Trust the Development Experts ? All 7 Billion

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Why should we care about the debacle of a World Bank report? Because this report represents the final collapse of the “development expert” paradigm that has governed the west’s approach to poor countries since the second world war. All this time, we have hoped a small group of elite thinkers can figure out how to raise the growth rate of a whole economy. If there was something for “development experts” to say about attaining high growth, this talented group would have said it.

What went wrong? Experts help as long as there are useful general principles, such as could be established by comparing low-growth and high-growth countries. The Growth Commission correctly pointed out that such an attempt to find secrets to growth has failed. The Growth Commission concluded that “answers” had to be country specific and even period specific. But if each moment in each country is unique, then experts cannot learn from any other experience – so on what basis do they become an “expert”?

The logical next step at this point would have been to give up on experts. But the commission insists that ex?perts, who will communicate their ad?vice to technocratic leaders, are still the answer. Partly this reflects how wedded the World Bank is to the “leaders and experts” vision of how growth happens, since such a world-view does create a big role for World Bank experts.

The commission made the common mistake of anointing high growth rates as the measure of success, whereas high growth mysteriously comes and goes. Indeed, only two of the 13 high-growth episodes the commission studied were still going at the time of the study. Yesterday’s growth failures (for example India) are today’s successes and yesterday’s growth successes (for example Brazil) are today’s failures. Much of this volatility is inexplicable and unpredictable. To give credit to whatever leader happens to be in power during a burst of high growth is just circular reasoning (How do we know they were a great leader? Because there was high growth!).

The details of success are equally unpredictable. Where are the experts who guessed in advance that an obscure Indian company making edible oils would become a $10bn-plus company (Wipro) providing information technology services and call centres? Or that a lossmaking Brazilian state enterprise (Embraer) would go on to capture a lot of the world market for regional jets after being privatised? Or that South Korean entrepreneurs would create a carmaker (Hyundai) with greater market value than General Motors or Ford? Or that a schoolteacher named Dong Ying Hong, formerly earning $9 a month in Datang, China, would become a millionaire making socks?

What to do in a world of such unpredictability? There are some general principles and they do not require experts. Another Nobel laureate gave the crucial insight a long time ago – the answer is freedom for multitudinous individuals to figure out their own answers. Friedrich Hayek said: “Liberty is essential to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable; we want it because we have learned to expect from it the opportunity of realising many of our aims. It is because every individual knows so little and … because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.”

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Source: Brookings (link opens in a new window)