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.
Like all ideologies, Development promises a comprehensive final answer to all of society’s problems, from poverty and illiteracy to violence and despotic rulers. It shares the common ideological characteristic of suggesting there is only one correct answer, and it tolerates little dissent.
Hmm. I have to say I'm confused. I am sympathetic to many of Easterly's ideas--his skepticism on foreign aid (although not quite to the same extent) and his view that development happens because of "searchers" rather than planners. But surely now he is painting with too broad a brush here. There are many of us who believe in development--I wouldn't mind being called a "developmentalist"--but who do not see this as ideological attachment to a "single right path." The idea that what we do is dangerous, deadly, and feeds off religious fundamentalism is bizarre.
I am truly puzzled by what Easterly is trying to achieve with this article. Consider the following passage:
Development also shares another Marxist trait: It aspires to be scientific. Finding the one correct solution to poverty is seen as a scientific problem to be solved by the experts. They are always sure they know the answer, vehemently reject disagreement, and then later change their answers. In psychiatry, this is known as Borderline Personality Disorder. For the Development Experts, it’s a way of life. The answer at first was aid-financed investment and industrialization in poor countries, then it was market-oriented government policy reform, then it was fixing institutional problems such as corruption, then it was globalization, then it was the Poverty Reduction Strategy to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
One reason the answers keep changing is because, in reality, high-growth countries follow a bewildering variety of paths to development, and the countries with high growth rates are constantly changing from decade to decade. Who could be more different than successful developers such as China and Chile, Botswana and Singapore, Taiwan and Turkey, or Hong Kong and Vietnam? What about the many countries who tried to emulate these rising stars and failed? What about the former stars who have fallen on hard times, like the Ivory Coast, which was one of the fastest developers of the 1960s and 1970s, only to become mired in a civil war? What about Mexico, which saw rapid growth until 1980 and has had slow growth ever since, despite embracing the experts’ reforms?
I agree with everything in the second paragraph. But I disagree strongly that these facts cannot be analyzed "scientifically." Our task as economists is to make sense of the evidence and to discover the generalities in the diverse experience with development. The fact that there have been fads and fashions in development thinking does not condemn the study of development any more than the fads and fashions in macroeconomics condemn that particular field of economics. And there are tons of first-class economists who are looking at these issues without the ideological blinders and self-assurance that Easterly complains about.
UPDATE: Bill Easterly responds:
I’m surprised you disagreed so much with the piece, because your work was one of my inspirations! To clarify, development economics is a science, developmentalism is an ideology. The former can yield useful generalizations and findings that can influence policy, while the latter aspires to a comprehensive, dogmatic answer for a society to solve once and for all its problems of poverty, dictatorship, and war. The former features researchers who are careful and humble about what their findings imply for marginal changes for the better, the latter features “experts” who see themselves as the key to wholescale social transformation. “Big think development” by “development experts” (whether academics or IMF/World Bank structural adjusters) has failed and will continue to fail because it is too much like the latter extreme, and has actually done harm by providing the excuse for a backlash into some destructive economic policies like the xenophobic populism currently in favor in parts of Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East.
However, nowhere do I dismiss all of development economics! More humble economists will continue to provide a lot of useful guidance in development. As the article says:
"The opposite of ideology is freedom, the ability of societies to be unchained from foreign control. The only “answer” to poverty reduction is freedom from being told the answer. Free societies and individuals are not guaranteed to succeed. They will make bad choices. But at least they bear the cost of those mistakes, and learn from them. That stands in stark contrast to accountability-free Developmentalism. This process of learning from mistakes is what produced the repositories of common sense that make up mainstream economics.
The opposite of Development ideology is not anything goes, but the pragmatic use of time-tested economic ideas—the benefits of specialization, comparative advantage, gains from trade, market-clearing prices, trade-offs, budget constraints—by individuals, firms, governments, and societies as they find their own success."
UPDATE2: I agree with many if not most of the details of Easterly's argument, but would not have packaged them in quite the way that he does, which I think gets too rhetorical and counterproductive at times. In his most recent book, Bill discusses many successful instances of aid--and yet the categorical message that one gets from him (at least until we get into the details) is "aid does not work." The whole notion that we should not have "big ideas" in development is also paradoxical and counterproductive. Bill himself flouts it in any case. "It's all about incentives" (first book) or "development is produced by searchers not planners" (second book) are both "big ideas." Again, we agree in (most of) the details, but disagree about--well, yes, about what the "big idea" that we should communicate is.