On Wednesday night I gave a lecture at LSE called "We Don't Know How to Solve Global Poverty and That's a Good Thing." The abstract I wrote beforehand was:
This lecture argues that occasions when development economists were more certain about 'the solution to global poverty' have often led to harmful consequences for the world's poor in the long-run. Sceptical criticism is a creative force that redirects attention and effort away from centrally-directed expert solutions towards effective decentralised problem-solving.
Here are some responses: how economists don't understand the link between poverty and growth, a criticism of my claims to ignorance, and a bit more sympathetic summary.
I feel kind of like I am on a long personal intellectual journey trying to figure out how to reconcile my compassion for the world's poor with my painfully honest realization that there is no reliable evidence on exactly what to do to end poverty. Each new public lecture is trying out a solution to the conundrum on a smart audience, and then they educate me some more to take the next step (which will be tried in the next lecture).
I am trying to convince people that rigorous skepticism is a creative force because most of the damage is done by overconfident people who thought they knew the answer when they didn't. And such skepticism doesn't leave us empty-handed: it forces us back on what are our core values: democracy, human rights, individual liberties, that we follow for moral rather than pragmatic reasons. Autocratic "pragmatic" claims to deliver development if you will just give up your rights don't survive skeptical scrutiny.
One thing I learned from the LSE lecture is not to even bother trying to make any "pragmatic" case for democracy, because that evidence is just as weak as everything else, and that we can only choose democracy based on our values (which is also how historically it was chosen; there are no cases of societies choosing democracy based on econometric results).