Posts Tagged ‘William Easterly’

Development Practice Should Learn from the Lessons of History

December 14, 2014

I would like to end my Sustainability and the Commons blogging experience by sharing my most profound moment in this class; the first lecture, the first slide and my first real inkling of what this module would encompass:

Chief Seattle“How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

This we know; the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites our family. All things are connected.”

Chief Seattle, Suquamish Tribe, 1848

Revisiting Chief Seattle after all these weeks makes his words more powerful, thus enhancing their gravitas further. In addition, anyone else who has read William Easterly’s latest book, The Tyranny of Expertswill agree with me that this passage epitomises one of Easterly’s three major thematic shifts in the paradigm of approaching development practice that he has labelled as ‘history vs. blank slate thinking’. The other two are nation vs. individual, and central planning vs. spontaneous solutions. 

According to Easterly, “Blank slate thinking thus opened the door for development experts to reject the utility of the West’s history of individual rights and development as a precedent.”  He goes on to add that, “The conventional approach to development…is based on a technocratic illusion: the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilisers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements.” 


Christopher Stern’s blog, ‘IN MY EXPERT OPINION: EASTERLY, EXPERTISE, & DEVELOPMENT PRACTICE’, reviews the book in more depth here.

Nevertheless, I would like to echo Christopher’s appeal to his fellow Development Practice students, Class of 2015; as MSc NGO and Development Management students, Class of 2015, let us engage with history and historicity in our development practice, such as the normative concept of the commons which we are all experts on now.

I agree with him that this is truly imperative if we are to avoid the folly that Chief Seattle is talking about. The fundamental concepts of import here are agency and accountability.  As Easterly puts it, “The sleight of hand that focuses attention on technical solutions while covering up violations of the rights of real people….is the moral tragedy of development today.” 

Therefore, let us guard against allowing our legacies, as ‘Informed Development Practitioners’ (Meera™), to mirror Chief Seattle’s experts who never even considered the possibility that his history or that of any of the other ‘developing’ regions could exist outside of their relationships to Western economists.

For all the criticisms labeled against The Tyranny of Experts, I accept Easterly’s ‘shocking indictments’, to all of us ‘experts’, and his insistence upon a development practice that learns from the lessons of history. The salient point here being the appreciation of contextual heterogeneity, not a universal application of the same old lesson.

As Christopher puts it, if one is to speak of sleight of hand, it is quite a trick to use history to recast the unrestrained capitalist impulses of Europe as the would-be heroes of global development while construing local dissenters as antagonists. Let us go forth with confidence in our quest to bring ‘good change’.