Economist William Easterly

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The NYU professor and best-selling author makes his case for a radical rethinking of approaches to global development.

Ranked among the top 100 most cited economists worldwide, William Easterly is a professor at New York University and co-director of its award-winning Development Research Institute. He previously spent 16 years at the World Bank and is a leading authority on development, having worked in countries as diverse as Ghana, Mexico, Jamaica, Russia and Pakistan. He's written for publications such as The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of The White Man's Burden and the widely acclaimed The Elusive Quest for Growth. In his new text, The Tyranny of Experts, he traces the history of the fight against global poverty.


Tavis: Since the 1960s, some $2.3 trillion dollars in aid has gone to developing countries in an effort to eradicate poverty with only limited results. William Easterly, who spent 16 years at the World Bank and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written extensively about this issue.

And in his new text, “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor,” he calls for nothing less than a radical rethinking of our approach to global development. Dr. Easterly is also a professor at NYU, New York University. Dr. Easterly, good to have you back on this program.

William Easterly: Thank you. Good to be back.

Tavis: This is a bold and provocative and in-your-face sort of title, “The Tyranny of Experts.” Who you talking about here?

Easterly: Well, I’m talking about what I used to be, World Bank staff, Aid Agency staff, the Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, where you have this paternalistic attitude in which we think, well, we know what is best for poor people.

And we don’t recognize poor peoples’ rights to determine their own destiny, to determine their own democratic destiny. That’s what we fundamentally disrespect in the business of foreign aid.

Tavis: To my mind, at least, Dr. Easterly, tyranny is not maligned neglect. It’s certainly not well-intentioned, just bad implementation. That’s a damning indictment.

Easterly: Well, it’s really a sin of omission more than commission. It’s that we really just don’t seem to care about the rights of poor people. Let me give you one small example, if I could, Tavis.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Easterly: There was a World Bank project that was done in Uganda to convert land to a forest which was thought to be a higher value output for the land. It sounds very technical and very good and neutral, but it wasn’t neutral at all.

Soldiers went in with guns, took away 20,000 Ugandan farmers’ lands at gunpoint, burned down their homes, burned down their crops, killed their cattle, marched them away at gunpoint and left them without land.

That was the tyranny of experts, an expert solution that does not respect the rights of the poor to their own land, results in making them even worse off than they were before.

Tavis: There are some pretty high-profile Americans who have taken exception at some of the work that you’ve done. You’ve been on this program before.

Easterly: Yes, yes.

Tavis: They’ve taken exception to your work. They’ve pushed back.

Easterly: Sure, sure.

Tavis: And I don’t need to trump up all the stuff they have said. You obviously are well aware of it. But what do you make of the fact that there are persons who are otherwise respected in our society who say that William Easterly has it wrong?

Easterly: Well, maybe I do have it wrong [laughs]. I think we at least need to have the debate. What saddens me most, Tavis, is that we really even haven’t had this debate on the rights of the poor. We really hardly even talk about the rights of the poor.

For example, this World Bank project that I told you about, it was on the front page of the New York Times. And the World Bank momentarily said they apologized and said they would investigate.

But in fact, they never really investigated it. They did no investigation of their own. They faced no consequences whatsoever and nobody in this whole field of critics that you’re citing in development ever protested that World Bank project. They never protested their non-investigation of their own misdeeds.

They never protested that nobody had to pay any consequences for doing these horrible things to the Ugandan peasants. There are no consequences. It’s like done with impunity and that’s what I’m arguing against here in this book.

Tavis: So one of the persons that we’re talking about, for example – and it’s no secret because it’s in the book. I mean, you’ve written about it and talked about it before. So, Bill Gates, for example…

Easterly: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Who is regarded – you know, does great work, no doubt about it.

Easterly: Yes, yes, I admire him a lot.

Tavis: Regarded around the world and yet, you know, there have been times where there was a sort of contestation of the way he saw this and the way you see this.

So when people hear the name Bill Gates or the Gates Foundation and they just assume and believe that they’re doing great work all around the world, like what respectfully are they not getting?

Tavis: Well, respectfully, I think Bill Gates does not understand how development happens. Development happens when poor people demand their own rights and can demand that their own government democratically do what they want them to do and not do horrible things to them like was done to the Ugandan farmers.

So to take another example, Bill Gates has often praised the government of Ethiopia as doing great things and particularly, Meles Zenawi, when he was alive, was the dictator of Ethiopia for 20 years and Bill Gates praised him as having done a lot of good for the people of Ethiopia, for doing all the right technical things.

But Meles Zenawi was a serial human rights abuser. He killed demonstrators in the streets after rigged elections. He denied family relief to the opposition. He put a peaceful blogger named Eskinder Nega in jail for 18 years just for advocating peacefully for democracy in Ethiopia.

This is not a good guy. This is not the solution to Ethiopia’s poverty. He is the problem. He is not the solution.

Tavis: Let me play devil’s advocate. Bill Gates doesn’t even speak for him. This is not an indictment on Bill Gates. This book is not about Bill Gates.

Easterly: No, no.

Tavis: You’re not doing that and I’m not doing that. I want to be clear about this.

Easterly: Right, absolutely.

Tavis: But the point here is, or at least the point of my question is how do you respond to people who would say, well, Dr. Easterly, when you are dealing in certain parts of the world, you have to deal with the leaders that are in place. We’re not in charge of who they elect. We’re not in charge of putting people in office whether they’re democratically elected or whether they’re dictatorial.

If my foundation or the work that I’m engaged in at the World Bank or whatever it might be is about getting help to the people, then I have to work with the system that is in place to bring as much good as I can to the people on the ground, no matter who I might be, World Bank or Bill Gates.

Easterly: Right.

Tavis: How do you respond to that?

Easterly: Well, you know, it’s not us who are demanding democracy. It’s not people like me who are demanding democracy in Ethiopia. It’s the Ethiopians who are demanding democracy in Ethiopia. There’s very courageous Ethiopian dissidents like Eskinder Nega who I already mentioned that are demanding democracy in Ethiopia.

And when Bill Gates supports U.S. aid to Ethiopia, and has very emphatically, when he supports World Bank aid to Ethiopia, when he himself praises the dictator of Ethiopia for having done a lot of good, he’s really taking sides against these dissidents, against their courageous campaign for their own democratic rights.

And he’s given us a mistaken view that development is really done by dictators when it’s just the opposite. The dictators are an obstacle to development. They’re not the ones who create development.

Tavis: At the center of your book, then, is the argument that we have to make a choice of whether we want free development or authoritarian development.

Easterly: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: I think the viewer already has a pretty good sense of what the distinction is between the two. Let me set aside some time for you to tell me what you mean why you say free development versus authoritarian development. Break it down for me.

Easterly: Well, I think free development should be very familiar to all of us because it’s what we have all experienced in the U.S. You know, you cannot imagine this Uganda story that we talked about happening in California, for example. It’s just unthinkable that that would happen.

In fact, we had something much more minor happen with a traffic jam on a bridge near Jersey that caused enormous grief for Chris Christie. You know, that’s the sign of our democracy in action, how seriously we take our own rights.

Tavis: We live in an interconnected world. What happens there matters here. What happens here matters there. We live in a interconnected global society.

Easterly: Yeah.

Tavis: So that said, what agency do the American people have when they read this book, to take what you’ve laid out seriously and do something about it? What can we do?

Easterly: Well, what we can do is say, you know, we should not be financing repression in Uganda and Ethiopia. And by the way, it’s not an accident that we are financing these guys because they are allies in the war on terror. It’s a lot like the bad old days of the Cold War when we were financing autocrats that were our allies in the Cold War.

So we can say, you know, we’re not happy with that. We’re not happy with supporting autocrats that reject our values. We’re on the side of the people who are campaigning for their own recognition or the same recognition we want for our rights. We’re on the side of the dissidents. We’re not going to finance repressive governments like Ethiopia and Uganda.

Tavis: Tell me why you believe – put another way, disabuse me of the notion that fellow citizens don’t much care who we’re financing and what happens in the other part of the world? They don’t see it, they don’t really hear about it. An article, to your point, here or there, but it’s far removed. It’s not even in our consciousness.

And even if it were, if in the name of protecting us by being allied with certain thugs and rogue dictators, if it ends up – you know where I’m going with this. If it ends up protecting us, that’s the price we have to pay. What sense do you have that the American people care about that anyway?

Easterly: Well, I think they do care. I mean, they care a lot about the material poverty of poor people in Africa and other poor parts of the world. I guess what I’m trying to convince them is that it’s not only about material poverty. It’s also about the dignity and rights of poor people.

Tavis: That’s right.

Easterly: You know, you can’t treat poor people as just like some kind of bundle of needs for food and water and shelter. That would be very disrespectful of their dignity to treat them like that.

I’m trying to change the conversation away from that focus only on caring about the material poverty to respecting their dignity and rights and their demand for democratic accountability of their own governments.

Tavis: But isn’t that always – I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve just said, but isn’t that always the fight? Trying to get people to celebrate their dignity and to stop contesting their humanity by the actions that we take? That’s always the fight.

Easterly: Yeah, it’s always the fight, yeah. You know, we see it every day. I mean, over the weekend, there was a story about Madonna kind of going into Malawi and penning herself as the savior of Malawi.

Malawi’s president, Joyce Banda, issued this really hilarious denunciation of Madonna, you know. “You are not our savior. We are people who are saving ourselves. We don’t need some rock star to save us.” [Laughs] That’s the level that the fight is at, Tavis.

Tavis: I love music, but God help us if the rock stars are going to save us [laughs].

Easterly: That’s right, that’s right [laughs].

Tavis: Love you guys, but…

Easterly: That’s right.

Tavis: “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor” written by the courageous William Easterly getting us to talk about, as you said, these issues.

What kind of nation do we want to be? What kind of people do we want to be? And who do we want to be allied with around the world where the rights of the poor are concerned? Good to have you on this program.

Easterly: Thank you, Tavis.

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Last modified: May 19, 2014 at 12:25 pm