Being a Consultant “Expert” in a Developing Country: the Legacy and Lessons of Albert Hirschman
By Pier Giorgio Ardeni, Department of Economics, University of Bologna
After more than half a century, the reflections of Albert O. Hirschman on development assistance, the role of consultant “experts” in providing policy advice and the “visiting economist’s syndrome” are still very current. In as much as Hirschman argued against all-encompassing policy frameworks, overall development plans and universal models, “one-size-fits-all” models abstracting from the local, historical, geographic and institutional conditions have remained the prevailing modus operandi of international development agencies and governments in development assistance. In spite of Paul Krugman’s criticism of Hirschman’s lack of a mathematically-consistent approach in favour of an ad hoc pragmatism, Hirschman’s avoidance of assuming a toy model to deal with practical issues and the specificities of development problems in different countries – while still using rigorous and detailed analysis– appears to be a promising attitude of enormous relevance even today. If the rejection of large-scale models of the hey days of development theory was due to the neoliberal policy wave that led to the “Washington consensus” – more market and less State –, development assistance has remained firmly entrenched in the principles of balanced growth, all-encompassing liberalizing policy reforms and diffused marketization with an increasingly limited role for the State. Development assistance approaches have maintained a standard list of prescriptions, policy-reform recipes for all sectors, social, institutional and even political objectives, under the justification that “everything depends on everything”. In this paper, I briefly review the evidence regarding the active pursuit of a paradigm that, sidelining Hirschman’s unorthodox approach, has confirmed that we have “forgotten nothing and learned nothing”, as Hirschman once said. While Hirschmanian concepts like “linkages” and “leading sectors” and some of his famous parables – like the “tunnel effect” on inequality – have left an enduring mark on economists’ perspectives, his “unbalanced-growth” has been dismissed on ineffectual grounds, while his “empirical lantern” has been derided and abandoned. The lessons of Hirschman’s consultant experience in the tropics have left a legacy that goes beyond his prescriptions: it is a philosophy, a conception of the world, a guiding sets of principles that survives time. From that wilderness where Hirschman led his followers, it is only by re-igniting that lantern that we can wisely contribute to the “development” of others as savvy and informed “experts”.
Review by Beatriz Rodríguez-Satizábal
Since his death in December 2012, Albert Otto Hirschman (1915-2012) his life’s work has been celebrated by specialists and the mass media: a great lateral thinker, an optimist economist and resistance figure, a planner who believed in doubt, and a worldly philosopher are just some of the adjectives used to describe him. But perhaps his contributions to theories of economic development and other useful views to approach economic behaviour have yet to receive all the attention they deserve. Hirschman was an economist who gently trespassed to other disciplines, while consulting for governments in developing countries (i.e. Colombia).Through these efforts he offered a unique strategy for economic development.
His approach began by understanding the conditions of each country, disregarding generalizations based on mathematical, one size fits all, models. Hirschman argued that disequilibria should be encouraged to stimulate growth and to help mobilize resources. Moreover, he noted that developing countries required more than financial capital to implement important economic decisions. He understood economic development as the product of successful habits, which began by observing, identifying and tackling “economic needs”. This view again departed from recipes emanated from general equilibria models. Moreover, he argued that a strategic, opportunistic approach, enabled making the best of what was available in each country. Including elements such as the latent entrepreneurial activity and what government policy could realistically achieve.
Inspired by his own experience studying at Berkeley in the 1980’s and, later, as a development economist in Africa, Pier Giorgio Ardeni’s paper (distributed by NEP HIS on 2014 09 29) explores the potentialities of Hirschman work for future discussions on how to promote development in countries that have had a taste of all the known formulas. The first half of the essay, combines a concise summary of Hirschman’s work with a critical review of Ardeni’s own experience. The second half, discuses broadly the evolution of the development debate and the lessons from Hirschman’s work.
Moving on from Krugman’s (1996) criticism about the lack of a mathematical consistent approach in Hirschman’s work, Ardeni brings together the resilience of Hirschman’s strategy with the reigniting interest in specialized consultancy. As a follower of Hirschman, Ardeni uses his empirical work as an example that working in the field is not overrated for a development economist. Concluding (p. 25) that after more than a half century, Hirschman’s reflections on the role of consultant experts on development assistance are still current.
Hirschman asked more from the so-called consultant experts. On his books, and in Adelman (2013) biography, the emphasis is on their role as educated readers of reality. These ‘readers’ will avoid the use of ‘models’ to later championship the creation of specific strategies, which will include diverse sectors of the society in similarly diverse activities. Nowadays, this assumption is more relevant than ever.
The main challenge in bringing Hirschman back to the scope of twenty-first century development discussions, is to call the attention over the need to witness, being that the one who is invited as a ‘consultant’, what other ways are proliferating around the world. Does each country can reach its potential their own way? As Hirschman recalled, if any country developed in a certain way, that does not mean that other countries will do it the same way. However, each country should be able to learn from the mistakes witnessed in other more advanced countries.
Drawing on Hirschman’s work, Ardeni brings three lessons which are useful today for those planning on economies that have not still reach the highest possible level of development (hopefully, a level measured in their own terms): 1) large-scale development models should be rejected, 2) local and historical conditions matter, 3) the empirical lantern remains very much needed.
- Adelman, J. (2013) Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Hirschman, A. (1995) A Propensity to Self-subversion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Hirschman, A. (1970) Exit, Voice, and Loyalty Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Hirschman, A. (1958) The Strategy of Economic Development. New Haven, Yale University Press.
- Krugman, P. (1994) ‘The Fall and Rise of Development Economics’, pp. 39-58. In Rodwin, Ll. and Schon, D.L. (eds) Rethinking the Development Experience. Essays Provoked by the Work of Albert O. Hirschman. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.