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Poverty Is a Moral Problem

William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University, is one of the most prominent iconoclasts in the field of international aid. In 2006 he published White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Kent Annan (Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle; After Shock) talked with him on a frigid Manhattan day over hot green tea the day after the launch of his new book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2014).

What are the "forgotten rights of the poor"?

The rights of the poor should be the same as the rights of the rich: the core, inalienable rights that started with the language of the Declaration of Independence, including the idea that governments exist by the consent of the governed.

There is an ongoing debate around the world between the advocates of freedom for the individual and the advocates for more authoritarian, powerful states like Russia and China, and seen in battles from Ukraine to Venezuela to Ethiopia.

The sad thing is that the field and practice of development have too often been on the wrong side of this debate. They've implicitly painted themselves into a corner where they're on the authoritarian side. Then they're backing the autocrats, backing the oppressors against the oppressed.

You are an economist, but this book seems to largely make a moral argument.

As an economist, to include such a strong moral dimension is a bit unusual. I start the book making it clear that the idea we can have a purely technical approach to resolving the problems of poverty without any moral implications is an illusion.

For me, this has been a long intellectual journey, from being one of the experts who was oblivious to the "rights of the poor" issue, to now criticizing those experts. In my development career, I worked closely at various times with autocratic governments and officials in places like Mexico and Russia and Pakistan, and in Africa with Ethiopia and Ghana before it was democratic.

I realized our attitude towards the poor is so often condescending and paternalistic. We think of them as helpless individuals. We don't respect their dignity as individuals.

The next step was not to just avoid paternalism or condescension but actually to go back to first principles and think about the rights of the poor and what role those rights play in development. Economists' research actually does give the institutions associated with individual rights a lot of the credit for the development in the West and the rest of the world. This combined with my own moral awakening that these rights are a desirable good in and of themselves. Whenever we violate them, we set back development.

Humility or self-restraint seems to be a theme through your work.

My cultural and faith upbringing contributed to the feeling of humility. I grew up in the Midwest, in Ohio, with a faith background that stressed humility, not being over-confident in your own wisdom, not being too self-important. That informs my openness to a critique of experts as being too arrogant in their own knowledge and too oblivious to the moral consequences of their overconfidence that can lead to doing damage to other people.

For example, if you work with the government of Ethiopia, you have to consider whether you may be indirectly contributing to someone being kept in jail for 18 years like Eskinder Nega, a peaceful blogger who made quite innocuous criticisms of the government.

Some people believe authoritarian development pays off and justifies violating someone else's rights. But we have to be humble about the limits of our knowledge. It's a strong burden of proof for someone to say, "We have good enough evidence that we're willing to take away your rights to make you better off."

You talk about Bill Gates in this context. He's been giving away billions of dollars to help people. Where does he fit into your understanding of this?

I think Bill Gates is the poster child for the technocratic illusion—that alleviating poverty is purely a technical matter. That there is just a long list of technical solutions to finance. The illusion is that you are paying no attention to who is actually implementing these technical solutions and that there are no politics or moral choices involved in who is actually doing the implementing.

Of course, I'm not disagreeing with giving medicine to sick people. [The Gates Foundation] is doing great things with medical aid directly or indirectly throughout malaria-prone regions like Africa.

Bill Gates is the poster child for the technocratic illusion.

But Gates lavished praise on the government of Ethiopia in his annual letter last year, explicitly giving them all the credit for the reduction in child mortality in Ethiopia. He overlooks direct evidence that the government of Ethiopia is not at all benevolent. Unfortunately, Meles Zenawi and his successors have been serial human rights abusers.

But equally importantly, the data Gates celebrates is incredibly shaky. About the only safe thing we can say is that there is a significant child mortality decline, which we should all celebrate. It's great—but it is a regional thing that's happening all over Africa, and all over the world. No one government should get credit for this if it's happening everywhere.

If Bill Gates would just talk about his technical solutions and the direct effects they would have on helping people with real needs, then I'm very sympathetic. It's wonderful that he's so generous with his own money. But why did he have to praise an oppressive, human-rights-abusing government, siding with the oppressor against the oppressed? There is a technocratic blindness to the moral dimension of development.

What about when some American evangelical Christian leaders get involved in, for example, Uganda or Rwanda?

I think Rick Warren, when he collaborates with President Kagame of Rwanda, is suffering from the same moral blindness as Bill Gates. You just have to open your eyes to the full picture and understand that autocracy is an evil system. I'm very comfortable in making that moral statement because autocracy does things to people without their consent.

And Kagame is committed to maintaining autocracy at all costs. People are overlooking clear evidence of indirect involvement in war crimes in the Congo, assassinations and attempted assassinations of political opponents. Kagame is understandably concerned about protecting minority rights after the genocide. But he's also been involved in wars that are creating misery and death and suffering, and backing people who are accused of war crimes. And then somehow, Kagame is able to turn on the charm for American church leaders. It baffles me.

Much of your analysis is at a high level, focusing on World Bank or government interventions in other countries. Does this idea of rights apply to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and even to small nonprofit efforts?

The larger the NGO, the more these issues are serious and relevant. Also, a large NGO that has a major operation in a small country could be affecting the political outcome in that country, maybe indirectly lending support to an oppressive autocrat in power.

And even with a small NGO, you want to make sure that you are respecting the rights and dignity of the people you're working with and allowing them to choose what's happening under your project. That you're not forcing your project on them. It's very much based on their consent, their choice of what they want to happen. They need to be included in some important way in the project design and implementation.

And whether a big NGO or working on a small scale, in development there is often a power differential between the actors and those being, well, acted upon.

I'm glad you mentioned power. In development we tend to ignore the question: Who has the power?

That's another way of stating the infeasibility of moral neutrality. We are never neutral because there are always power implications of what we're doing. By acting in an applied way in a poor society, first of all, as you pointed out, we, the NGOs or the philanthropists, have a lot of power ourselves. We have to choose how to use that power in a way that does not make the people we're trying to help have less power or feel like something is being imposed on them. We also have to be sure our power is not in an alliance that will ripple out to support an oppressive power elsewhere in the society.

And an oppressive power is not always just a national dictator. It could also be local elites who are oppressing the more powerless victims. Sensitivity to power requires always trying to identify who has the power, and trying to help the powerless to avoid being victimized by those in power.

Have you seen any difference of between faith-based and non-faith-based NGOs, whether for good or ill, in this respect?

I don't have enough detailed knowledge of all the NGOs to give a good answer to that question. But one thing that comes to mind is the role of faith more generally in economics, which I think could have some implications for the NGO world. There's been good research by economists that suggest there are real, positive impacts of believing in God on many outcomes at the individual and family level.

There could be many reasons for that. One reason that we could apply to NGOs is that there is a struggle to get NGOs to do good things when there's no one observing whether they are, in fact, doing good things or not. I think one way in which a belief in a just God helps is that you have the feeling that even when no human actor is watching, God is watching you and that motivates you to good things.

This sounds like a really weird mash-up of economics theories with belief in God. But it solves a problem an economist would call "the principal–agent problem"—that a principal wants someone to do good things and then finds an agent to do those things on his or her behalf. This becomes a problem if the principal cannot observe whether the agent is doing what they want or not.

If the agent believes that God is watching, that does help.

Any advice for a 20-year-old reading this article who wants to "change the world"?

I love young people who want to change the world!

I think we need rebalancing. A large share of the effort has been going to direct technical solutions to poverty. But this has neglected the other option of advocacy and education for rights as an important moral goal. Rights also work to promote development.

It's most effective to advocate for a principle and then protest specific violations of that principle. It's not just about rhetoric or soaring language. It's protesting, for example, the World Bank project in Uganda that burned down farmers' homes and took their land away from them.

The Civil Rights movement inspires me. They were advocating a simple principle: that blacks and whites should have equal rights. Then their advocacy was protesting very specific violations of that principle with sit-ins at lunch counters and the freedom rides on buses. Demonstrations from Selma and Birmingham. They were showcasing rights violations by the local oppressors.

We need to identify our principles and protest specific violations, to get those principles more widely accepted.

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Poverty Is a Moral Problem