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Development as Tyranny? or Why Tone Matters

12 Jul

ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE BENNY FOR FPWilliam Easterly has an essay about “Developmentalism” in the latest issue of Foreign Policy in which he ratchets up the rhetoric against Jeffrey Sachs and his institutional kin.  His argument is that IMF/World Bank third-world development policy has become it’s own top-down ideology, unresponsive to the needs or actual conditions of impoverished people in the countries it aims to rebuild.  At least, that’s the crux of his argument.  But much of the article is wrapped in an over-the-top rhetoric and tone, like this introduction:

A dark ideological specter is haunting the world. It is almost as deadly as the tired ideologies of the last century — communism, fascism, and socialism — that failed so miserably. It feeds some of the most dangerous trends of our time, including religious fundamentalism. It is the half-century-old ideology of Developmentalism. And it is thriving.

Comparing bad development projects, unaccountable policy wonks, and wasted funds to fascism and communism is an entertaining level of hyperbole that you can only find in general readership magazines, which I assume is because editors like to unleash this sort of public debate to boost sales (“almost as deadly” is a nice touch that is at once outrageous/open to broad interpretation).  Easterly has some good points to make about on-size-fits-all planning, like the disastrous structural adjustment policies that left a lot of countries worse off in the 1980s (and eventually defaulting on IMF and World Bank loans), but the ill-conceived “bad development policy = ideology” subverts his argument to his attack.  Amartya Sen said it best in his 2006 review of Easterly’s White Man’s Burden in Foreign Affairs:

Empirical evidence of the ineffectiveness of many grand development and poverty-alleviation schemes is undoubtedly worth discussing clearly and honestly, as Easterly does when he is not too busy looking for an aphorism so crushing that it will leave his targets gasping for breath.

I’m also confused by his continuing animosity directed at Jeffrey Sachs (whose The End of Poverty has been sitting on my shelf for months, and I swear I’ll get around to reading any day now).  I think Dan Drezner has it about right on the Sachs theory of political change; I have a hard time seeing Sachs’s “poverty trap” conception as less unbending ideology than cognitive bias born of Sachs’s political naivete and high IQ, which sees problems and their solutions as both equally apparent to everyone.  Easterly’s message would be better served if he didn’t think the way to hold people accountable was by impaling them on rhetorical pikes–or analogical flights of fancy.

ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE BENNY FOR FP