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Helping the Oppressed, not the Oppressors

by Isobel Coleman
March 14, 2014

A Uighur worker pulls a cart past a statue of the late chairman Mao Zedong at the People's Square in Kashgar, China, September 2003 (Courtesy Reuters). A Uighur worker pulls a cart past a statue of the late chairman Mao Zedong at the People's Square in Kashgar, China, September 2003 (Courtesy Reuters).

As protestors from Kiev to Khartoum to Caracas take to the streets against autocracy, a new book from economist William Easterly reminds us that Western aid is too often on the wrong side of the battle for freedom and democracy.  In The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the PoorEasterly slams the development community for supporting autocrats, not democrats, in the name of helping the world’s poorest. Ignoring human rights abuses and giving aid to oppressive regimes, he maintains, harms those in need and in many ways “un-develops” countries.

The Tyranny of Experts takes on the notion that autocracies deliver stronger economic growth than freer societies.  Easterly argues that when economic growth occurs under autocratic regimes, it is more often achieved at the local level in spite of the regime’s efforts.  In some instances, growth under autocracies can be attributed to relative increases in freedoms.  He points to China as an example of this, attributing the country’s phenomenal growth to its adoption of greater personal and economic freedoms, especially compared to the crippling Maoist policies of the past.

Easterly also rejects the myth that dictators are dependable and that a certain level of oppression should be overlooked for the sake of economic growth and overall prosperity. Most recently, the violence and chaos following the 2011 Arab uprisings has made some nostalgic for the stable, if undemocratic, governments that kept civil unrest in check, allowing for a measure of economic development to take hold. Easterly stresses that instability and tumult in the wake of ousting a dictator is not the fault of an emerging democracy, but instead an understandable result of years of autocratic rule. The answer is not to continue to support autocrats in the name of stability, but rather to start the inevitably messy process of democratization sooner.

Easterly is of course not the first to call attention to the importance of prioritizing rights and freedoms in the development agenda. Scholars from Amartya Sen to more recently, Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont, have also advocated for a rights-based approach to development. In Pathways to Freedom: Political and Economic Lessons From Democratic Transitions, my coauthors and I similarly found that economic growth and political freedom go hand-in-hand.

Still, the hard questions remain: how to help those without economic and political freedoms?  And when should donors walk away from desperately poor people because their government is undemocratic? Easterly argues that the donor community should draw the line with far more scrutiny than it does today – not just at the obvious cases, such as North Korea, but with other undemocratic countries, such as Ethiopia, where human rights abuses are rampant. He debunks the notion that aid can be “apolitical,” arguing that it is inherently political: giving resources to a government allows it to control and allocate (or withhold) resources as it sees fit. The aid community should focus on ways to help oppressed populations without helping their oppressors. For example, scholarship programs, trade, and other people-to-people exchanges can give opportunities to people in need. At the very least, Easterly argues, development actors should not praise oppressive regimes or congratulate them on economic growth they did not create.

Rather than being seduced by “benevolent dictators,” Easterly urges donors to focus their energy on “freedom loving” governments that need help. The Millennium Challenge Corporation is a step in the right direction but, as Easterly pointed out during the CFR meeting, MCC’s approach is undermined by other U.S. aid agencies, such as USAID, that continue to assist countries even when they don’t meet certain good governance and human rights standards.

Easterly also emphasizes the need for aid organizations to be more transparent about where their money is going. Robert Zoellick made strides in this direction during his tenure as World Bank president. But more recent developments suggest that the Bank still has a way to go in becoming more open and accountable.  (Easterly noted that an initial invitation to speak about The Tyranny of Experts at the World Bank was later rescinded for “scheduling reasons.”)

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