Sounds like a simple enough way to cure poverty: Form a partnership between donors and leaders of government. Get a set of measurable goals and diligently track progress toward those goals. There’s nothing we can’t do when we put our minds to it.
It’s a technocratic solution to a human problem that plays to our sense of confidence as scientific problem solvers.
That’s been the basic approach to economic development of the so-called “third world” by the “first world” since the middle of the last century.
But not only is it a failure, it actually props up dictators and stomps the rights of the poor, while allowing wealthy donors, like Bill Gates, to feel good about themselves as they monitor the “measurable” progress.
I love the [United Nations’] Millennium Development Goals. I think they’re the best idea for focusing the world on fighting global poverty that I’ve ever seen….Thanks to these goals…the world at large knows the key measures of poverty, hunger, health and education. Some of the numbers are good and some are not. But the fact that the world is focusing on these numbers is excellent….The Millennium Development Goals can guide the search for new discoveries by showing us where innovation can bring the biggest returns. This is their genius.
— Bill Gates, speech to U.N. General Assembly, September 2008 (video below)
Sounds great. But is it true?
The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, by William Easterly, demonstrates how a toxic stew of arrogance, altruism and racism has led “the West” to positively hinder “the Rest” from achieving the very thing we value most — equality under law. Easterly has produced a rarity among serious books — page-turning readability, with even-handed scholarship and careful documentation.
Easterly says the problem with well-meaning fellows like Bill Gates is multi-pronged.
1) We don’t have accurate data, we ignore contrary evidence, and we misinterpret the faulty data, attributing apparent growth to the activities of autocrats and bureaucrats when the evidence points to factors beyond their control.
2) We ignore history and the actual needs of the people, as if we could write our own solutions upon a blank slate, that we decide is framed by modern national boundaries.
3) We idolize strong leaders who can implement programs funded by donors, but ignore their autocratic repression of individual rights, and so we often use charity dollars to pay for pogroms via programs.
4) We think of innovation as something a few elite scholars and captains of industry bring to the poor, rather than something that springs from decentralized problem-solving by people who have freedom, property rights, equal justice under law and profit motive.
In the video below, Bill Gates speaks to the UN General Assembly — history’s greatest congregation of thugs and tyrants. For more than six minutes Gates praises the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), without even hinting that people might need more than food, medicine and education. He never mentions self-governance, liberty, or capitalism.
The best spin on this is that Gates think if we take care of health, learning and economic survival, then republican governance and its protection of person and property will come later.
The vector of history collides with, and obliterates, that notion.
The worst-case scenario is that Gates cravenly kowtows to the world’s oppressors because he needs their cooperation to reach his beloved development goals. Like a geek with an MS-Excel spreadsheet, he has lost sight of the human impact behind the columns, rows and formulae. All that matters is the data, not how you get there.
Perhaps most surprising: Gates has overlooked the first law of computer programming — garbage in, garbage out. Tracking bad data leads to bad conclusions which spur bad actions.
As a result, Gates and those like him in government and the private sector have become useful idiots for corrupt dictators, literally bankrolling the autocrats’ tyrannical regimes and heinous actions. This is not breaking news.
Easterly marvels at the blindness of people like Gates whose own success, and whose successful countries, come from individual liberty, property rights, popular governance and equal justice under law. He reminds us that life was less than luxurious for most Americans until the 20th century. In 1850, the standard of living in the U.S. matched Ghana’s today.
Our Declaration “that all men are created equal,” and the Constitution that institutionalized that equality, preceded our historic, world-changing prosperity. It’s not the other way around.
Again, our starting point is that freedom is also an end in itself, while autocracy is not. This puts the burden of proof on the autocrat, if he wants to claim that he delivers development in return for surrendering valuable freedoms.
— William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts
Easterly debunks nearly every technocratic claim that “strong leaders” brought economic growth. More often than not, they merely took credit for growth beyond their control, or shoddy data calls into question whether such growth even happened. In the best cases, autocrats granted a measure of economic liberty that spurred some growth, but only reluctantly in order to cling to power.
I read this book because I — like Bill Gates — want a world where people don’t starve, stay stuck in stupid or die in a pool of their own slurry.
My eureka moment came in the early pages: liberty comes first. But I remained entranced with the story, as Easterly wove together global-scale efforts with the narrative of a single neighborhood in New York to illustrate transcendent truth. All the while, he does what a true “technocrat” should do, which is challenge the data, explore alternative interpretations, and admit that sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.
While this is largely a book about development elsewhere, I could not help but recall our own petty-tyrant whose team of technocrats has persuaded many of us to exchange a measure of liberty for the promise of (middle-class) prosperity — or for the good feeling that comes from knowing that you’re trying to help others…regardless of the actual impact of that “help.”