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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Different Faces of Power

I have been reading a provocative book about “development” which came out recently and whose very title gives a flavour of its thesis - The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (the link gives the full text!).
From its many reviews, it has already created quite a furore in the extensive community which has been earning its (considerable) living from advising poorer countries for the past 50-60 years.
I found myself engaged in a bit of a confessional when I tried to put down my initial thoughts about the book’s thesis. This post explains why - the next post will try to summarise the book’s content and the arguments it has produced.

“Development consultancy” is a term used for people funded by international agencies who fly into countries which have been designated as “underdeveloped” and write reports and implement programmes designed to increase their social and economic wellbeing….(that of the hosts that is (!) Sadly the reality has generally proved disappointing and had, by the 80s attracted a considerable backlash led by the likes of PD Bauer.

The collapse of communism in 1989 gave development (and other sorts of) economists the kiss-of-life…..not least in central and Eastern Europe where I found myself occasionally rubbing shoulders with some of them. By then I had morphed from a specialist in “urban and community development” (with both academic and political roles) in the West of Scotland (1970-1990) to a role as a technical consultant in “institutional development” – working on programmes in central Europe (and central Asia) designed to develop the capacity of state bodies to serve the interests of citizens in democratic societies…….if the reader will forgive me for the jargon……I offered some thoughts about this experience in a recent post (more fully developed in one of my E-books Crafting Effective Public Management)
Some 20 years ago I penned a small autobiographical book entitled “Puzzling Development” marking that change of role – a book whose cover carried the famous 1871 painting “The Geographer” by Henri de Braekeleer and whose subtitle was “Odyssey of a Modern Candide” – a theme which has run though quite a few of my scribbles since the 70s. 

The introduction promises to cover issues relating to bureaucratic, urban and policy change; public involvement; privatisation; and technical assistance and covered experience of four countries

In 1977 I had produced my first little book – “The Search for Democracy” whose cover showed community activists poring over a map and, I noticed yesterday for the first time in 25 or so years, a puzzled little boy cut out from the main group and standing alone at the side…….my alter ego and hero no less - Hans Christian Anderson’s creation who dared utter the magic words “but the Emperor has no clothes!!). Its sub-title had been “a guide to and polemic about Scottish local government” and it tried to answer 43 questions which people I worked with would ask me

Was it significant that the cover of my later and most rigorous book - In Transit – notes on good governance (1999) – written as a calling card for the younger generation I was by then working with in ex-communist countries - showed simply a rock on an Atlantic beach with the geological strata starkly revealed by the ocean’s pounding…..???? Had I even then become fatalistic about human endeavour???

But “revenons aux moutons” as the French say…..the author of The Tyranny of Experts is an American guy called William Easterly who published an earlier book in 2006 with the equally provocative title - The White Man’s Burden – why the west’s efforts to aid the rest of the world have done so much ill and so little good.
Easterly, clearly, is a sceptic – but scepticism is a feature I value – have a look at my Sceptic’s Glossary if you don’t believe me. It’s actually called “Just Words - a glossary and bibliography for the fight against the pretensions and perversities of power” 
Sceptics challenge what JK Galbraith wonderfully called “the conventional wisdom” and, providing they actually embody the spirit of sceptical inquiry, are a necessary and critical element in any intellectual journey….I add the qualification simply because quite a few contrarians do have an agenda (generally a libertarian one). 

We have an ambivalent attitude to “experts” – even medical ones – conceding that engineers and surgeons deserve our respect but rightly questioning the “expertise” of many experts in the field of social sciences….particularly those employed by powerful international bureaucracies which certainly have agendas of their own…..
But it is the development economists that Easterly has it in for……who seduce the powerful with talk of the wealth and progress which will come if only they follow their advice….

I found the opening section of the book very worthwhile because –
- it gives a rare insight into the start of the discipline of development economics; some of its key figures and arguments; and its “divorce” from mainstream economics
- it questions the focus on the nation, reminding us that the infrastructure of economics is based (questionably for many of us) on the “rationality” of the individual consumer and (small) company
- it reminds us of how important to the development of capitalism was the challenge to power of the spirit of liberty

As it happens, my University course developed an interest for me in the space between the nation and the individual company – and how its operations might be improved ie regional, urban and, latterly, community development.
And one of the people whose writings made a big impression on me (some ten years later) was Ivan Illich whose challenge to the power of health and educational professionals was a breath of fresh air for me and profoundly influenced  the community power element of Strathclyde Region’s Social Strategy for the Eighties which I helped shape.

Illich was, of course, your quintessential anarchist – distrusting the sort of well-intentioned power held by those of us who managed a social strategy which went on to shape the strategies of the system of the Scottish governments which have held power in the past 15 years……But governments have to select priorities for both their attention and funding. With some hesitation we did designate what we called in the late 1970s “areas of priority treatment” - initially 45 of them whose inhabitants’ lives we tried to assist with the help of community structures led by community activists assisted by development workers….
I doubt whether we got the balance right between community, professional and political power – and subsequent events demonstrated how easily economic power caps everything……But at least we tried

The question for readers of Easterly’s book is how well he deals with those different faces of power……….

The cartoon is by a brilliant Romanian - Bogdan Petry - whose exhibition we saw this week in the Campulung gallery. His savage work is on a par with the great Ralph Steadman......

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