For the second time this year, the Duke Center for International Development at the Sanford School of Public Policy organized a discussion of a book in the news. This time it was William Easterly’s “The Tyranny of Experts”. The panel kicking off the discussion consisted of Professors Sarah Bermeo, Cory Krupp and Amar Hamoudi. The moderator was Professor Michael Munger.

At the moderator’s request, panelists prefaced their comments with a few words about their background and experience in the development and foreign aid fields. Prof. Hamoudi illustrated the book’s thesis with an anecdote: He told the story of a priest in a developing country who had been asked by a farmer for his advice on how to stop the mysterious death of some of his chickens: the priest offered various remedies, but all of the chickens died. He proclaimed it was “God’s will”. He likened this to Easterly’s thesis that development “experts” do not have solutions and cannot be held accountable – and the poor suffer..

This provided the setting for the panelists to debate the book’s three main themes:

* whether international assistance promotes development and can help combat poverty or actually makes it worse by propping up bad governments;

* the validity of the technocratic recommendations of international development experts; and

* the role of the market (and individual entrepreneurs) as a problem-solving system.

Panelists, while expressing differing views, underlined that Easterly’s provocative book reflected classical development challenges, including: whether aid can provide benefits even in countries with bad policies and weak institutions; whether there were generally applicable theories and “solutions” of development; how accountability can be built into situations where there are many actors and poor recipients have little political power.; and whether the international aid community had learned the right lessons from past experience. A major theme of the discussion was whether successful development and poverty reduction are possible without individual rights and democracy. The moderator recalled Amartya Sen’s celebrated statement that “Democratic countries do not have famines.”

The subsequent wide-ranging discussion with students and faculty in the audience underlined the need for a multi-disciplinary approach to development policy and project design, facilitated by an interactive process between international and local expertise that takes account of relevant political and social factors. “You need to create an environment that allows experimentation and spontaneous solutions”, said one panelist. “You need to give space for competition, which requires the rule of law to ensure enforcement of contracts” said another.

While the panelists held differing views – both on the themes discussed and even whether those themes were found in Easterly’s book – all agreed that Bill Easterly had once again issued a challenge to those who consider themselves “development experts.”

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