In the summer of 1931, after months of anomalous heavy rains, several of China’s largest rivers overflowed their banks, flooding nearly 70,000 square miles of farmland and killing, on some estimates, up to 4 million people. These floods—one of the worst natural disasters in human history—came at a moment of major political instability in China, as the new nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek was struggling to consolidate its rule after years of civil war. In September 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria. Adding to the challenges of national unification and defense was a humanitarian crisis on a monumental scale: the millions of Chinese who had been displaced by the floods now faced starvation and disease. As harvests failed, reports of cannibalism abounded. Dikes had to be rebuilt quickly to prevent high waters from causing further devastation.

Desperate Chinese officials looked outward for help: foreign experts and civil servants—many of whom had been sent to China by the League of Nations—were placed into powerful positions in the Nanjing government to oversee relief and reconstruction and to centralize the state’s control over China’s water infrastructure. Responsibility for emergency aid and water management, traditionally the tasks of local elites, was placed firmly into the hands of the state. As the leading Chinese economist H.D. Fong wrote in 1936, the floods marked an important milestone in the state’s quest for “economic control” of China. Soon, the nationalist regime was working in close cooperation with many different experts from the League of Nations, who provided the technical know-how and training—and sometimes the funds—to realize the Guomindang’s ambitious plans for China’s infrastructural and economic development. By the time Nanjing was captured by the Japanese in 1937, plans to build a completely new China—dammed, electrified, and crisscrossed with highways and railroads—were underway. It was the first time an international organization, the League of Nations, had overseen the economic development of a sovereign state.

In just a few years, this practice would become commonplace. Since the end of World War II, an array of international bodies, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and others, acting with the backing of powerful states, have attempted to improve the economic lot of the world’s poorer countries by developing their industries and physical infrastructure, or by providing them with loans and the services of experts. After 1945, as the American economist John Kenneth Galbraith once wrote, “no economic subject more quickly captured the attention of so many as the rescue of the people of the poor countries from their poverty.”

After decades of experience, however, there’s still little agreement about how development should be done—and whether it solves more problems than it creates. Different approaches fall in and out of fashion quickly. The consensus of the 1990s and early 2000s—that growth in the global South would follow shortly on the heels of IMF- and World Bank-led market reforms—has been shattered. The Millennium Development Goals, to halve global poverty by 2015, inspire far less confidence today than when they appeared in 2000. The development community has lowered its expectations, and its search for workable solutions has taken an experimental turn. Borrowing a technique from medical research, many development economists now conduct randomized controlled trials on population groups to see whether their small-scale technical interventions—giving out free mosquito nets, for example, or providing microfinance loans—actually have any impact. The assumption behind this technique—that the results gained from an experiment in one setting are generalizable to another—is fiercely contested. But the current vogue for the experimental approach speaks to the problem at the heart of development: there are simply few successful models to follow.

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Historians have recently begun to investigate how development became central to the global humanitarian politics of the twentieth century, and why it has never been able to deliver on its promises. Most date the origins of the development era to Harry Truman’s inaugural speech of January 1949, when the newly elected president announced that the United States—in addition to pledging its support for the United Nations, rebuilding postwar Europe and establishing NATO—would dedicate its scientific and technological resources to facilitating “improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” The domestic achievements of the New Deal would be spread abroad to promote peace and to counter the global appeal of communism. This was a new vision of American power for the postwar era: for the first time, the stability of the international order was seen as depending on shared global prosperity. Following Truman’s lead, the United Nations announced its own set of development agencies and aid programs, including the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. In the early 1950s, the World Bank turned its focus to the Third World, after responsibility for rebuilding postwar Europe—its original mission—was taken over by the Marshall Plan. Most early development ideas called for the rapid industrialization and top-down infrastructural modernization of the largely agricultural societies of the global South. These plans were guided by a new science of development economics, pioneered at breakneck speed by a group of mostly Central and Eastern European economists, many of whom took up influential positions in the United Nations, World Bank and United States—or as advisers to Third World governments—during the Cold War.

Development soon became a central plank of America’s strategy against the Soviets. In 1961, John F. Kennedy announced the creation of the USAID program and the Peace Corps, while social scientists-cum-statesmen—like the MIT economist Walt Rostow—developed plans for the “modernization” of the Third World based on grand philosophies of history, detailing the step-by-step progression needed for agrarian states to arrive triumphantly at American-style mass consumption. Inspired by these visions, Lyndon Johnson outlined a New Deal-style development of Vietnam—a “TVA on the Mekong”—to quell the rural insurgency.

The history of development is not, however, exclusively a Cold War story. Intentions to “modernize” the global South, and to raise the standards of living of its inhabitants, were well underway before 1945—not only in China, but also in Europe’s African and Asian colonies. Throughout the interwar period, and during the early years of World War II, the British, French and Dutch empires elaborated a variety of public health, nutritional and infrastructural development ideas for their overseas territories. These were generally designed more to win back legitimacy for imperial rule, and to counter the appeal of nationalist movements, than to bring prosperity to the colonial world for its own sake. As the political scientist Eric Helleiner has persuasively demonstrated in his Forgotten Foundations of Bretton Woods, the experience of US-Latin American financial cooperation from the late 1930s and early 1940s was also crucial for shaping later programs. Worried about the growth of Nazi influence in the Western Hemisphere, the United States facilitated programs for the industrial and financial development of many different Latin American states during these years. These provided an important precedent and model for US officials when they were plotting the shape of the postwar world economy at the Bretton Woods Conference of July 1944.

These early, pre-Cold War arrangements feature centrally in William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts (Basic; $16.99). An economist formerly at the World Bank and now co-director of NYU’s Development Research Institute, Easterly has in recent years become a well-known and influential critic of foreign aid. In this book, he provides a historical defense for his idiosyncratic, libertarian approach to development. On his reading, the fact that international development as we know it first emerged during the early decades of the twentieth century, when “racism and colonialism still reigned supreme,” explains why it’s been motivated, from the get-go, by a core paternalistic assumption: that the people in need of “development” are incapable of finding their own ways out of poverty without the help of enlightened experts. Throughout its history, development has been guided by a “technocratic illusion”—the idea that poverty is, first and foremost, a problem that can be solved through technical, and not political, means. This faith in ostensibly neutral expertise has resulted in policies that have, almost everywhere, empowered autocrats and violated the rights of the poor.

Easterly details one example after another of strongmen in the global South exploiting the hubris of economists and the naïveté of aid organizations to entrench their power and eliminate their enemies. In Nationalist China, foreign experts in the employ of the Guomindang government elaborated a statist approach to China’s economic modernization that did more to empower Chiang Kai-shek than it did to enrich the population. In 1940s Africa, British imperial administrators drew on an emerging science of “colonial economics” to offer social and economic improvement plans as a means of quieting dissent and extending imperial rule far into the future. These early examples of “authoritarian development” shaped how the Third World would be treated during the Cold War. Foreign aid to Colombia in the 1950s, for example, went to a regime that brutally exterminated its opponents at the same time that it implemented the World Bank’s policy recommendations. Little has changed today: international organizations and their Western backers continue to sponsor major development projects in states, like Ethiopia and Uganda, that are well-known for their human-rights abuses.

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Easterly’s history is intended, in great part, to discredit the idea that “benevolent autocrats” can ever be trusted with responsibility for development—an idea made popular by the success stories of Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew, South Korea under Park Chung-hee, and China under Deng Xiaoping. In addition to being oppressive and violent, authoritarians, in his judgment, simply don’t deliver good results. Lasting economic progress can never be directly engineered by the state through top-down planning and conscious direction; it can only be achieved through the competition of individuals responding to market incentives. Easterly’s disdain for technocratic approaches to development is matched by his zealous belief in the ability of capitalism—if left untouched by politicians and planners—to alleviate global poverty by itself. Material advancement has only ever been achieved on the back of what he calls “spontaneous solutions through market competition.” And the history of development, on his telling, is largely a story of powerful bureaucrats and economists ignoring this simple truth. The Tyranny of Experts reads like a morality tale. The warnings of free-market heroes, such as the Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek, go unheard, while those in power—like the Swedish economist and UN official Gunnar Myrdal—advocate centralized economic planning and thus legitimate the rule of brutal autocrats.

Easterly’s suggestion that development economists tend to be naïve about power is undeniably true. The original sin of the discipline—as one of its founders, Albert Hirschman, once wrote—was its assumption that the countries of the “underdeveloped” world, unlike those of the West, “were not all that complicated” when it came to politics, and that “their major problems would be solved if only their national income per capita could be raised adequately.” Easterly, however, repeats a similar mistake when he describes markets as neutral, power-free zones, where the best ideas naturally rise to the top and the voices of the weak can be heard loudly and clearly.

Easterly’s history also mischaracterizes the development community as having been single-mindedly committed to top-down and statist policies in the global South from the outset. As the historian Daniel Immerwahr demonstrates brilliantly in Thinking Small (Harvard; $35), the history of development has seen constant experimentation with community-based and participatory approaches to economic and social improvement. Even during the height of the Cold War and the heyday of “modernization theory,” American organizations like the Peace Corps were leading programs of “community development” in rural areas around the globe. These plans were driven by the idea that development is best pursued not through centralized and large-scale projects, but rather through empowering local actors to decide what programs were best-suited to the needs of their communities. Economic progress, on this model, was to be achieved without forcing societies to abandon their social and cultural traditions or to replace the institutions of village-life with those of the West. This approach to alleviating global poverty—which took the development world by storm in the 1950s and ’60s—entailed an entirely different vision of America’s role on the global stage: not as expert builder of dams and power grids, but as “sympathetic enabler of village-level democracy, plurality, and local knowledge.”

These “communitarian” approaches to development first emerged in the United States during the Great Depression, when bureaucrats in Roosevelt’s Department of Agriculture established participatory community-based planning committees in rural areas across the country. These decentralized programs provided a popular counterpart to the “high modernist” ideas of the New Deal, but were shut down in 1942 by an unsympathetic Congress. They did not go away completely, however: when the United States took up the mantle of international development at the end of World War II, these programs proved readily adaptable to states in the global South. The short-lived New Deal experiment with community development was soon exported to foreign shores.

It landed first in 1950s India, just as Jawaharlal Nehru was implementing his Five Year Plan for India’s top-down industrialization, modeled on Stalin’s program of the same name from 1928 to 1932. By the following decade, US advisers had overseen the extension of grassroots development programs in public health, hygiene and agricultural improvement—shaped according to the “felt needs” of local communities—into hundreds of thousands of villages across India. Despite its democratic promise, however, community development in India inadvertently provided the postcolonial state with a new means of consolidating its power. By establishing direct lines of contact between government bureaucrats and local elites, it gave the former greater access to and control over the lives of Indian villagers.

As a tool of social and political control, community development proved well suited to American Cold War strategy in rural Asia—particularly in the service of counterinsurgency. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the United States backed plans in the Philippines to empower barrio councils with local development projects that were designed, in large part, to pacify a rural communist insurgency. In the 1960s, these village-level programs were exploited by President Ferdinand Marcos to consolidate his authoritarian rule after he came to power in 1965. Far from seen as a failure, however, community development in the Philippines was considered by many in the United States an important success in the Asian theater of the Cold War. American advisers brought Filipino-style community development to South Vietnam, where President Ngo Dinh Diem built an archipelago of “strategic hamlets” across the country to counter the appeal of the Vietcong. While these efforts failed in Vietnam, they provided a lasting model for rural pacification: David Petraeus’s strategy for counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, Immerwahr argues, should be seen as the spiritual heir of community development plans in Cold War Southeast Asia.

Community development was also brought back to the United States, as experts who had gained experience addressing “underdevelopment” in the global South came home to fight poverty on American soil. The Community Action Program at the heart of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty was inspired directly by grassroots development aid overseas. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 established an array of community actions programs, some of which were designed as domestic versions of the Peace Corps. As these programs were extended throughout urban America, however, government officials were shocked to see them turn into seedbeds of radicalism: more than a quarter of a million dollars of federal funding for community development, for example, went to Saul Alinsky in Syracuse. These officials had wrongly assumed that community development in urban America would result in only limited, and largely conservative, reforms—as it had abroad. After the Watts riots of 1965, federal support for community action in urban areas withered, and responsibility for poverty-reduction programs was largely handed off to local bodies. But as poor urban communities were cut off from federal oversight, and economic inequality climbed at an increasing pace throughout the country, local control became less effective at combating poverty. Community development failed in its birthplace, just as it had overseas.

Immerwahr’s account of these failures should give pause to those who insist that going small is always better than going big. Localist and participatory “self-help” programs don’t boast a great historical track record, and have often had unintended and destructive consequences of their own. Those looking for lessons from his account might see it, as well as Easterly’s, as providing justification for the new experimental approaches to development. Methods could be designed and tested in ways to prevent the political abuses that they document. The burden of providing clear evidence for success could also provide a new means for local communities to hold development experts accountable. A chastened form of expertise, aware of its limits and willing to admit failure, might prove more difficult for autocrats to exploit.

But reflection on the history of development suggests that the problem is not just one of finding the right methods on the ground. The terms of the debate—top-down versus bottom-up, foreign expert versus engaged citizen, experiment versus theory—have drawn attention away from other reasons for the persistence of global poverty. Most development thinking, Immerwahr argues, sidesteps the fact that unequal access to the world’s resources is upheld by a system of trade and finance that favors wealthy countries. Voting power in bodies like the World Bank, IMF and WTO is weighted toward Northern countries, and their decisions are shaped by the lobbying of powerful and narrow interest groups. Southern countries have little hand in writing the international rules that help to shape their economic fates, and less opportunity to advance claims for a more robust set of globally redistributive measures. “Nationally, we aspire to live in democracies,” Immerwahr writes. “Internationally, we inhabit a plutocracy.” This situation allows for the persistence of policies, such as agricultural subsidies and restrictive intellectual property rules that stymie economic progress in the South. Climate change—the end result of centuries of Northern growth—threatens to derail it further, while restrictive measures on migration lock the global poor into place.

Development debates don’t tend to focus directly on the problem of global inequality, even though it’s at staggeringly high levels.  Outside of academic debates in political philosophy, and occasionally economics, however, little effort is made to think of policies that could directly redress the uneven distribution of global income and wealth. Finding the right methods to alleviate poverty receives far more attention—in part, because humanitarian questions are less discomfiting than distributional ones. “Every mention” of the latter, as Branko Milanovic, the doyen of global inequality studies, puts it, “[raises] the issue of the appropriateness or legitimacy of my income. Perhaps my charity will not be seen so very favorably if somebody argues that my income was acquired unjustly or illegally.” As inequality returns, after years of neglect, to the center of political debate on the national level, it remains far off the agenda on the global.