Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Trouble With Bill (He's So Close to Great)

First, a question: What would happen if an exceptionally public-spirited chiropractor was to blow the whistle on exaggerated claims made by other chiropractors? We'd all say "great!" And what if he was to persuade similarly high-minded colleagues to collaborate on a book about making chiropractors, as a profession, more accountable? Again, we'd say "great!"

But what if that same well-meaning chiropractor was to endow said book on chiropractor-accountability with the title What Works In Health-care? We'd all say... well, it wouldn't be nice. "Who's making exaggerated claims now! Isn't there more to health-care than the work of chiropractors? And I thought you just told us that most of your fellows are frauds anyway? What exactly is going on here??"

The problem would be worse if policy-makers, political leaders, and power brokers actually believed that the book and its cover were one and the same. Nutrition? Don't bother me. Exercise? Who cares. Preventative medicine and therapeutics? No my concern. All I care about is straightening your spine.

Now go back and substitute "development economist" for chiropractor, "aid-effectiveness" for chiropractor-effectiveness... and, for "nutrition" and "exercise" the words "entrepreneurship" and "technological innovation." There you have my dismay (OK, fine, over-reaction) to the book by Jessica Cohen and Bill Easterly titled What Works in Development.

Now let me explain why I'm going to spend the next 4-5 posts persisting in the seemingly irrational undertaking of picking a fight with Bill Easterly: It is because Easterly is the most compelling voice among development economists today. Others are brilliant (Michael Kremer, Esther Duflo among them) and worthy of genuine admiration as scholars. Some are doing great practical work, alongside their academic work.

However, Easterly is alone in having solid academic background, a large platform from which to speak, and something like the right message to deliver.

That last phrase holds the key to my frustration... "something like the right message." Yes, Easterly is near the top of the list among economists addressing the vitally important issue of strategies to make the most of the coming prosperity (see post #1 of this blog). If he can't get it right, what hope is there for the rest of us?

In any event--whether or not it turns out that there's anything to my particular angle here--my guess is that boxing with the blind men Uptown who still don't see the limits of big money approaches to development has got to get a bit tedious. So if my observations serve only as a brief, peripheral break from the "aid good"/"aid bad" show, so much the better.

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