My debate with Bill Easterly

Owen Barder and Bill Easterly addressing the audience at the Center for Global Development

This morning I did a fun debate with Bill Easterly about his book, The Tyranny of Experts. You can watch it here (the event starts 12 minutes in).

5 thoughts on “My debate with Bill Easterly”

  1. Hey Owen, 
    That was a good beating you got. Of course the question was too extreme, but Wild Bill won the day. 
    Moreover, the whole Paris-Busan agenda promoted by the OCDE and all its member governments is clearly proving Bill’s point. These dynamics, the “dictator (country) ownership” are still going strong. However, I admit DFID has meanwhile moved on in its development thinking. 
    Recently,  I visited Ethiopia , and I was flabbergasted, not by the work of the iNGOs, but by the way they were , even in a safe environment, void of any critique towards the government, while the World Bank sponsored safety net was clearly aimed at keeping the (government supporting part of the) population fed, safe and stupid in their mountain villages, where development would never find them, as agriculture based development has its limits. 

  2. I think you were eloquent, and made very good points. Good defence of a much-maligned industry. I didn’t learn as much as I hoped from the debate; it sometimes sounded as if you were talking cross-purposes. Still, I totally disagree with Sam concerning who won.

  3. Going by the proposition of the debate, Owen clearly won.   Bill did not seem so interested in actually debating the proposition, but simply reiterating the importance of people talking about rights, with which Owen and virtually everyone else agreed.     Where you all seemed to be talking past each other was where Owen seemed to want to point to ways that rights based approaches have been used in aid to improve aid.  Bill, on the other hand, does not want to talk about how to fix aid.    Given the audience that reads Bill’s books, I fear that he will be doomed to frustration on that point.  Most of the people who read Bill are aid professionals who naturally want to fix it.   In any case, a very enjoyable discussion.

  4. Great debate – though, like many debates, certain key terms (“development partners”, “the authoritarian/democracy debate”) weren’t clearly defined, and so I (like other commenters) found that both you and Bill were sometimes speaking past each other.
    Ultimately, I think Bill raises several good points: we’ve all been trained to think about “development” and “aid” (insert your definition here) in a very certain way, and we’re all now very much riding along the wave of wonk, where we privilege an academic, internal validity-focused (“evidence-based”) way of Doing Good. (Perhaps a remnant of econ’s historic insecurity vis-a-vis the “hard” sciences? We want to distance ourselves from those soft Do Gooder types working in humanitarian or community organizing activities? “Look, you can trust us, because Stata!”)
    I interpret Bill’s argument to be to encourage us to break out of that box and incorporate, perhaps, more classic, big picture, human rights, and advocacy-based thinking. When Bill mentioned, with seeming negativity, donor money funding “the police”, I read into that a clear link back to Foucault/Weber and the idea of the state as a system of oppression, and the (moral?) imperative we all have to examine and question power structures, regardless of whether we’re working in development. The only other dev talking heads (that I know of?) who also incorporate this sociological, big picture view are Acemoglu and Robinson – so thank you, Owen, for bringing them up.
    Maybe I’m stating something very naive here (as I’ve always worked in the wonk side of dev, and only nominally know about “rights-based approaches”), but the crux of the issue, I think, is To Intervene or Not to Intervene. Assuming that we all agree, in principle, that democracy is the least worst political system both for rights *and* growth, presumably we then just need to decide whether we intervene to create democratic institutions or not – and what form intervention can take (guns? money? strong words?). I think Bill is saying that, by opting for a priori neutrality when the Bank was founded, we’ve committed a sin of omission and any further development work is, by design, going to be complicit in anti-democratic activities and thus counterproductive. Acemoglu/Robinson came to a similar conclusion, I thought: there’s no point in development wonkery (and my job, alas!), if we don’t change the systems of patronage and oppression. This is especially important as we focus more and more on “evidence-based” policymaking (internal validity shall set you free), at the expense of external validity or macro-based development or, well, embarrassing our government partners and getting thrown out of the country?

  5. Good debate though I didn’t like the question or for that matter the title of Mr. Easterly’s book which I haven’t as yet read. The title implies a black/white approach to an industry which can get very fuzzy.
    I will refer to the management consulting field and two concepts:
    a) 85% solution or problem – this means that when you are called upon the evaluate a company’s problems, ‘85%’ of the time the problem, lies not with the staff which are ‘creating’ the problems within the company but with the management which has created an environment wherein the staff are responding by behaving in an unprofessional and counter-productive manner. However, it is the management which hires and pays the consultant, so you can appreciate the challenge.
    b) remediableness – meeting the challenge, the consultant will often articulate an ideal or near ideal solution to the client’s problem then, by way of forming a trusting and open relationship with that client, learn and understand the client’s constraints from adopting the ideal or near ideal option, then find within those constraints the best remediable option and thereby provide the client some value for money. So here we have the mutual education component between the consultant and client and the understanding that most remediable options will be second or even third-best solutions.
    Next two books – one very old and the other very new:
    Ferguson, James – ‘The Anti-politics Machine’
    Ramalingam, Ben – ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos’
    In the first an aid project in Lesotho is designed based upon an idealised image of that country as a pre-industrial pastoral society in harmony with nature; the reality was that the country was a South African labour pool. Even those individuals involved who knew that the idealised image was wrong were constrained from speaking out for fear of being marginalised from the project. So the project as would have been expected, failed.
    The second begins with anecdote about the damage done by aid experts to a water management system in Bali for reasons of misunderstanding the true nature and efficacy of that system.
    Here is the thing: both cases share the same business model wherein the programme recipients are outside the principal-agent construct. If the programme recipients were the principals, there would be no way they would allow their agent to operate in a state of ignorance to the point of damaging their own equity and security.
    There are no tyrants here – rather a misaligned system of governance and project management.

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