accurately described as latecomers to the attempt to open the meaning of vast swathes of history with a single key. This breathlessly reductive style is clearly catching, but when Easterly escapes it he is a fine historian. By conveying the texture of early development cooperation he revises its history, rooting it less in post-war munificence and more in a pre-war expedience of changing the subject from emancipation to solely material concerns. (A contemporary example of this, as Amartya Sen has regretted, is the move from the Millennium Declaration to the Millennium Development Goals, still the cause of much self-congratulation.[viii])

The technocratic tendency in development is not an anomaly. It is rampant in democracies, rarely succeeding on its own terms and degrading us in the insidious way de Tocqueville foresaw. Europe, to choose an uncontroversial example, is the Europe of Monnet not Spinelli: a Europe administered by technocrats, not a citizens’ Europe. Even the idea of the blank slate — one of Easterly’s main targets — is, ironically, deeply rooted in the West. One of the wisest guides here is the eminent philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who in Cosmopolis and Return to Reason described the vision of a society as rationally ordered as the Newtonian view of nature, how that vision was undone, and yet how an unreasonable rationalism reappeared in much thinking about human affairs.[ix]

In the emerging global order it is not obvious what the development community is for. (Charity will continue, of course: the rich are always keener on that than the poor.) There is, however, a conspicuous need for a cosmopolitan confluence of thinking about human suffering and flourishing. This does not exist: for example Silicon Valley has brought only, in Ethan Zuckerman’s words, an “imaginary cosmopolitanism,” and international relations remains, in Stanley Hoffmann’s, “an American social science.”[x] It would have to be committed to the universality of human rights and the diversity of everything else. To be useful and humane it would need to break many habits of academia and beyond, above all the quest for certainty. It would speak the vernacular, spurn disciplinary boundaries and, suspecting abstract theory, seek instead a rich perspective on the world as encountered through experience. Its knowledge would be provisional and tentative, never final, and it would be guided by the spirit of the words of Isaiah, which, I think, is at the heart of this author, “Come, let us reason the matter together.”


[i]“Foreign Aid for Scoundrels”, The New York Review, November 25, 2010.

[ii] See, for example, Human Rights Watch, “Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia,” 2010.

[iii] See also Matt Grainger, Kate Geary, “The New Forests Company and its Uganda Plantations”, Oxfam, 2011.

[iv]IBRD, Development Program for Columbia, 1950, cited in the history of this episode told in the book under review.

[v] “Rwanda Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Growth,” World Bank, May 16, 1994, cited in William Easterly’s “Foreign Aid for Scoundrels”, The New York Review, November 25, 2010.

[vi]Navi Pillay, “The Tunis Imperative: Human Rights in Development Cooperation in the Wake of the Arab Spring,” speech to the UN Chief Executives Board, New York, 28 October 2011.

[vii] Adam Smith, An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, (1776) Book 5, Chapter 1, Part 3.

[viii] Amartya Sen, remarks at the London School of Economics and Political Science, “Reflections on a Changing World,” 29 May 2013.

[ix] Chicago, 1990; Harvard, 2003.

[x] Ethan Zuckerman, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, (W.W. Norton and Company, 2013). Stanley Hoffman, “An American Social Science: International Relations,” Daedalus, Vol. 106, No. 3 (Summer, 1977).


Hugh Roberts has worked for the United Nations in New York, Cairo and Kabul and for the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in London.

LARB Contributor

Hugh Roberts has worked for the United Nations in New York, Cairo and Kabul and for the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit in London. He was a visiting fellow at the LSE and was educated at Cambridge and Columbia. He has written for leading European publications, most often the leader page of The Guardian.


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