The Times yesterday, per the extremely generous Virginia Postrel, reviewed the latest critique of international development assistance, White Man’s Burden, by William Easterly. The genre isn’t a new one – writers have long savaged the World Bank for being bureaucratic, the West for being stingy, and political leaders of the developing world for being corrupt. If you define the whither-development genre broadly enough, you could throw in the much-noticed recent work of economists like Glaeser & Shleifer, and perhaps even law professors like Hansmann & Kraakman, on the keys for the development of prosperity-creating markets in the west, as opposed to elsewhere (to oversimplify, it’s independent courts and asset shielding aspects of the corporate form, respectively).
In international trade, a subject that I teach, the so-called Doha round of talks is explicitly focused on creating a trade deal that will help to spur development. Easterly appears to be sympathetic to a “trade not aid” approach to international development; he thinks that development assistance must be paired with incentives – that anti-malarial drugs should be sold, rather than given away. But he also seems to be enamored of business jargon: aid givers should be “searchers,” and not “planners,” and should avoid one-size-fits-all recommendations.
I don’t precisely know what “searching” means, but I do know recognizing the complexity of difficult problems can, if done too vigorously, deprive the people who want to solve those problems of the intellectual means – simplification, extrapolation, and theory – that they may need to solve them. As Postrel says, “extracting lessons from experience is quite compatible with decentralized searching. Businesses in radically different industries learn from one another. Searching includes discovering the day’s best practices. Not every situation is unique.”