Can benevolent autocrats be trusted with development?


President George W. Bush welcomes Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore to the Oval Office Monday, Oct. 16, 2006. White House photo by Eric Draper

From The Nation:

Historians have recently begun to investigate how development became central to the global humanitarian politics of the twentieth century, and why it has never been able to deliver on its promises. Most date the origins of the development era to Harry Truman’s inaugural speech of January 1949, when the newly elected president announced that the United States—in addition to pledging its support for the United Nations, rebuilding postwar Europe and establishing NATO—would dedicate its scientific and technological resources to facilitating “improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” The domestic achievements of the New Deal would be spread abroad to promote peace and to counter the global appeal of communism. This was a new vision of American power for the postwar era: for the first time, the stability of the international order was seen as depending on shared global prosperity. Following Truman’s lead, the United Nations announced its own set of development agencies and aid programs, including the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. In the early 1950s, the World Bank turned its focus to the Third World, after responsibility for rebuilding postwar Europe—its original mission—was taken over by the Marshall Plan. Most early development ideas called for the rapid industrialization and top-down infrastructural modernization of the largely agricultural societies of the global South. These plans were guided by a new science of development economics, pioneered at breakneck speed by a group of mostly Central and Eastern European economists, many of whom took up influential positions in the United Nations, World Bank and United States—or as advisers to Third World governments—during the Cold War.

Development soon became a central plank of America’s strategy against the Soviets. In 1961, John F. Kennedy announced the creation of the USAID program and the Peace Corps, while social scientists-cum-statesmen—like the MIT economist Walt Rostow—developed plans for the “modernization” of the Third World based on grand philosophies of history, detailing the step-by-step progression needed for agrarian states to arrive triumphantly at American-style mass consumption. Inspired by these visions, Lyndon Johnson outlined a New Deal-style development of Vietnam—a “TVA on the Mekong”—to quell the rural insurgency.

The history of development is not, however, exclusively a Cold War story. Intentions to “modernize” the global South, and to raise the standards of living of its inhabitants, were well underway before 1945—not only in China, but also in Europe’s African and Asian colonies. Throughout the interwar period, and during the early years of World War II, the British, French and Dutch empires elaborated a variety of public health, nutritional and infrastructural development ideas for their overseas territories. These were generally designed more to win back legitimacy for imperial rule, and to counter the appeal of nationalist movements, than to bring prosperity to the colonial world for its own sake. As the political scientist Eric Helleiner has persuasively demonstrated in his Forgotten Foundations of Bretton Woods, the experience of US-Latin American financial cooperation from the late 1930s and early 1940s was also crucial for shaping later programs. Worried about the growth of Nazi influence in the Western Hemisphere, the United States facilitated programs for the industrial and financial development of many different Latin American states during these years. These provided an important precedent and model for US officials when they were plotting the shape of the postwar world economy at the Bretton Woods Conference of July 1944.

These early, pre-Cold War arrangements feature centrally in William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts (Basic; $16.99). An economist formerly at the World Bank and now co-director of NYU’s Development Research Institute, Easterly has in recent years become a well-known and influential critic of foreign aid. In this book, he provides a historical defense for his idiosyncratic, libertarian approach to development. On his reading, the fact that international development as we know it first emerged during the early decades of the twentieth century, when “racism and colonialism still reigned supreme,” explains why it’s been motivated, from the get-go, by a core paternalistic assumption: that the people in need of “development” are incapable of finding their own ways out of poverty without the help of enlightened experts. Throughout its history, development has been guided by a “technocratic illusion”—the idea that poverty is, first and foremost, a problem that can be solved through technical, and not political, means. This faith in ostensibly neutral expertise has resulted in policies that have, almost everywhere, empowered autocrats and violated the rights of the poor.

“Development and Humanitarian Politics”, Jamie Warren, The Nation