Bill Easterly is one of the better public intellectuals in the area of development – I enjoy his writing, and I think that his work since leaving the World Bank has become more and more valuable as it takes on an ever-more critical edge.  I take him to task for some of his earlier work in my book, and I think that he does not quite question the workings of globalization and development to the extent necessary to really start to get at what is happening in the world, but by and large I think he is a tremendously valuable asset for the development community.

My belief in his value just went up tenfold, however, with his op-ed comparing the celebrity activism of Lennon to that of Bono.  While I take his points about Lennon’s activism, I suspect that Easterly overstates the case for Lennon’s importance as an activist a bit – it is hard to change the system from completely outside, as there is often no way to engage with people constructively – all you get is parallel conversations.  But Easterly’s criticism of Bono is dead on:

While Bono calls global poverty a moral wrong, he does not identify the wrongdoers. Instead, he buys into technocratic illusions about the issue without paying attention to who has power and who lacks it, who oppresses and who is oppressed. He runs with the crowd that believes ending poverty is a matter of technical expertise – doing things such as expanding food yields with nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants or solar-powered drip irrigation.

Bono becomes a problem not through any fault of his own, really, but because he becomes a mouthpiece for people like Jeff Sachs (I have plenty to say about him, but look here, here and in the peer-reviewed literature here) who really seem unable to think about power relations, history and political economy when considering development.  Asserting that poverty is the result of a lack of development asserts a problem and a solution all at once, without ever really addressing a cause.  Further, as I tell my students, there is no such thing as a purely technical, apolitical development intervention – even putting in a well will have variable impacts across a community, creating winners and losers.  The technical is not the hard part in development – if it was, we’d have accomplished a hell of a lot more than we have up to this point.

I also must admit that I really appreciated Easterly turning his guns on the other celebrity activists:

Bono is not the only well-intentioned celebrity wonk of our age – the impulse is ubiquitous. Angelina Jolie, for instance, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (seriously) in addition to serving as a U.N. goodwill ambassador. Ben Affleck has become an expert on the war in Congo. George Clooney has Sudan covered, while Leonardo DiCaprio hobnobs with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders at a summit to protect tigers; both actors have written opinion essays on those subjects in these pages, further solidifying their expert bona fides.

But why should we pay attention to Bono’s or Jolie’s expertise on Africa, any more than we would ask them for guidance on the proper monetary policy for the Federal Reserve?

Why indeed?  I sure as hell don’t plan to lecture Clooney or DiCaprio on acting.  Affleck, well . . .

But I must take issue with Easterly a tiny bit here – yes, Bono is the frontman, but shouldn’t our frustration be directed at those who fill his and others’ heads with the belief that we can fix it all, with just a little more money (I’m looking at you, Dr. Sachs)?  I have no doubt that Bono, Clooney and all the rest have the best of intentions, and work hard to inform themselves rather than run around blind, but in the end they are manipulated by people with greater experience and what appears to be greater expertise to further agendas that these celebrities do not understand – Bono is backing Sachs’ push for more aid (which is in conflict with Easterly’s and others’ view that we need to focus on institutions, political systems and corruption).  Clooney is supporting a group that has one idea of how to address issues in Sudan, but may not have the best or the only ideas because they tend to deal in moral absolutes (like supporting an ICC warrant for Kony, which derailed peace talks in Northern Uganda/Southern Sudan/Congo/CAR).  We need to make sure we dig past the celebs to those who feed them these ideas, and address the problem at it source . . .