Technocrats vs Rights

The debate over the Nike “Girl Effect” video has unintentionally revealed a deep divide in approaches to development, with the two sides close to mutual incomprehension. The divide is between what I will call the technocratic approach and the rights approach. Amanda Glassman at the deservedly well-respected Center for Global Development (which provided material for the Nike video campaign) and Miriam Temin, the co-author with Ruth Levine of Start with a Girl, say in their exposition of the technocratic approach to women’s issues: “you’d think this would be relatively uncontroversial, given the strength and extent of the underlying evidence.”¹  Rosalind Eyben, in her compelling lead article in this issue, gives the “rights” rebuttal: the technocratic vision seems “all about calculating the rates of return from investing in a person as if she were a piece of machinery.”

Here I want to meet the technocrats on their own ground by sticking to the narrow concepts and methodology of economics. I will argue the technocratic approach to be logically incoherent – and a confrontation with “rights” to be logically unavoidable.

Let me begin with a seemingly innocuous example: women’s labour force participation. One does not need a randomised controlled trial to establish “the strength and extent of the underlying evidence” that more work leads to more income,  i.e. increased female labour force participation furthers “development,” as measured by income per person.

Indeed, it is obvious to each of us that we could increase our own “development” (income) by working longer hours. We choose not to do this, however, since none (or at least few) of us are working the biological maximum of say, 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. If someone forced us to work longer hours, we must inevitably feel worse off, because we had already rejected that option when we had the right to choose. The technical economics point here is that income is no longer a reliable indicator of well-being once the right to choose is violated. Hence, “development” recommendations cannot make sense in a rights-free vacuum – respecting individual rights is a pre-requisite to any intelligible discussion of development policies as a way to increase human well-being.

I doubt the adherents to the technocratic view would disagree with anything in the preceding paragraph. Yet in practice, the technocratic discussions have a blind spot. I can’t remember the last time I saw a discussion of female labour force participation ask whether increased work is something that women themselves had the right to choose or decline. It is not exactly a secret that women around the globe often do NOT have this or other basic rights, and that there ARE a lot of men (or even other women) coercing women. Yet the technocratic approach heedlessly blends together in its “strength and extent of underlying evidence” cases of coercion, freedom of choice, and everything in between. And this blindness to individual rights occurs not just in female labour force participation, but in virtually every issue (including those affecting low-income men).

Why does this blind spot persist? I hypothesise that the technocratic vision is imbued with the unconscious paternalistic strain in development, in which “we” choose what is best for “them.” Although it is usually taboo to say “them,” development discussions frequently use the “we”. To be fair, I am guilty myself: despite criticising the “we” usage for a while now, I still slip into it.  It follows from the founding principle of development: that “we,” the “more developed” peoples, have some useful ideas, skills, technologies, etc. to convey to the “less developed.” Indeed, it would be foolish to deny the existence of any such potentially useful transfers. The difficult balancing act is to exploit such transfers while at the same time recognising the inequality in power between rich and poor, which raises big risks that “we” the rich will ignore or violate the rights of “them,” the poor. The technocratic experts, in contrast, are impatient to just get on with it, not to bother with some fuzzy and incomprehensible rights approach.

Not to make too much of one video, but the “Girl Effect” is unintentionally and usefully illustrative. The paternalism is already on display from the moment that it is about a “Girl,” and not about a “Woman.” Next follows the stereotype of the flies buzzing around the girl. As Alex de Waal and many other writers have pointed out, the aid business has long been saturated both with images of children and with degrading images of the poor, now often labelled “poverty porn.” The “we” appears in the first step in the technocratic transformation of the girl: “let’s put her in a school uniform.”

After further transformation, the “girl” convinces “the men” that “all girls are valuable.” The technocratic approach thus agrees about the desired endpoint of equal rights for women (and nobody should imply otherwise).

Yet the technocratic approach never really tests the proposition (which many would consider naïve) that technocracy will eventually yield equal rights, despite the technocratic veneration for “evidence.” Nor does the technocratic vision consider how much “we” may violate such rights (or unintentionally support such violations by others) of “them” along the way. Even if there were such evidence, it would not address whether the final state of equal rights made it “worth it” to violate rights along the way, and above all – who gets to decide?

Putting rights at the end inevitably enmeshes “us” in a tangle of paradoxes in which it will always be unclear who is benefiting from whom, or who is harming whom. Rights must come first, not last.

William Easterly
NYU Economics Department


¹ Glassman and Temin were responding to a critique of the “The Girl Effect” by Anna Carella.

Related: What is happening to Donor Support for Women’s Rights?

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