Do you consider yourself an ‘expert’? And do you think experts have a role to play in development – and in broader society – after all the criticism they have come in for in recent times (especially the Brexit vote)? A World of Struggle is a widely praised study of expertise with a provocative argument: that experts have influence not just because they advise governments but because they shape the way everyone thinks.
When I worked for DFID in Tanzania between 2012 and 2015, I often found people referring to me as an ‘anti-corruption expert’. It was a label I felt pretty uncomfortable with. It wasn’t only that I worried I didn’t know enough about corruption; I was also uncomfortable about the role of development experts in general. I felt development agencies put too much emphasis on technical expertise in, say, education, health or governance, which we ‘experts’ were expected to pick up and transfer from Vietnam to Nigeria to Pakistan without very much understanding of local politics, languages or culture.
After the Brexit referendum campaign, it seemed like these private concerns had surfaced again, but in a more cruel and public light. All the expert predictions that the UK would suffer if it left the EU were ignored by 52% of the population, who apparently had “had enough of experts”. This seemed unnecessarily harsh on talented professionals who were doing their best – surely their detailed knowledge and wisdom was worth something?
So I came to David Kennedy’s A World of Struggle: How Power, Law and Expertise Shape Global Political Economy with a question in mind: is there a role for experts in development, and society more broadly, and if so what should that role be? In the end the book provides an interesting but also frustrating half-answer to that question. Interesting, because it takes a really original perspective on expertise. Frustrating, because for a book which is partly about how experts decide important issues for society behind closed doors, it’s disappointingly inaccessible and academic, peppered with phrases like “performative assertions” and “rule by articulation”.
Despite the frustrations, the book’s ideas are striking enough to be worth discussing. Kennedy’s main argument is that ideas which seem to be about explaining the world in fact act to change it. When experts describe the world as a capitalist system, a globalising economy or a system of nation states, for example, these are not just descriptions which are more or less accurate – they have effects, they make people act in certain ways and not in others. For example, when policy experts across the world argue that the economy is ‘globalising’, this makes governments, companies and economists rush to compete with each other to bring this globalisation into effect. A seemingly technical concept of the ‘non-tariff barrier’ has the powerful effect of allowing trade negotiators to scrutinise huge swathes of domestic policy and laws in other countries, from education policy to labour law to environmental regulations, with the intention of arguing that these policies ‘distort the market’ and should be removed. You can see a similar dynamic working in, say, rural development (although Kennedy does not discuss this), whereby governments, agricultural extension workers and even farmers start defining themselves in terms of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ agricultural practices that may or may not be accurate or helpful descriptions of how people used to farm. The language takes on a life of its own, it creates a reality even if that reality was not there before.
Another fresh insight of the book is the way Kennedy characterises ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in global debates. The expert perspective is the perspective of the insider: experts see problems, to be sure, but they believe these problems can be solved by better technical management. They often see politics as problematic, raising local or national barriers to the resolution of global problems. Also, Kennedy argues, experts often believe they are acting for a greater good in the long term – they may not solve problems now but believe they are making steps in the right direction in the name of a far-off vision – say of “ever closer union” or a world legal system. Outsiders, by contrast, believe that there is a system which is skewed, serving the interests of the rich and powerful. They don’t believe that experts think and act in the interests of everybody, but that (under the layers of waffle) they are serving their own interests. They don’t believe in ‘small steps’ reform in the name of a better future and prefer the idea of radical change or revolution.
Kennedy is a law professor and devotes the last third of the book to the role of law in war and international relations. Many people think that the increasing discussion about law in war is a good thing, because it means that rulers have to consider and respect international law when going to war. But Kennedy is more sceptical. He argues that those who want to prevent war may have their legal language and concepts, but there is also a whole legal vocabulary for those who want to make war. The detailed legal discussions between the two sides, Kennedy argues, have the effect that everyone gets so focused on the technicalities that they lose sight of the death and destruction that is really at stake. “Good legal arguments can make people lose their moral compass.”
So where does all this leave me as a onetime, and possibly future, development ‘expert’? From my perspective, dismissing all expert knowledge out of hand surely can’t be right: for millennia, rulers have relied on advice from knowledgeable people. I also don’t see that the increasing role of experts in rich country governments is necessarily linked to widening inequality and injustice in the world, as Kennedy argues – although I think it’s a question worth exploring. But I do think Kennedy is onto something when he highlights how the increasingly technical vocabularies of expertise, for example in economics and law, allow experts and rulers to sidestep moral questions, seeing them as irrelevant or outside the realm of rational debate. If I go back to being an ‘expert’, I hope I don’t lose sight of the moral issues amongst all the charts, the tables and indicators.