Authoritarian Development and Systems Thinking

William Easterly argues in his new book “The Tyranny of Experts” that for the last decades authoritarian development has been the default consensus on global poverty reduction.

Authoritarian development relies on technocratic solutions, tries to implement pre-fabricated ideas and plans in whatever local situation and – this is its core misunderstanding – beliefs that development is the result of deliberate design by experts or politicians. Mainstream development aid is based on the concept of authoritarian development.

Examples? In recent years much aid money has been spent for programs trying to improve the water supply for poor people in remote areas in African countries. From a technocratic point of view quite simple interventions – drill some boreholes, install an appropriate technical equipment, set up administration and maintenance structures. Full stop. But a variety of different instances has impeded a sustainable functioning of many of those projects. Maintenance wasn’t done properly, spare parts were difficult to access, administrative measures failed, neighboring families got into quarrels, and so forth.

What has been the general response of the aid community to such failures?

The agenda of “aid effectiveness”!

A topic that by now has been discussed in lengths for several years. The more “aid effectiveness” has become an issue the more extensive targets on output, outcome and impact have been defined. Additionally, a whole new business branch for controlling and evaluation (together with a substantial bureaucratic apparatus on the contractors’ side) has been set in place to “secure” results and therewith an effective application of aid money.

With several years of controlling and evaluating have we got a substantial improvement of the quality in our aid programs? I doubt. Not for the reason of more examination and evaluation. Because we start with the wrong assumption that a certain “impact” can be defined beforehand and that this impact is the result of certain interventions or, the other way round, that certain interventions generate a specific impact. Unfortunately, believing in this assumption is like hunting the moon.

System Sciences and Complexity Theories explain why. Expressed in their terms, development is an “emergent property” of a “social system” in a complex environment. A social system consists of “adaptive actors” always trying to “self-organize” their own situation. The future status of such a system is always the result of all the interactions between all the elements and can never be predicted. Systems change in non-linear ways, sometimes over-reacting, sometimes with explosive surprises, tipping points and the like.

Development interventions – e.g. creating new wells – interact with existing elements  – e.g. local power relations, role of gender, educational systems. Together they form an unique “adaptive social system” whose development can’t be predicted. It can’t be predicted because it not only depends on current information whose future relevance is impossible to know, but also on information only available in the future.

So, will the authoritarian development consensus be abandoned?

Interestingly, I see two contradicting developments:

Firstly, Western states have abandoned this authoritarian approach regarding their own development already long time ago. They resumed to modern forms of adaptive arrangements, like periodic elections, plebiscites, polls or of course any form customer orientation in the public or private sector. Receiving constant feedback is key. And the central planning systems of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc have eventually been overthrown some 25 years ago. Thus, for already quite some time we have a double standard in our (Western) development thinking, free and open development in the West and authoritarian development in the emerging world.

Secondly, the double standard has been strengthened by the Paris-Accra-Buzan development process, the official communication and negotiation setting between donor and partner countries.  Starting with the Paris Declaration in 2005 all agreements rely on the idea that a “partner country” develops along a clear and linear plan and that alignment and harmonization of plans can bring about planned results. (Look at my blogpost regarding the situation in Mozambique).

So, although most of the assumptions of the authoritarian development consensus have been proved wrong in the West, the Western donor community continues with this consensus in the South.

Further thoughts on the history, the moral questions and other interesting arguments of Williams Easterly follow.


See also How Racist Roots backfire on Development Aid … 


  1. Great read. Would you go as far as considering impact measurement a thing of the past or does it rather need to be rethought, e.g. around regional-specific “adaptive arrangements”?

    • You have to be aware of the limits of the concept of impact measurements. You can measure impacts but you never can be sure what exactly triggered a certain impact. Practical consequences?
      You should not contract companies or NGOs to generate certain impacts, only certain “outputs” can seriously be the object of a contractual relationship.
      Similarly, the ex-post attribution of certain impacts to a specific intervention has oftenly more to do with marketing than with serious analyses.

  2. Interesting site! It reminds me on a remote Ethiopian village community. At the introduction of the project, when the so called Donor asked what they wana do, how much the budget is and so forth, they just replied, “we can do better, please, give us the money we distribute it among us “.

  3. Your argument is totally convincing and
    right. Why does it not work then?

    Parallel systems? We make nice feedback
    loops in the wrong system!

    • Yes, I agree. Parallel systems! People who are working in the aid system usually are not working in their “normal” social/economical system at home. The two systems are quite separated, only a few interfaces exist. The separation is enforced by the fact that donor-funded systems generally have an in-built tendency to stay closed due to the competition for funds and the behavior of those who possess access.
      The other thing is that our “nice feedback loops” seem to satisfy different purposes, very often they do not reach the level where funding decisions are made.

  4. The nicely written book ‘Dead Aid’ (written
    by Zambian Dambisa Moyo) makes a number of wrong conclusions – I think. One is
    that democracy comes after economic growth, and that one needs a benevolent
    dictator first to bring about economic growth, then democracy follows. I
    believe that economic growth comes a lot quicker and bigger, when democratic
    and economic institutions are inclusive, and elites cannot grab most of the
    political and economic resources and power.

    What would be an argument from the system’s
    theory point of view?

    • That’s actually William Easterly’s point: development needs individual rights. Aid together with (benevolent) dictators is not working because individual rights are oppressed. (China’s development surges because more and more individual rights are granted!)

      From the systems thinking point of view, any system to survive (let alone to progress) in an environment needs autonomy. And any such a “viable” system consists of embedded autonomous systems which themselves consist of embedded autonomous systems and so forth.

      So my take is that so called “benevolent dictators” oftenly (a) while allowing restricted economic freedom oppress political freedom and (b) strictly regulate access to certain permissions (eg export, telecommunication) and resources (natural resources, government funds). By doing so a centralized autocratic structure does not allow the emergence of a very sophisticated viable system with all its sub-systems and degree of decentralization. It prevents the emergence of a more complex system with a much higher capacity to innovate, self-organize and self-correct.

      Thus, from the systems thinking point of view I strongly back your view that economic growth comes a lot quicker with democratic structures.

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