07 March 2011

#DRI2011 Conference In Review: Easterly

This week, I will have a post reviewing each of the presentations from last Friday's Development Research Institute's annual conference. The posts will act as a summary of the points made by the presenters as well as some additional commentary and explanations. A group of those watching live-tweeted the event using the #DRI2011, so check out the tag to re-read some of the live commentary. As always, I welcome comments, thoughts and additions.

Bill Easterly - From Skepticism to Development
To kick things off, Easterly took down the very title of his talk saying, " I have gotten this reputation as a destructive skeptic. Want to be more constructive that destructive." No surprise to anyone who has been reading Aid Watchers as of late, Easterly discussed the false notion of the benevolent autocrat. A healthy skeptic, Easterly wanted to see if there was good reason to support autocrats.

In short, the data reveals that only 10% of autocrats are successes and the same group are responsible for all the big economic failures. A by Easterly shows how volatile growth is amongst nations with autocrats verses the steady growth of democracies. To him, you might as well go bet all of your savings on black on the roulette wheel at Vegas. That is the kind of risk that is at stake. Finally, he adds the important issue of human rights which are regularly violated by autocrats and secured in democracies.

With this data, why does the support remain? Naturally, this was an idea which the audience was not too happy to hear. Easterly points to media bias. A Google search shows that there are 13x more citations for the benevolent dictator compared to those against. With so much discussion before, it has become accepted as fact. The bias also extends to focusing on leaders.

Although he did not use this specific example, one could point to the praise heaped onto Bill Belichick for guiding the New England Patriots to Super Bowl wins. Yes, he is a great coach, but it is foolish to pin all of the successes on him alone. In fact, it would wrong to say it was mostly because of him. No to mention the players on the team, you have to factor in a freak

injury, a bizarre rule, snow, a poorly played game by the Rams, a season with little other injuries, and one with a weaker pool of teams in order to account for the first Super Bowl win. Belichick is every bit of an autocrat in the world of the Patriots, but if it were not for Mo Lewis, Tom Brady may have never taken a snap and Belichick could have had as much success as he had with the Browns.

The talk finished up with a lot of questions and displayed why he generally has skepticism to much of what is considered to work in aid and development. Retelling the story of the block near NYU which progress from wilderness to brothels to industry to wealth, Easterly highlights how there are many unknowns in the field of development.

Aside from questions that had nothing to do with his talk, I had a feeling of general push-back from some of the questions that pertained to the talk. What I think was missed was the fact that Easterly basically was saying that the economic data shows that autocrats are not great for growth. Then, toss in the fact that they have little regard for human rights and it becomes pretty tough to make a reasonable argument for an autocrat. However, people will defend away. Funny, as the current long-term autocrats are being turned over, their former/current cheerleaders have been exposed and condemned. In a few decades the supporters of Kagame will be in the same position and it will continue on and on as long as people stand behind the 'benevolent autocrat.'