Theses Doctoral

Politics by Other Means: Economic Expertise, Power, and Global Development Finance Reform

Bhatt, Jigar D.

This dissertation investigates how economic expertise influences development governance by examining how state economists establish methods for decision-making in global development finance. It contributes to debates over expert power by taking a science studies approach to address two problems in existing theories and accounts of experts. First, social reformers, heterodox planning theorists, and development critics from both the left and the right treat rationality and politics asymmetrically. When experts fail, politics has triumphed. When experts succeed, the credit goes to rationality, not politics. Second, within this asymmetrical approach, investigations and explanations of expert power neglect a principal conduit of expert influence: their methods. This dissertation turns the focus to economists’ efforts to establish their methods as governing rationales and the effects these methods engender. Doing so allows us to approach particular forms of state rationality such as neoliberalism or managerialism not as processes of depoliticization, of intellectual rationality prevailing over political interests and values, but as explicit political accomplishments with both the power to bring about political effects and the susceptibility to being challenged.
State economists’ efforts to establish three paradigmatic development economic methods in particular—governance indicators, growth diagnostics, and randomized controlled trials—and these methods’ effects on power relations, decision-making, and the distribution of resources were assessed using an embedded case study design of their use for decision-making in administering a new development finance fund, the United States Millennium Challenge Account. A mixed methods approach using interviews, documents, and various datasets found that economists could not realize the power of their intellectual rationality without exercising power thought to be the reserve of politicos. Economists had to employ various strategies of power both to gain autonomy from bureaucratic authorities and overcome opposition from expert groups holding alternative rationalities. This involved enrolling bystanders and opponents in their entrepreneurial efforts to establish methods. The more opposition economists faced, the more power they had to exercise and allies they had to enroll. Once enrollment was successful, economists’ status was elevated and their methods became indispensable to particular decision-making processes. These new ways of making decisions introduced different biases that elevated economists’ concerns, objectives, and ways of knowing. They also impacted the distribution of development finance in ways that exacerbated inequality in at least the short to medium term.
This dissertation’s focus on economists’ political work and methods has implications for planning practice because it opens up new political possibilities. Rather than treating state expertise and public participation as antagonistic, zero-sum confrontations, planners can pursue democratic values by both “opening up the state” and “getting inside” methods. If orthodox economists had to overcome opposition from groups of opposing experts with competing rationalities then other experts can likewise use political strategies to establish their methods as governing rationales. Even in situations where this is not possible or desirable, understanding methods’ political effects can instigate reflective practice and possible change.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Urban Planning
Thesis Advisors
Beauregard, Robert
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 24, 2018