Former World Bank economist says advancing political & economic freedom is the way to alleviate poverty


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IEA releases report on what UK fisheries policy should look like outside the EU

New IEA report on The Economics of International Development

Leading economist Professor William Easterly contends that foreign aid and development efforts often fail in alleviating poverty by focusing on technocratic solutions rather than addressing the battle of ideas and advocating freedom over dictatorship. There is a ‘technocratic illusion’ that we can ignore politics in development efforts. But the problem of poverty is not down to a shortage of experts or specific solutions: it is a shortage of rights.

Solutions that have been proposed to tackle poverty now are almost identical to the solutions proposed decades ago, which suggests that the plans of rich governments have, and will continue to fail to transform poor countries. It is only when the universal rights of those living in impoverished countries are recognised and adhered to, that there is an incentive for these technical solutions – such as providing spray to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes – to be carried out on a permanent basis and work in the long term.

In a new IEA report co-written by William Easterly, Professor of Economics at New York University, the assumption that we bring about economic development and promote liberal democracies through direct foreign intervention is challenged.

The importance of rights

  • Foreign aid and development efforts cannot succeed in a value-free, politics-free environment.

  • Those who are poor must have the right to choose their own destiny, to possess their own property and to be able to protest when their rights are violated.

  • In the absence of those rights, there will be no incentive to bring about technical solutions on a permanent basis.

  • Labour mobility Without the mechanisms of free markets and entrepreneurial actions to guide them, development agencies and governments are consistently unable to determine which projects will be successful and which will fail.

  • The focus for aid and development agencies should be in advocacy for more freedom, and more political and economic rights for those who are impoverished.

The global advance in political and economic freedom is making a difference, with 12 fewer dictators in Africa now than in 1988, but there are still too many countries ruled by autocracies and stricken with poverty.

Those who work in aid must drop the pretence of value-free and politics-free analysis and should openly join the battle of ideas on the side of freedom against dictatorship and advocate the cause of freedom on behalf of, and for the world’s poor.

Commenting on the report, Professor Philip Booth, Academic and Research Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said:

“The solution to alleviating world poverty does not lie in direct foreign intervention, whether that be economic or military. The solution lies in winning the battle of ideas, advocating freedom and democracy over dictatorship. 

“Without ensuring the rights of the poor are established and protected, any aid or development efforts will be futile, providing only a very short-term solution. We should be supporting the end of the reign of autocracy, not its continuation supported with development aid.”

Notes to editors: 

For media enquiries please contact Nerissa Chesterfield, Communications Officer: nchesterfield@iea.org.uk 020 7799 8920 or 07791 390 268.

The full report, The Economics of International Development: Foreign Aid versus Freedom for the World’s Poor, by Professor William Easterly with commentaries from Abigail Hall-Blanco, Christian Bjornskov and Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell, can be downloaded here.

About the authors

William Easterly is Professor of Economics at New York University and Co-Director of the New York University Development Research Institute, which works to bring high-quality economic research to the problems of world poverty. He has previously worked for the World Bank and has been listed by various magazines as one of the world’s most highly cited researchers, as one of the top 100 global intellectuals, and as one of the top 100 scientist stars of Twitter.

Christian Bjornskov is Professor of Economics at Aarhus University in Denmark. He is also affiliated with the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm, the Centre of Political Studies in Copenhagen, Denmark and the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Abigail Hall-Blanco is Assistant Professor in Economics at the University of Tampa in Florida and a Research Fellow with the Independent Institute, a non-partisan research and educational think tank based in Oakland, California.

Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell is an award-winning entrepreneur, writer and educator. She is the founder and CEO of Medzan Training, a leadership and self-development training company. Before founding the Policy Centre for African Peoples and Medzan Training, Sylvie served as UK Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development.

The mission of the Institute of Economic Affairs is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic and social problems.

The IEA is a registered educational charity and independent of all political parties.