Entries tagged with “Bill Easterly”.

I’m late to this show – I was traveling last week when the whole Gates/Moyo throwdown happened. I was going to let it go, but I have received enough prodding from others to offer my thoughts – probably because I have offered extended critiques of Moyo’s Dead Aid (links below), while also noting that Gates’ understandings of the problems of aid and development are a bit myopic. So, here we go…

Bill Gates finally voiced what has been implicit in much of his approach to development – he sees aid and development critics as highly problematic people who slow down progress (or whatever Bill thinks passes for progress).  Honestly, this is thoroughly unsurprising to anyone who has paid any attention to what Bill has said all along, or indeed anything the Gates Foundation does.  There just isn’t much room for meta-criticism at the foundation or its work – sure, they evaluate their programs, but there isn’t much evaluation/consideration of whether or not the guiding principals behind those programs make much sense.  There is an assumption that Gates’ goals are somehow self-evident, and therefore critics are just problems to be solved.

Let’s just start with this part of what Gates said. To me, his comments represent a profound misunderstanding of the place of aid and development criticism – his comments represent critics as annoyances to be brushed away, implying that criticism is an end unto itself. I do not know a single aid/development critic for whom criticism is the end. Critical thinking, and any resultant criticism, is a means to the end of changing the world. Simply put, without critical thinkers to constantly evaluate, challenge, and push the thinking of those in the world of development policy and implementation, where would we be? Take gender, for example. Today, nobody questions the need to consider the gender of the beneficiary when we think about policies or programs, but in the late 1960s those who first raised this issue were critics, often viewed as “annoyances” who slowed down the process of designing and implementing projects with their silly concerns about the needs of women. Gates does his foundation, and the entire enterprise/discipline of development a disservice in this rather sad misrepresentation of the aid critic.

Had Gates simply said what he did about aid critics in the abstract, I think it would have passed without much comment. But he didn’t. Instead, he singled out Dambisa Moyo as an archetype of aid criticism. As a result, he gave a platform to someone who clearly loves the attention. I fear he also somehow made her the archetype for the aid critic, validating a writer whose “critical” arguments are rife with errors and problems (I detailed these in an extended review of her book here, here, here, here, and here). In short, Gates was rather clever here: he picked the contemporary aid critic with the greatest conceptual shortcomings and held her up as the problem, as if the rest of the critical thinkers shared her thinking, shallow arguments, and factual problems. Further, he (apparently rightly, given the reaction of twitter and the blogosphere) seems to have assumed that such critics should and would rally to her support.

Well, not me.

I am without question a critical thinker when it comes to development and aid. I have a hell of a paper trail to prove it. But I do not see myself as a colleague or contemporary of Dambisa Moyo. I’d prefer to be a colleague of Bill Easterly, Arturo Escobar, James Ferguson, James Scott, and Timothy Mitchell (all more senior than me), and I see myself as a colleague of Katharine McKinnon, Kat O’Reilly, Mara Goldman, and Farhana Sultana (all friends or colleagues of my generation).  All of these scholars have conducted extensive scholarly work on the problems of development, and backed up their work with evidence. I don’t think any of these scholars is perfect, and some have produced pieces of work that I see as deeply flawed, but all hold their work to a much higher standard than that I saw in Dead Aid.

The fact is that Gates was right: Moyo doesn’t know much about aid and what it is doing – Dead Aid made this rather clear (seriously, read my review of the book). On her webpage, she argues that she “dedicated many years to economic study up to the Ph.D. level, to analyze and understand the inherent weaknesses of aid, and why aid policies have consistently failed to deliver on economic growth and poverty alleviation.” First, a Ph.D. is no guarantee of knowing anything – and I say that as someone who holds two Ph.D.s! I have seen absolutely no scholarly output from Moyo’s Ph.D. work that supports any sense that she developed a rigorous understanding of aid at all. Indeed, her very phrasing – she sought to analyze and understand the inherent weakness of aid – suggests that her work is not analytical, but political. And after two years in D.C., one thing I have learned is that the political has very little to do with facts or evidence. In that regard, I can safely say that Dead Aid is a political book.

Second, being born and raised in a poor country does not mean that one understands the experiences of everyone in that country. Zambia is a culturally, economically, and environmentally diverse country, home to many different experiences.  Just as I cannot make any claim to understand the experiences of all Americans just because I was born here, majored in American Studies, and have lived in five states and a federal colony (D.C.), Moyo’s implicit claim that being born in Zambia allows her to speak for all those living in countries that receive aid, let alone all Zambians, is absurd.

Finally, she argues that she has served as a consultant at the World Bank, implicitly suggesting this gives her great purchase on development thought. It does not. As I have argued elsewhere, working as a consultant for a donor is not the same thing as working as an employee of a donor. I too have been a consultant at the World Bank. Technically, I am currently a consultant for USAID. These are very different roles from those I occupied while employed at USAID. Consultants are not privy to the internal conversations and machinations of development donors, and have at best partial understandings of what drives decisions about development policy and implementation.  Moyo has no practical experience at all with the realities of development donors, a fact that comes through in Dead Aid.

So let’s divorce the two things that Bill Gates did in his comments. He completely misrepresented aid critics in two ways: first, in failing to recognize the contributions of aid criticism to the improvement of aid and development programs, and second in lumping aid critics into the same basket as Dambisa Moyo.  This lumping is pretty egregious, and the overall characterization represents a significant flaw in Gates’ thinking about development that is likely to come back to bite his foundation in the ass in the near future – without criticism of the overall ideas behind the foundation, it’s programs will wither and die.  We can separate this first problem from Gates critique of Dambisa Moyo, which aside from characterizing her as doing evil (which is just going too far, really), pretty much got the assessment of her thinking right.

In short, let’s push back against Bill’s thinking on development criticism, but not valorize Moyo’s crap arguments in the process.

I’ve had a post or two referencing the role of celebrity in development recently, triggered by Bill Easterly’s recent Washington Post op-ed.  I was surprised to see Easterly take such heat for pointing out that celebrity engagement with development can be problematic – most of the folks I know largely agree with the op-ed.  My only intervention was to suggest that Easterly (and others who raise issues with celebrity and development) focus more on the people who feed the celebs their ideas and talking points.  Sometimes really well-meaning people can be led astray by one loud voice . . .

Having watched/been part of this conversation for a few days, though, I see the need for an intervention.  On his twitter feed, Bill Easterly has promoted a commenter who felt s/he had to remove a post critical of Bono because “Bono gives big money to my organization, and they thought that pissing off Bono could cause another Sunday Bloody Sunday.”  At first glance, this paints Bono as terribly thin-skinned, and suggests that he is unwilling to take on criticism of his efforts.  Perhaps this is true, but I see little evidence for it here – basically, you have an overly-cautious organization afraid of pissing off a celebrity, but no suggestion that Bono demanded its removal.

More telling, though, is the URL the “censored” poster left at the end of their comment – http://bonowithafricans.wordpress.com/ Oh look, let’s take a bunch of random pictures of Bono in Africa, divorce them from all context, and then stick snarky comments after them.  How clever!  And juvenile, boring, etc.  All this does is suggest to me that the commenter has a larger issue with Bono, and has used Easterly’s blog as a platform to promote them.

I pride myself on taking my work very seriously, without taking myself very seriously.  I have my foibles (too numerous to list here), and I am well aware that at least some of my grad students can do a credible impression of me (which I actually take as something of a warped complement) – but I find this sort of thing funny.  Hell, we can play the snark game with any number of pictures of me:

“Community meetings would be easier without the community”

“This garland is way outside of my color wheel”

“They told me there would be bourbon.  This . . . is not bourbon”

See, now wasn’t that fun?

The point here is that criticism really needs to be constructive, and anchored in something.  I’ve been known to lose my temper – for example at the end of the post here – but even my rants are anchored in solid analysis.  My extended frustration with Sachs is well-documented, even in the peer-reviewed literature.  I have substantive issues with his theories, and how they lead to inappropriate interventions.  I sat through what I can best describe as a horribly embarrassing lecture by Sachs at the 2008 Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Boston, where he evoked a total lack of awareness of geography, the fact anyone else in the world addresses development issues, and revived the long-buried corpse of environmental determinism – all around me there were hundreds of geographers staring at him in open-mouthed shock.  The man is a disaster for development.  However, I can train a monkey to rip something down – as I tell my students, if you want to impress me, put it back together in an interesting way.  In my writing on the Millennium Village Project I have offered alternatives and suggestions.  I do the same in my forthcoming book.  Snark does nothing constructive, and makes it hard for the criticized to see through the personal attack to the useful ideas that might lead to more productive engagement.

Focus on substance, and being constructive, people.  To modify the old adage about teaching . . . Those who can’t, snark.

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 . . .