Waylaid Dialectic

April 21, 2014

Make Hot Air History

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 7:58 pm
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In a field with so many big questions — does democracy promote growth on average? (probably), does aid promote growth on average? (quite possibly), can the planet industrialise within environmental constraints? (technologically probably yes; the problem is political economy) — it seems silly to devote space to a small one. But hey, this is a small blog, so…

…over the last few weeks I’ve been pondering the following: out of Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Easterly who has done more to impoverish development discourse in recent years? It’s a close run thing.

Easterly’s new book, judging by the reviews, is meandering and misleading. Sachs’ defence of himself the Millennium Villages on Econtalk was agonising.

It didn’t have to be this way: White Man’s Burden and End of Poverty, were useful books, even if they were both wrong for the most part. And both E&S have written great papers in years past (Easterly some of my all time favourite papers). Yet the inescapable fact would seem to be that both of them have become so caught up in their own Big Ideas they’ve become ideologues of the first order. (Given the ideology he advocates, the irony of Easterly doing this is particularly rich, bringing to mind Oakeshott’s critique of Hayek: “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.”)

Polemic’s fun of course, and even ideologues can still have good ideas. The trouble is development is difficult, there is a lot to learn, and nowhere near enough space to learn it in, and with all their bellowing, these two reduce that space even further.

July 16, 2013

Jeffrey Sachs, the Millennium Villages Project, and the — ever underated — evidence

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:48 am

Jeffrey Sachs, arguably the world’s most influential development economist, is no stranger to criticism. From the right, academics such as William Easterly have been attacking his advocacy of aid for at least a decade. On the left his opponents have been just as strident in critiquing his advocacy of privatisation, structural adjustment and trade liberalisation for even longer (for archetypal examples see this review in the Left Business Observer and critical opinion in the Nation Magazine here). Yet the latest round of criticism of Sachs feels different. [My latest post on Devpolicy; read more here.]

March 19, 2012


Filed under: Aid — terence @ 7:35 pm
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To my mind the answer to the question whether Jeffrey Sachs would be a good head of the World Bank depends, at least in part, on what exactly the core functions of the head of the World Bank are. What do we really need them to be good at?

If it’s management, I’m unsure. Sachs seems to do alright with the Earth Institute but there are certainly rumours floating around that suggest that he’s not easy to work with. These could just be rumours of course.

If it’s ideas, I think he’d be alright. Although he’s characterised as a big push, ‘aid is always good’ kind of guy, his thought’s actually a bit more interesting than that. And a bit more heterodox than the usual development econ stuff – at least with regards to aid. Quite possibly his ideas could be the spark for some interesting thinking at the World Bank.

If it’s diplomacy, as Felix Salmon suggests it is, then maybe Sachs would be too bombastic. But I’m not so sure. As someone in comments below Salmon’s post suggests, Sachs already does a fair bit of working with developing country governments and seems to be ok at that. What’s more his zeal for the cause would likely mean that at the other end of the diplomatic stick, standing up to pressure from developed countries, he’d probably be excellent. Much less likely to bend to US interests than Clinton or Summers I would say.

If it’s a track record with non-aid related development policy well…until this week I would have said that was something that definitely counted against him. His role in the Russia declarable, and the fact that he’s never publicly admitted to mistakes there, don’t count in his favour. But, on the other hand, he does defend himself pretty well in this debate in the Nation, and Mark Weisbrot, a diligent, smart, left-wing economist makes a good case for Sachs here. So maybe, maybe – on the other hand when I re-read Doug Henwood’s review of the End of Poverty my old doubts returned, somewhat.

Ultimately, the thing that counts against Sachs the most in my book is that he seems far too certain. And, it’s been a long time, I think, since he’s really – in an academic sense – engaged with evidence. Aid is difficult, and while it can work, it isn’t guaranteed to, and despite all the noise from all points of the ideological compass, we’re really not sure what the recipe for success is. My dream aid agency would be one that was openly plagued by doubt – one which wasn’t sure of itself but which let research lead policy (not the other way round as the World Bank was wont to do in the past). And which spent a lot of time and money on evaluations. And which openly discussed and debated it’s failures. For all its past problems the World Bank has seemed in recent years to be shambling in this direction. Which is great – and I fear Sachs would stifle this.

Then again, Larry Summers might too, and who knows with Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, my ultimate answer to whether I’d vote for Sachs at the helm of the World Bank depends on who the alternative options are. I’d take Sachs over quite a few of the likely contenders. On the other hand, were it a head to head match up between Sachs and Sri Mulyani, like Stephen and Jonathan, my vote would go to the woman from Indonesia.

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