Too much of America’s foreign aid funds what I call authoritarian development. That’s when the international community–experts from the U.N. and other bodies–swoop into third-world countries and offer purely technical assistance to dictatorships like Uganda or Ethiopia on how to solve poverty.
Unfortunately, dictators’ sole motivation is to stay in power. So the development experts may get some roads built, but they are not maintained. Experts may sink boreholes for clean water, but the wells break down. Individuals do not have the political rights to protest disastrous public services, so they never improve. Meanwhile, dictators are left with cash and services to prop themselves up–while punishing their enemies.
But there is another model: free development, in which poor individuals, asserting their political and economic rights, motivate government and private actors to solve their problems or to give them the means to solve their own problems.
Compare free development in Botswana with authoritarian development in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia in 2010, Human Rights Watch documented how the autocrat Meles Zenawi selectively withheld aid-financed famine relief from everyone except ruling-party members. Meanwhile democratic Botswana, although drought-prone like Ethiopia, has enjoyed decades of success in preventing famine. Government relief directed by local activists goes wherever drought strikes.
In the postwar period, countries such as Chile, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have successfully followed the path of free development–often in spite of international aid, not because of it. While foreign policy concerns have often led America to prop up dictatorial regimes, we need a new rule: no democracy, no aid. If we truly want to help the poor, we can’t accept the dictators’ false bargain: ignore our rights abuses, and meet the material needs of those we oppress. Instead, we must advocate that the poor have the same rights as the rich everywhere, so they can aid themselves.
Easterly is the co-director of New York University’s Development Research Institute and author of The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor