After their brief holiday rest and revelry we can expect our politicians to reappear next year, armed once again with their competing ‘development plans”. Unfortunately they are all based on what the ex-World Bank economist William Easterly criticises as “the ideology of Development”. Like all ideologies, Easterly notes, “Developmentalism” promises a comprehensive final answer to all of society’s problems, from poverty and illiteracy to violence and despotic rulers.
It shares the common ideological characteristic of suggesting there is only one correct answer, and it tolerates little dissent. It deduces this unique answer for everyone from a general theory that purports to apply to everyone, everywhere. There’s no need to involve local actors who reap its costs and benefits. Developmentalism even has its own intelligentsia, made up of experts at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and UN. These experts see poverty as a purely technological problem, to be solved by engineering and the natural sciences.
Jeffery Sachs, Columbia University’s celebrity economist, is one of its main proprietors. His own plan features hundreds of expert interventions to solve every last problem of the poor—from green manure, breast-feeding education, and bicycles to solar-energy systems, school uniforms for aids orphans, and windmills. Not to mention such critical interventions as “counselling and information services for men to address their reproductive health needs.” All this will be done, Sachs says, by “a united and effective United Nations country team, which coordinates in one place the work of the U.N. specialized agencies, the IMF, and the World Bank.”
So the admirable concern of rich countries for the tragedies of world poverty is thus channelled into fattening the international aid bureaucracy, the self-appointed priesthood of Developmentalism. Like other ideologies, this thinking favours collective goals such as national poverty reduction, national economic growth, and the global Millennium Development Goals, over the aspirations of individuals.
Bureaucrats who write poverty-reduction frameworks outrank individuals who actually reduce poverty by, say, starting a business. Just as Marxists favoured world revolution and socialist internationalism, Developmentalism stresses world goals over the autonomy of societies to choose their own path. It favours doctrinaire abstractions such as “market-friendly policies,” “good investment climate,” and “pro-poor globalisation” over the freedom of individuals.
Developmentalism also shares another Marxist trait: It aspires to be scientific. Finding the one correct solution to poverty is seen as a scientific problem to be solved by the experts. They are always sure they know the answer, vehemently reject disagreement, and then later change their answers.
In psychiatry, this is known as Borderline Personality Disorder. For the Developmental Experts, it’s a way of life. The answer at first was aid-financed investment and industrialization in poor countries, then it was market-oriented government policy reform, then it was fixing institutional problems such as corruption, then it was globalisation, then it was the Poverty Reduction Strategy to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Today it is “bear strain”.
One reason the answers keep changing is because, in reality, high-growth countries follow a bewildering variety of paths to development, and the countries with high growth rates are constantly changing from decade to decade. What could be more different than successful developers such as China and Chile, Botswana and Singapore, Taiwan and Turkey, or Hong Kong and Vietnam? What about the many countries who tried to emulate these rising stars and failed?
The experts in Developmentalism’s Politburo don’t bother themselves with such questions. All the previous answers were right; they were just missing one more “necessary condition” that the experts have only just now added to the list. Like all ideologies, Developmentalism is at the same time too rigid to predict what will work in the messy, real world and yet flexible enough to forever escape falsification by real-world events. The high church of Development, the World Bank, has guaranteed it can never be wrong by making statements such as, “different policies can yield the same result, and the same policy can yield different results, depending on country institutional contexts and underlying growth strategies.”
Of course, you still need experts to figure out the contexts and strategies.