Last Monday we had the pleasure of hosting a few of our closest friends at Cooper Union’s Great Hall to celebrate the launch of Professor Easterly’s new book, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor. Paul Romer gave a gracious introduction, and many audience members had the chance to question Bill’s audacious theories in a Q&A at the end of the lecture. Below are just a few selected clips from the evening (Paul’s introduction, Bill on his membership in Authoritarians Anonymous, and his answer to the perennial favorite question: “But What Can I Do?”). To hear more, take a look at the author’s speaking schedule for the next few months which will take him to Boston, DC, the West Coast and London, and of course, read the book.
NPR’s The Takeaway asks in an interview with one of our local troublemakers this week, are billionaire philanthropists the true champions in the fight against poverty? Listen to at least part of the audio to get the tone of the critique, as well as read the selected transcripts below.
Bill Easterly: I have nothing to take away from the billionaires who are very generous, who are spending on the poor rather than on private jets – that’s great. But what can actually happen is they can also have too much influence on the way we see the whole problem of global poverty.
Gates has this ‘great man’ approach to development in which he sees great national leaders and great philanthropists like himself doing all the good things that happen. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian government…that he praised a year ago in his Annual Letter from his Foundation is not doing great things. He is very naïve to think that the government is benevolent and is actually contributing to development. They actually are serial human rights abusers that are destroying development.
Before Gates’ annual letter… there was a peaceful blogger named Eskinder Nega who was sentenced to eighteen years in prison simply for advocating more democracy in Ethiopia, for writing about the Arab Democratic Spring.
This kind of democratic activism is what you need to make government leaders benevolent. If you think of our own Chris Christie scandal on the bridge – that’s the sign of democracy working, that we keep Chris Christie from doing something bad. He’ll never do it again. No other governor will ever do it again.
John Hockenberry (host): Can’t you make an argument that you want to be separate from politics? The United Nations and many NGOs try to stay out. For instance, CARE and the Red Cross are completely independent from politics. [They] go into Ethiopia regardless of what the government is doing and get access because of their objectivity, or their detachment from politics.
Bill Easterly: That’s the perpetual temptation in poverty reduction: to think you can do something that’s technically pure that’s free from politics. Unfortunately that’s a delusion. Let me give you one example of that. Famine relief you might think is as a-political it can get. But unfortunately to go back to Ethiopia, the same government Gates was praising was caught red-handed using famine relief to only give it to the supporters of the ruling party. They denied it to the opposition party members. They were starving the opposition – in the middle of a famine they were rewarding their own supporters and staying in power by that means.
Mr Gates says there has been much progress, but that “we’ll need to apply human ingenuity and act on our compassion” to keep it going. Conversely, he equates the idea that “the world is getting worse” to the idea that “we can’t solve extreme poverty and disease”. For Mr Gates, apparently, much depends on what “we” do. But who are “we”, and who put us in charge? Mr Gates seems to have in mind the global elite whose most prominent representatives were this week assembled in Davos: political leaders, business executives, philanthropists, academics and functionaries from international institutions such as the World Bank. … The progress that Mr Gates celebrates is the work of entrepreneurs, inventors, traders, investors, activists – not to mention ordinary people of commitment and ingenuity striving for a better life. Davos Man may not be ready to acknowledge that he does not hold the fate of humanity in his gilded hands. But that need not stop the rest of us.