The tyranny of “technical expertise”

Aid Re-imagined
Dec 20, 2019 · 5 min read

Between renowned economists Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly, there is a decade-long debate that has made them the Taylor Swift and Katy Perry of the international development world.

Sachs believes that a highly technical and financially generous “big push” is what’s needed to help people escape the poverty trap.

Easterly, on the other hand, argues in his books, The Tyranny of Experts and The White Man’s Burden, that technocratic, top-down approaches to development — used by Western colonialists and well-intentioned do-gooders alike — are doomed to fail.

In the early 2000s, Sachs’s idea seems to have prevailed in the mainstream.

Backed by the likes of the UN Secretary General and Bono, he championed one of the grandest, most ambitious technical interventions yet: the Millennium Villages Project.

It was an expensive, large-scale, 10-year multi-country initiative that aimed to reduce poverty alongside meeting other Millennium Development Goals.

Towards this the project used “science-based technologies and techniques, such as agroforestry, insecticide-treated malaria bed nets, antiretroviral drugs, remote sensing and geographic information systems.”

It was technical expertise par excellence.

So what did an evaluation of the Millennium Villages Project — believed to be “the most statistically valid, comprehensive and qualitatively informed assessment of [its] impact” — find?

“Overall,” the evaluation read, “there is no evidence that people living in the MVP areas have escaped the poverty trap.”

Technical, top-down approaches are increasingly shunned in the realm of long-term development — and not just because they’re ineffective. The seemingly benign assumption that the Global North is the spring from which “technical expertise” flows is, in fact, an offshoot of a sinister ideology old as Empire: that Anglo-European knowledge is superior.

In humanitarian aid, however, the appeal to technical expertise remains a persuasive argument flexed to justify the relevance of Northern INGOs.

IARAN’s widely-read “The Future of Aid: INGOs in 2030” report states that “the dominance of INGOs is reduced…Nevertheless, INGOs are still able to exploit their experience with interventions and technical expertise. INGOs intervene mainly in crises requiring specific and high levels of technical knowledge.”

In a report that discusses the future of INGOs, Bond says organisations can provide “’on demand’ technical expertise and capacity building.”

But what exactly is this mythic “technical expertise” in humanitarian aid?

In a session on colonialism and paternalism in ALNAP’s 32nd Annual Meeting in Berlin, some argued that particularly in health and WASH, technical expertise remains relevant. The core of their argument was that science-based interventions — like medical treatments or water chlorination — are beyond the grips of “colonialism” or “paternalism.”

And yet, not unlike the indictment of the Millennium Villages Project, we have seen how health and WASH technical expertise can succumb to failure most notably in the case of the 2014 West Africa Ebola response, where “failing to understand local dynamics, international response teams have further marginalised those most deprived.”

In humanitarian operations, “international actors defined capacity according to their own strengths…including technical capacity,” which leads to a rift of understanding of what such “technical capacity” means.

In a case study on localisation in DRC, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) says, “local actors tended to prioritise the capacity to: analyse and understand contexts, community dynamics, local conflicts and politics; engage with affected people to understand their needs…In contrast, the emphasis in international organisations tended to be on ‘scaling up’ responses.”

It is unsurprising to find, therefore, that according to ODI, “Current practices around how capacity is defined and assessed are usually approached as a technical issue…rather than as an exercise in power…How capacity is defined and assessed is often used to undermine the legitimacy of local actors.”

The same is also true for other technical sectors other than health and WASH. In DRR, for instance, supposedly “unbiased” and “non-cultural” approaches are favoured, while indigenous knowledge is sidelined.

(And if anyone remains unconvinced of how technical expertise is in fact not a neutral and purely objective concept, I invite them to have a look at the latest PISA rankings. Within a technical sector such as education, both Finland and Singapore achieved positive outcomes — despite having radically different approaches to pedagogy.)

In both operational and sectoral terms, the aid sector is partial to Northern-centric definitions and indicators of technical expertise. But to paraphrase a popular saying, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it needs capacity-building.

To be very clear, such critical examination of the concept of technical expertise is in no way an attack on science. Rather it highlights the problematic dynamic of who gets to define what is technical expertise, and how such expertise is used to reinforce the unequal power dynamics between the Global North versus the Global South.

Colonialism in science is in fact a broader, complex issue that requires a certain degree of care and nuance to tackle. While we must be wary that it does not go the way of anti-vaxxers or homeopaths, current colonial, Northern-centric conceptions of “scientific” and “technical” knowledge isn’t always able to accommodate valuable contributions from indigenous and other Global South communities.

In The White Man’s Burden, Easterly lambasted planners who were stubborn with their insistence on technocratic, top-down projects that didn’t work, and instead praised searchers who looked for effective homegrown solutions to local problems.

And in the humanitarian sector, there are many such solutions — like using medicinal herbs to treat diarrhoea in Southern Africa, or promoting traditional floating gardens in Bangladesh to make livelihoods more resilient to disasters.

We can leave plunging into the philosophical depths of scientific epistemology for later. But what we can do in the aid sector is to be more critical when the mythic “technical expertise” is invoked. And at the same time, with the same critical vigour, we can endeavour to be like Easterly’s searchers, open to looking for technical expertise in places our colonial, Northern-centric bias has conditioned us to believe they won’t be found.

Aid Re-imagined’s mission is to help usher the evolution of aid towards justice and effectiveness through deep, radical, and evidence-based reflection and research — unafraid to venture beyond the realm of development and humanitarianism, using insights from philosophy, economics, politics, anthropology and sociology, as well as management. Aid Re-imagined stands for a more just and effective aid for our new, ever-changing world.

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Aid Re-imagined

Re-imagining the way we do aid towards effectiveness and justice.

Aid Re-imagined

Aid Re-imagined’s mission is to help usher the evolution of aid towards justice and effectiveness through deep, radical, and evidence-based reflection and research. Get in touch: arbie@aidreimagined.com

Aid Re-imagined

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Re-imagining the way we do aid towards effectiveness and justice.

Aid Re-imagined

Aid Re-imagined’s mission is to help usher the evolution of aid towards justice and effectiveness through deep, radical, and evidence-based reflection and research. Get in touch: arbie@aidreimagined.com