An American Passion for Tyrants

Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Bill Gates, chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at the United Nations during the announcement of a joint initiative with the World Food Programme to help small farmers in developing countries gain access to reliable markets, September 2008

One standard definition of “international development” is that it is the global effort by rich and poor countries alike, working in tandem, to dramatically reduce extreme poverty and want. At the same time, such development should foster the economic growth of poor countries so that they will eventually be able to catch up with rich ones. Then they will share what Walt W. Rostow, the intellectual father of the so-called modernization theory that dominated the Western development world in the 1950s, called the promise of abundance. It is that promise, or, more exactly, the claim that such a promise could ever have been fulfilled by applying any of the theories that have dominated the development world since its inception, that is sharply challenged as false by the economist William Easterly in his new book, The Tyranny of Experts.

From the vantage point of 2014, international development is rightly seen as one of the organizing principles and central moral commitments of the age. What nonspecialists generally do not realize is that although its antecedents go much further back, development as we now conceive of it is comparatively new. Along with the human rights movement, it is part of what Michael Ignatieff has referred to as the “revolution of moral concern” that took place in the aftermath of World War II. Indeed, the birth of the development age is commonly identified as having been heralded in President Truman’s 1949 inaugural address, in which he announced “a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.”

Scholars quarrel over the extent to which the set of initiatives Truman announced in that speech, which came to be known as “Point Four,” reflected the idealistic hopes that had underpinned the founding of the United Nations, and the extent to which Truman was attempting to counter what, in the wake of the Communist triumph in China, the historian Nick Cullather has called “the ‘discovery’ of mass poverty as a global strategic problem,” or as one prescient American official put it at the time, “wherever hunger goes, Communism follows.”1 In this conventional account, the development project globally was also the product of the end of colonialism and of the perceived need, which, again, was the result both of moral and geostrategic imperatives, to find a way to help newly or soon-to-be-independent states escape the desperate poverty in which they were mired, poverty that, as Truman put it, was “a handicap and a threat to them and to more prosperous areas.”

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