‘We don’t know how to end global poverty and that’s a good thing’: notes and thoughts on LSE lecture from @billeasterly

"Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you going to the poverty lecture, the Old Theatre is completely full up. Please follow the signs to the new theatre for a videolink."

There are superstar academics. And then there's Bill Easterly. He's scruffy, he trips over long words. But he's very witty. And he's in his element with an audience of LSE development students, nervous charity workers and academics, mostly keen to hear him take on traditional aid narratives. I'd call him anti-establishment, but everybody knows he speaks several truths.

A quick round up:

His argument

1. We don't know how to end global poverty actually translates as 'we don't know what creates economic growth'. All the answers of the 60s (go plan!), 80s (loose all your price controls! Let free markets ring!), 90s (erm, it's a sort of mish-mash, long live Good Governance!), 00s (security!): none of them have been proven to generate growth. The data from sub-Saharan Africa is often seriously flawed anyway.

1a. And who's the 'we' – rich Western people? So even if we knew how, we'd have to impose it in an authoritarian manner.

2. So stop prescribing things. Benevolent dictators are not cool. It's a fluke! There's no evidence that planning works.

3. But it is okay to take a normative approach and say that our Western liberal way is the right way. Jefferson just stated his values, he didn't run 4m regression analyses to come with them. And there is a bit of evidence that suggests that respect for individual rights and the rule of law leads to growth. And check out America, we did okay for ourselves.

Critique

So he writes off prescriptive approaches, then prescribes something. It's as though he comes, blinking, out of the economists' cave where they try to model everything, into the real world, but then dives back in.

No, to be fair, he's arguing that if you free people from prescriptions then they'll make their own way to growth. There's no one answer save for the answer that gives millions of small solutions. John Bird of the Big Issue is on hand to point out that 'millions of small solutions' overlap, are inefficient etc. But that'll sort itself out.

Perhaps this is revolutionary for a development economist, but it's pretty obvious to most people. Not all developmenty people are economists. They haven't all argued that growth is the holy grail. NGOs lined up to decry the IMF's structural adjustment plans, which weren't great. The anthropologists, sociologists, even lawyers, scientists and political policy people, recognise that localism is key. Context is king. The efforts of the academic economists to find the key to growth are like alchemy. But he's right that a lot of global financial institution money tends to chase fads.

And i'm pretty sure that there are some universals: like security.  If a gunman is going to steal your earnings, it'll make development difficult. Not sure your average Somalian benefits from an absence of outside engagement.

The data thing – if we can't get accurate economic data, can't we run clever sampling surveys of quality of life?

The general gist of his argument takes me back to that question you get into when you're really deep in Development Studies – is an increase in wealth something we should actually aim for? Is development a good thing? Are '[insert name of poor community]' people actually happy with their lot? (the old poverty-glamour fun)…the point is: it doesn't matter. It's not 'our' place to say. It's for every economically poor individual to decide. And guess what most of the global poor would say…

Prof. Easterly writes regularly at www.aidwatch.org and posts even more regularly @billeasterly

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