Marie Arana, a former editor of Book World, is the author of “Bolívar: American Liberator,” which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize last month.

Can a whole global development community be wrong? Can it be that it’s been wrong since the beginning? That the glittering palaces dedicated to fighting poverty — the World Bank, the United Nations, the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, not to mention the aid agencies, think tanks, and well-meaning initiatives by policy experts and Hollywood stars — are built on sand? Could it be that for 65 years they have operated on false premises and expended untold billions to prop up the very systems that undermine the poor?

William Easterly thinks so.

In his provocative “The Tyranny of Experts,” he lays out a passionate, if fitful, argument against the conventional approach to economic development. In the realm of benevolent intervention, the standing rule has always been that you can walk into a poor country and, with enough experts, supplies and bureaucratic correctives, make it rich and alleviate the woes of poverty. But according to Easterly, this is a fatuous idea that has sparked more havoc than good.

An economics professor at New York University and a co-director of its Development Research Institute, Easterly is no newcomer to the subject. He was a World Bank executive and has sat on what he calls the “technocrat’s” side of the table. He has spent a career struggling with the complicated differences between haves and have-nots.

”The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor” by William Easterly. (Basic Books)

Nor is it the first time he has pitted himself against the machinery of development. The titles of his earlier books alone speak volumes: “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good” (2006) and “The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics” (2001). But never has he gone for the bureaucratic jugular quite like this.

Since the very beginning, says Easterly — since 1949, when Harry S. Truman announced the first U.S. foreign aid program — the West has been in thrall to a technocratic illusion: “the belief that poverty is a purely technical problem amenable to such technical solutions as fertilizers, antibiotics, or nutritional supplements.” The modus operandi more often than not has been to hand the job of dispensing the cash and assistance to an autocratic ruler, a dictator, whose very role in the hierarchy ensures that the poor will stay exactly where they are: at the bottom.

We all know that U.S. foreign policy has often played into the hands of despots, and Easterly brandishes some examples with gusto. He chronicles the story of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, whom Washington supported and whose lust for power eventually led to a brutal repression of his countrymen. And that of Paul Kagame, whose culpability for human rights atrocities in Rwanda was conveniently ignored by U.S. agencies, inspiring in him a grandiose sense of impunity.

This capacity to sleepwalk through history — which Easterly says development technocrats are wont to do — may explain why John J. McCloy, as first president of the World Bank, sat down with Colombian President Mariano Ospina Perez in 1948 to discuss the challenges of poverty, and no follow-up report made mention of the fact that the country was rent by violence or that the poor’s charismatic leader, Jorge Gaitán, had been assassinated that very day. Nor were salient facts noted years later, when the World Bank (and the United States) supported one teetering Colombian president after another while reports failed to say much about the hydra-headed “Violencia,” which devoured as many as 400,000 lives in the course of eight years.

According to Easterly, a deep racism and willful neglect of history have informed much of the West’s relationship with “the Rest,” the poverty-challenged Southern Hemisphere. This prejudice has deep roots, but nowhere has it been expressed more succinctly than in the words of Lord Lugard, the governor general of Nigeria, whose estimation of the darker races has cast a long shadow for almost 100 years: “In character and temperament the typical African of this race-type,” Lugard wrote in 1922, “is a happy, thriftless, excitable person, lacking in self-control, discipline, and foresight.” Of the South in general, he wrote, “We are dealing with the child races of the world.”

If Easterly has it right, the development business is hobbled not only by a tacit racism in which whole regions of Africa, Latin America and Asia are deemed “helpless,” but by a willful neglect of history. The past, geography, ethnic identities, societal nuances — none of these play a part in the present-day development calculus, he tells us. The “Blank Slate” mentality — the conviction that aid needs no analysis beyond comparative statistics and growth rates — is often the rule in development circles.

The West’s patronizing attitude toward the Rest dates back to Versailles in 1919, according to Easterly, when Western delegations shot down Japan’s equality proposal, refusing to write into law that Asians were entitled to the same fundamental rights as whites. At the time, there was a reason the Americans didn’t want to sign: In the United States, even as white immigrants poured into the country, Chinese were being barred entry or citizenship on the basis of the racist Exclusion Act. Today, Easterly says, the West continues to be shackled to policies and dictatorships that prevent it from operating neutrally.

These may look like disconnected lapses on the part of a harried West, but to Easterly they are results of a crystallized mind-set. We fail to see big historic truths; we look away from autocratic injustices. We infantilize the poor. We buy into polarities of right and left, although there are more useful ways to parse the world: We see Nazis and communists as political antipodes, for instance, when we should see that both glorified the mass at the expense of the human being.

The result is a kind of development-office blindness, a failure to see that the poor deserve individual rights as much as any citizen of a flourishing society. According to Easterly, Adam Smith’s notion of the invisible hand — the natural flow of the democratic process, the will of the people, the power to make a government accountable for its actions, the right to redress grievances — is as potent a motivator in poor communities as it is in the rich ones. How else did indigent neighborhoods of immigrant America become the thriving communities they are today? How else, except by allowing a few key freedoms, has China become an economic powerhouse?

When a Western development agency marches into a poor country and hands the reins of power to a dictator, it is vitiating the very instrument that will make the poor free, Easterly says. It is expressing disregard for the people it purports to help, for human rights, for the principles of liberty and equality that it claims to stand for.

What it boils down to, he says, is a debate that was never held between two Nobel-winning economic titans: Gunnar Myrdal and Friedrich Hayek. The Swedish laureate Myrdal claimed that “poor people were neither interested in rights nor capable of much individual initiative even if they had such rights. He said national governments needed to achieve development in spite of ‘a largely illiterate and apathetic citizenry.’ ” He embraced population control and social engineering, arguing that the Third World needed to conquer illiteracy, malnutrition and disease before it declared individual freedoms.

The Viennese laureate Hayek, on the other hand, denounced development efforts as having an excessive “fondness for authority.” As far as he was concerned, “a policy of freedom for the individual” was the only viable strategy. He contended that a system in which citizens shaped their own lives had been the root of prosperity in the West. Why should it be any different for the Southern Hemisphere? Why should the West deny freedoms to the Rest?

Nevertheless, it was Myrdal’s philosophy of the helpless poor that was ultimately adopted by the global development community. Myrdal gloried in the unanimous endorsement of his recommendations by “governments and experts in the advanced countries” of the world. And so his word became law.

Interwoven throughout this patchwork of theory and history is Easterly’s account of an immigrant neighborhood in lower Manhattan and how the notions of individual rights transformed the lives of all who passed through it. Once upon a time, we, too, he reminds us, were a poor, germ-ridden population, with rampant ignorance and high infant mortality rates. It was democracy that made us grow.

Easterly offers no hands-on solutions, no concrete programs, no manual for dispensing the development community’s largesse. His message is simple: Before you offer a helping hand, look hard at the core beliefs that brought you good fortune.

Marie Arana, a former editor of Book World, is the author of “Bolívar: American Liberator,” which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize last month.


Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor

By William Easterly

Basic. 394 pp. $29.99