Smell testing

Though I have never acquired credentials as a “development economist,” for the same reason I did not acquire Grade XI, the field has sometimes mildly interested me, and I did once teach the stuff to university students (in South-east Asia). Indeed, my father and I took jobs, in our respective generations, in what Mao Tse-Tung called the “Third World”; and these jobs involved fussing in economies (on of course the infinitesimal scale). We both came to the conclusion, partly poignant and partly tragic, that as “Western advisers” we had been giving the most destructive and counter-productive advice. We were contributing only to the Westernization (or, “modernization”) of Eastern societies, and like the much-criticized imperialists of old, we were parsimonious in our gifts.

At least I, if not papa, concluded that the great colonial masters, especially the English and the Dutch, did not bring Christianity to the natives, if they could possibly help it. It got in the way of their economic transactions, including the frequent frontier wars. The natives were left mostly to extract the Christianity for themselves. Recall, if you can, that for the most part Sub-Saharan Africa was converted by native African evangelists, both Catholic and Protestant, not by missionary white men. It is to Africa that we now turn to be converted ourselves.

Development economics has followed a path similar. We do not export the example of our better angels. The marvellous traditions in the West of freedom and aspiration to holiness might as well have stayed home: our adventurers were almost exclusively concerned with getting rich. The many colonial administrators were expert in laying down bureaucracies, that would survive their departure and continue to oppress the general population, indefinitely. It is an irony that “globalization” has come back, as it were, to bite our ass.

But there are exceptions in the theatre of development. One of them is my hero, Lant Pritchett, from Utah, if you know what I mean. (By way of MIT and Oxford.) He is perhaps best known for proposing “smell tests” on foreign aid policies: simple statistical measures to test their actual effect over time.

He has made old-fashioned, Adam-Smith arguments for letting things happen. These include allowing the tired, huddled masses to emigrate, and therefore to immigrate, where they can make new and happier lives. This, as an alternative to the introduction of evermore sophisticated technology, both here and there, to exclude human beings from the processes of production, thus creating unemployable masses. It is not wrong to allow people to feed themselves, through their own labour, or even to live unharried; and I might add that simplicity is an aesthetic improvement on vroom, vroom.

Too, Pritchett (notoriously) recommended the export of our most polluting industries, along with our mountainous waste and trash, to the poorest countries. This will unfailingly cause an economic renaissance in each place, as each is provided, for free, with new raw materials. Those who have lived in some of the most impoverished environments will have observed human inventiveness at its finest, which invariably follows the most trying circumstances.

But among Pritchett’s creative suggestions (some as part of the “Copenhagen Consensus” of Bjørn Lomborg and associates), perhaps the one most exquisitely clever was his insight into demographics. He argued that the most accurate way to predict trends in childbearing by the average woman, was to ask her how many children she wanted. For better or worse, men get what they want, when they are allowed to pursue it; and it turns out that women have this power, too. The means by which they achieve it may vary, between good and evil; but women, like men, are not universally naïve.