Based in Toronto, Canada, Humilitatem is a student publishing group inspired by the conflicts of the 20th and 21st century. Through its Interdisciplinary approach, it seeks to offer an environment of (un)learning, whereby readers and content creators can exchange knowledge not bound to the imposed structure of European/American Academia. We hope that the contents of this blog will be used to shed light on the significance of resistance and encourage active participation in acts of resistance. 

Book Review: The Tyranny of Experts

Re-envisioning the global system of development


For any reader or scholar who wrestles with the complex discourse regarding the history and evolution of international development, William Easterly's thought-provoking book Tyranny of Experts is an excellent source that challenges the common narrative of international development. Through his analysis of various case studies and reflection on the evolution of development studies and development policies, Easterly depicts the dangers of relying on technocratic approaches. Drawing from a laissez-faire and liberal theoretical framework, the book puts forth the argument that the widespread of individual rights and "spontaneous development" are the only effective means of eradicating poverty. In presenting this argument, the author strongly critiques those who support technocratic approaches that give rise to a "benevolent autocrat. (pg.vii)" This argument has no doubt several merits, yet many are its flaws. In my view, the book has a plethora of inconsistencies that weaken its critical argument. By reflecting on these shortcomings, I hope that I can put forth my view on the contested question: what is the best model of development? I also wish to inspire new discourse on among future generations, who will lead the charge against disproportional development across the globe.

An ode to free-development

Easterly’s main argument asserts that since its emergence international development has put aside the individual rights of the poor, to establish conscious development policies. This has consequently resulted in an over-reliance on technocratic approaches which consider the issue of global poverty as "a purely technical problem amendable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics and nutritional supplements (pg.6)." According to Easterly, this conception is highly problematic and is responsible for the ineffective development policies of the past and present. There are several issues with the technocratic approach. Firstly, it has a misconstrued illusion on the causes of poverty. It considers poverty to be an issue caused by a lack of technical experts, though in reality technical approaches only address "symptoms of poverty." As argued by Easterly, the true cause of poverty is a lack of rights being attributed to the poor (pg.7).

The second prevailing issue with the technocratic approach is the inherent racism and imperialistic attitudes towards countries in the Global South, those who have been victims of European exploitation. In the book's discussion on development in China, Colombia, and the African continent, it is evident that the development policies enacted to alleviate issues of poverty were established in a time where racism and imperial perspectives were not only commonplace but the norm (pg.35). Therefore, these approaches ironically deny "the Rest" equal access to the same rights and liberties. Without these rights, the individuals who are victims of poverty are alienated because they cannot form the necessary political and economic systems that address the unique local challenges towards development (pg.82).

Lastly, Easterly demonstrates that one of the biggest issues of the technocratic approach is their tendency to support and prompt, power-hungry actors, who would act as a so-called benevolent autocrat. Though done with good intentions, the technocratic approach views development as a process in which a good intentioned autocrat received advice from technical experts (pg.11). The experts who advocate for such an approach do not consider autocracies to be a solution or an end in itself, however, they believe that it allows for expert solutions to be enacted faster. In reality, this approach leads to an "unchecked power of the state against the poor," creating an endless cycle of poverty governed (pg.14).

In constructing the above arguments, the author credits two revolutionary economists Friedrich Hayek and Gunnar Myrdal, who in 1974 were awarded the Nobel in Economics for their contribution to the scholarship on economic development. Hayek and Myrdal were two fundamentally different economists who embodied opposing sides to the debate on authoritarian development versus free development. According to Easterly, Hayek was an innovative thinker who made significant contributions to the notion that the proliferation of individual rights is the most viable solution to self-development (pg.22). In contrast, Mydral held the rigid belief that development was only attainable through forceful and compulsory actions of the government. (pg.18) For Myrdal, individual rights were considered to be insignificant in the fight against poverty because he believed that the poor lacked the initiative to enforce their rights (pg.19).  The reference to these forgotten authors serves two purposes to the books overall goals. First, it exhibits that the discussion of development was not something that emerged after 1949. Second, it justifies how the authoritarian approach came to denominate policies of development, neglecting the insightful propositions raised by those in favour of free development. Easterly who adopts the normative economic philosophies of Hayek's, illustrates how this view was abandoned. The abandonment of these views is problematic and dangerous to our understanding of development because the debate on authoritarian versus free-development involves very nuance dichotomies that need to be carefully considered.  

Implicit Implications on the International Development

In my opinion, the most profound contribution of this book was its demonstration of the existence of development policies prior to 1945. I think Easterly's presentation of Hayek and like-minded scholars on development economists, illustrates the inherent eurocentrism and colonial perspectives towards the early stages of development. This contribution is quite similar to the imaginary discussion between a British Colonial Officer in 1936 and a well-informed time traveller, in the first Chapter of Rober Jackson's book Quasi-States Sovereignty International Relations and the Third world (pg.13). Similar to the British Officer, Mydral and other pro-technocratic development solutions have failed to reflect on the implications of the current issues facing development. This comparison presents the unavoidable reality that contemporary development policies still harbour aspects of the colonial mindset, thus making our current approaches less effective. Though critical scholars as early as Hayek have developed arguments against these technocratic approaches, and have portrayed their inherently racist flaws, as proven by Easterly these critical and anti-colonial perspectives have not been successful in introducing effective change in the scholarship. I think that the large-scale recognition of this shortcoming is a fundamental step towards increasing awareness of these issues but also re-opening the so-called "unanswered debate surrounding development (pg.43)."

Easterly’s Misconstrued Assumptions

Though Easterly's book and overall arguments have been influential to the study of development, some aspects of these arguments are either based on assumptions or infer casual relationships from two unrelated factors, which weaken the logic of the argument being presented. One of the greatest shortcomings of this book was its ironic inability to acknowledge its own Eurocentric biases, grounded in liberal economic philosophy. As previously mentioned, Easterly strongly argues that the distribution of individual rights which allow for the formation of free and competitive markets is a better method of combating poverty and its symptoms (pg.237). These arguments are weakened when considering the fact that they rely on generalizations to offers causation and correlation. Like the technocrats that Easterly criticizes, his arguments about individual rights and spontaneous development in the form of open marketization falls into the trap of providing a generalized solution to the issue of global poverty. Just because the implication of liberal economic philosophies led to the development of some European countries and some former Global South countries such as South Korea, does not validate the implication of concrete correlation between these circumstances. In fact, I think that the specific propositions made by Easterly have the undesired potential to paradoxically give impetus to the arguments presented by Myral and other technocrats. The general assumption that individual rights are necessary for development pokes at a controversial debate on the universality of rights. The current understanding of human right is equally a victim of Eurocentrism. In fact, many scholars disagree with the notion that there exist a set of universal rights applicable to all individuals for the sake that they are human. On the contrary, they suggest that these rights are a product of years of implicit and explicit social engineering. For example, Ethan Waters describes how in 2013 social psychologists discovered through social experimentation on tribes in Latin America that there is flawed perception that all humans are naturally predisposed to act according to Western rational-economic behaviour (pg.467). Though as this study and many others have proven, this is not the truth (pg. 468). Therefore, by imposing the necessity of individual rights and marketization Easterly is universalizing rights made by European cultures and societies. Unlike Myral, this critique does not claim that people in the Global South do not require rights or that they are incapable of utilizing their rights. Instead, it advises the need to consider why each society emphasizes the need for different rights (pg.143). Hence why the international community felt the need to establish and ratify two separate international treaties on human rights: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights.

Another prominent weakness of Easterly's argument is the justification presented for the claim that under no circumstances should development rely on a benevolent autocrat. Though it is true that reliance on autocratic regimes is only a temporary process and should never be viewed as a tangible solution, this does not refute the argument that at times "autocratic development" is necessary. Not only does this lack of refutation weaken the argument, but it also fails to address the prominent issue of liberal paradox. This logical paradox purports the question: how do you establish the structure for a liberal society without at first infringing on certain liberal freedoms (Karstedt, pg.53)? Easterly can be criticized for evading this component of the debate, similar to those technocrats he critiques. Alternatively, scholars such as Roland Paris have been more successful in engaging with the question that arises from the liberal paradox. Paris's answer to this question contradicts Easterly's arguments that development policies relying on authoritarian regimes are doomed to fail. Through an analysis of 14 UN humanitarian development missions, before the global war on terror, Paris presents the convincing argument that there is a need for "institutionalization before liberalization (pg.14)." This means that prior to introducing democratic process and free-market policies which promote local self-development, states need to have effective governments and strong domestic institutions that can meet the demands of democratic and capitalistic society (pg.28). What makes this argument even more persuasive is Paris's examination of East Timor, which was at one point in time considered a failed state. Though after the UNSC intervention into the internal conflict of the state, and the placement of an authoritarian government led by UN experts, the country was able to build the necessary institutions required to accommodate for liberalization. Since then Eat Timor hold free democratic elections, is one of the most prominent success cases of development (pg.67). Thus using similar a similar pattern of reasoning as in the book, it can be determined that Easterly's lack of engagement with the issue of liberal paradox and persuasive arguments from scholars such as Paris, limits the claims that all authoritarian development is terrible.

It is important to note that the above criticism did not serve the intention of devaluing the importance and virtue of liberal democracies and open-markets. Nor did it seek to claim that Easterly's book was not worth reading. Instead, it tried to demonstrate that although Easterly raises some valuable points regarding alternative approaches to development, at times he neglects to consider how his own biases have influenced his work.


 In the book, Tyranny of Experts the author examines a plethora of problems within contemporary and past debates regarding development. Through his analysis of an alternative history of development, he presents arguments on why the technocratic approach to development is dangerous. Though I enjoyed engaging with Easterly's arguments, at times they did not provide coherent logical reasoning. As a result, I am not entirely convinced that authoritarian development should be antagonized to the extent it was in this book. Furthermore, I am also concerned about how Easterly's well-intentioned demand for individual rights for the people of Global South can be used as a platform to further impose Eurocentric ideals onto the same people. Nevertheless, I still believe that this thought-provoking book should be read by all development scholars since it provides insight into critical issues on development.


Works Cited

Easterly, William. The tyranny of experts: Economists, dictators, and the forgotten rights of the poor. Basic Books, 2014.

Jackson, Robert H. Quasi-states: sovereignty, international relations and the Third World. Vol. 12. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Karstedt, Susanne. "Democracy, values, and violence: Paradoxes, tensions, and comparative advantages of liberal inclusion." The annals of the American academy of political and social science605.1 (2006): 50-81.

Paris, Roland, and Timothy D. Sisk, eds. The dilemmas of statebuilding: confronting the contradictions of postwar peace operations. Routledge, 2009.

Watters, Ethan. "We Aren't the World." Equilibri 18.3 (2014): 466-484.



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