Rodrik on the Washington Consensus

Dani Rodrik
Thanks to Nicholas for drawing my attention to this 2006 paper from Dani Rodrik, Professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (at Harvard University) and one of the current high priests of development economics.

The paper is a review of the World Bank publication Economic Growth in the 1990s: Learning from a Decade of Reform. A detailed summary is unnecessary, since it’s short and accessible.

Rodrik finds that, unlike previous manifestos from the Bretton Woods institutions, this one is deeply humble in tone — so much so that it signals an acknowledgement that the 1990s Washington Consensus has collapsed. In some countries where the policies have been implemented in detail, they havenât worked; in others, especially China, spectacular growth has occurred in the absence of several of the supposedly necessary conditions.

He finds fault with the two main alternative prescriptions on the table. One, advocated by the IMF, is that development programs need to embrace the Washington Consensus items more deeply and thoroughly, with more emphasis on follow-through in implementing institutional reforms like property rights.

In the limit, the obsession with comprehensive institutional reform leads to a policy agenda that is hopelessly ambitious and virtually impossible to fulfil.

Telling poor countries in Africa or Latin America that they have to set their sights on the best-practice institutions of the U.S. or Sweden is like telling them that the only way to develop is to become developedâhardly useful policy advice! Furthermore, there is something inherently unfalsifiable about this advice.

So open-ended is the agenda that even the most ambitious institutional reform efforts can be faulted ex post for having left something out. So you reformed institutions in trade, property rights, and macro, but still did not grow? Well, it must be that you did not reform labour-market institutions. You did that too, but still did not grow? [Etcetera, etcetera]

The other approach, emanating from the UN and articulated by Millennium Fund director Jeffrey Sachs, recommends a strong injection of development aid for the poorest countries, that will launch them out of their poverty trap and harness increasing returns to scale. Rodrik argues that this approach doesnât explain many African cases where growth has taken off at very low income levels in most African countries but has petered out after a decade in every instance.

The trouble seems to be not that poor African countries are unable to grow, but that their growth spurts eventually fizzle out. This suggests a rather different remedy, one that focuses in the short run on selectively removing binding constraints on growth (which may well differ from country to country), and in the medium- to longer-run on enhancing resilience to external shocks.

Rodrik goes on to exhort us to âLet a thousand development models bloomâ, as he once titled an opinion piece.

But if you get this far, it’s well worth persevering, to discover that Rodrik is doing much more than just criticizing the one-size-fits-all approach. He presents an ingenious diagnostic taxonomy for finding the right remedy in each case, so that policies can be directed at the aforementioned binding constraints, rather than at total transformation, which is often wasteful and/or dangerous.

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Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Yes – not one size fits all but look for the constraint and try to alleviate it. Rather like Jeff Sachs describes his own approach – except for the fact that Jeff Sachs is anything but humble – which is a problem!

14 years ago

Watch out, you’ll have Rafe down your throat for this. :-)

Jason Soon
14 years ago

This is the best that the alleged best mind in development economics can come up with? A paraphrase of Mao’s ‘let a thousand flowers bloom?’

Why not just shut up shop and move to the English department?

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

Evidently you didn’t read my last paragraph, Jason.

But thanks for explaining the allusion. Keep up the good work.

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Have just read the paper James commented on. It is marvellous. Unlike a lot of similarly clever economists, Rodrik is very sensible. At least in all the things of his I’ve read recently.

Tony Harris
Tony Harris(@tony-harris)
14 years ago

Thanks to Nicholas for a recent heads up on this paper which appeared in the December 2006 edition of the Journal of Economic Literature. It exemplifies the kind of country by country, case by case “situational analysis” methodology which can be traced to various sources, among them the Austrians, the early Talcott Parsons (1937) and R G Collingwood. Rodrik previously wrote a paper on the way that the holistic analysis by cross-country regression models has not been helpful.

Check out especially section 6 of the paper on the practical agenda for formulating growth strategies.

The kind of analysis that Rodrik practices in this paper fits like a glove with the “new political economy” that is being developed by the “Boettke Boys” at George Mason University.


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