The World Bank and many development experts are wedded to the myth that autocrats are good for growthby William Easterly / March 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
A statue of former Turkmenistan dictator Saparmurat Niyazov ©Robert Preston/Age Fotostock/Superstock
The President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, visited China in 2012. While there, he spoke of China’s economic success in delivering “on truly aspirational goals,” and went on to announce a World Bank programme to spread “practical knowledge from China’s successes in reducing poverty.” More recently, the World Bank’s report on China’s future, “China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative Society,” closed with a sentence giving credit for positive results to the Chinese leadership, celebrating their “wisdom, strength, and determination.”
Intellectual leaders have been similarly effusive about China’s progress. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.”
These are examples of the most persistent myth in economic development—that autocratic governments create growth miracles; that great leaderships, free from messy democratic constraints, produce high economic growth through their own commitment to development. But this is a myth, and one that reinforces the mainstream approach to ending global poverty which sees development as a series of technical, structural, topdown adjustments.
Autocratic growth miracles may at first seem persuasive—just look at the remarkable economic growth that occurred under Deng Xiaoping in China, under the single-party leaderships of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and of Park Chung Hee in South Korea. But it takes some work to understand that these claims are not quite what they seem.
Examples such as this convince a lot of development agencies and professionals. Notable development economists Nancy Birdsall and Francis Fukuyama noted in 2011 (they make clear they are summarising others’ views, not their own view): “Leaders in both the developing and the developed world have marvelled at China’s remarkable ability to bounce back after the  crisis, a result of a tightly managed, top-down policymaking machine that could avoid the delays of a messy democratic process. In response, political leaders in the developing world now associate efficiency and capability with autocratic political systems.”
It is not only China that enjoys this status. The belief in authoritarian miracles has spread more recently to Africa, with Ethiopia’s late…