William Easterly touts the power of poor people, not experts, to address poverty

William Easterly


BG Independent News

William Easterly believes that poor people are the key to ending poverty.

He doesn’t have to look far to find a prime example in his father, Nathan William  Easterly, retired Bowling Green State University professor of biology.

His father, Easterly said, came from southern West Virginia. He was 3 years old when his father died. It was the middle of the Great Depression.

“It was really a heroic effort by him, his mother and his family for him to be able to climb out of that and become a professor at BGSU,” Easterly said “It was much easier for me as a professor’s kid to become a professor. That was the easy part. The hardest part was done by my father. And I’m enormously grateful to BGSU for making that possible for my father.”

Easterly followed his father’s academic path, though, in economics, not biology. He chose the field because it brought together his passion for mathematics and social justice.

“He got a PhD; I got a PhD,” the younger Easterly said. “He became a professor; I became a professor. He’s my role model. I really admire enormously what my father accomplished in his career. He had much further to go then I did.”

His father was present Sunday, when BGSU bestowed an honorary doctorate on his son in recognition of accomplishments as one of the world’s most read, most cited and most recognized economists.

Part of him still remains in Bowling Green. He stayed in town as long as he could until opportunities elsewhere forced him to leave. That included doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then a job at the World Bank.

That was his introduction to the way the West attempts to develop Africa.

Coming from Bowling Green gave him insight into the “condescending, patronizing view of the Midwest held by many on the East Coast where he made his career. “I feel I’m an ambassador from Bowling Green. The greatness of America is the small towns, and Bowling Green is a wonderful to example for me.

“It provided a wonderful life for both my father and me. It allowed us to have very satisfactory careers that gave us a lot of pleasure.”

The younger Easterly’s career has been as a critic of the foreign aid establishment – government aid agencies and non-governmental organizations alike. Arriving at that position was a matter of “self-awakening,” he said.

“I saw the solutions I believed in so simplistically were not working out as planned, and I wondered why other people around me were not questioning them more and having the same doubts,” he said.

Easterly left the World Bank and became a professor of economics at New York University where academic freedom allows him to speak out.

His views were developed in books, the two most recent being “The White Man’s Burden,” a sarcastic reference to the Rudyard Kipling poem, and “The Tyranny of Experts.”

That willingness to oppose the experts and call their dictums into question comes from Easterly’s roots in the small town Midwest.

Asked for an example of development gone wrong, he hesitated: “There are so many.”

One that has him “personally outraged” is removing poor Ethiopians from their land into “model” villages, that don’t have running water. This directly violates their rights.

The government wants “to sell land to rich foreign companies,” the economist said. “It’s a land grab that would enrich the government.”

While OXFAM and Human Rights Watch have spoken out against it, others have been complicit.

The aid system, Easterly contends, “is still kind of neo-colonial, with rich white people in charge and dictating the answers for poor black people who don’t have any rights. That’s why these bad things happen.

“There’s no simple answer,” he continued, “but at least we should care about the rights of poor people, that they have a right to their own property

Easterly added: “Of course the elephant in the room in terms of this discussion is the election of Donald Trump who is extremely anti-expert and goes way too far in not believing in any valid intellectual expertise or knowledge. … Probably the arrogance of the experts is partly to blame for that.”

The expert should be like a family doctor, Easterly said, advising and guiding patients to do what’s best for their health, but not dictating.

“Economic experts have to be like that,” Easterly said, “not saying put us in charge, give us all the power, let us dictate the solutions. Instead persuade. We have to persuade the voters that free trade is better than xenophobic protectionism. It has to be a process of persuasion, not dictation.”

He finds support for his beliefs in the progress being made in Africa.

“The media, NGOs and aid agencies have this incentive to spread these stereotypes of African disaster and catastrophe. That’s not an accurate picture. The everyday life of Africans is very different from what you read in the media and the aid brochures.”

The people are making progress by embracing new health technologies – anti-biotics, anti-worming drugs, clean water – that have sharply reduced infant mortality, he said.

While he gives some credit for aid agencies for making these available, he gives most of the credit to mothers for seeking them out and using them to treat their sick children.

Progress is also evident in “the amazing increase of cell phones.”

He said there are now more cell phone subscribers in Africa than there are in the United States. “These are farmers finding out where they sell their crops at the highest price,” Easterly said. “Entrepreneurs making deals. It’s been a real life blood of African revival.”

Rather than a continent still caught in the 14th century as another economist recently described it, Africa is a rising economic power. “Growth in Africa has been very good in the last 15 years, greater than the United States and Europe.”

That’s made possible by an inflow foreign direct investment as well as remittances from Africans living overseas. That investment is as large as the amount provided by foreign aid.

And it’s not just companies coming in to tap Africa’s resources. There are niche enterprises like the sale of cut flowers that has been an economic boost in Kenya and Ethiopia.

These tap probably Africa’s greatest resource: “The best hope for the end of world poverty is poor people themselves.”