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Autonomy And/Or Economic Development?

David Ellerman. Helping People Help Themselves.
University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Reviewed by Len Krimerman.


This is a remarkable book. The author, having worked within the World Bank for a decade, knows whereof he writes. And he tells us that almost all development assistance is self-defeating―misguided at best if not deliberately harmful. And that's just the tip of an enormous iceberg that spans across every helping field. That is, as Ellerman puts it, every field in which some humans ("helpers") try to get others ("doers") to do something: parents/children, teachers/students, managers/workers, medical

professionals/patients, counselors/clients, etc.


Ellerman's main thesis is actually two-fold. Negatively, he contends that we need a "strong theory of what not to do, a theory of unhelpful help." This comes in two forms: overriding help (social engineering), where the helper imposes goals or strategies on the doer; and undercutting (charitable) help, where the doer is kept needy and incapacitated by the helper's benevolence.


The main positive thesis, easy to state and difficult to implement, is that help must be "autonomy-respecting," that is, support or enhance the self-reliant capacities of the doer. In Ellerman's view, this sort of assistance will on the whole be "indirect," as when Socratic questioning enables a person to realize what they in some sense already knew, or when doers are presented with a range of conflicting perspectives rather than with ready-made answers. (As Myles Horton, founder of Tennessee's Highlander Education and Research Center, might have said, "Don't tell people how to solve a problem, but put them in situations where they can learn the solution for themselves." See also Anisur Rahman's People's Self-Development for textured descriptions of the practical wisdom that emerges where ordinary people, despite barriers of marginalization and poverty, are credited with the capacity to identify their own problems and solutions.)


A great deal of development assistance, like a great deal of teaching, parenting, professional care-giving or counseling, etc., at least on Ellerman's view, consists of one or both forms of unhelpful help; only rarely does it embody respect for the doer's autonomy. The practical implications of his alternative philosophy of development are straightforward; for example, that what is needed for developing nations are "global networks of local agencies rather than global agencies." More fully, the book contends: "Power corrupts, and we have accordingly seen how the most powerful agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF cannot stop themselves from trying to play the role of the teacher who has the Official Answers. This in turn undercuts the freedom of inquiry of their own research staff that is the foundation of intellectual integrity (Ellerman, 250)."


Reviewers, myself included, have pressed Ellerman for illustrative cases of his autonomy-respecting model. His reply is that examples are everywhere and nowhere. They are as everyday as parents who know when to back away and let their child make mistakes, and teachers who support imagination and constructive learning, rather than teaching to standardized tests or until no child's behind is left. On the other hand, there are no examples to be duplicated or followed like a dog imitating its master; the doer must have the space and support to reinvent his or her own wheel. To put it another way: development assistance, much like life itself, is an art; solutions are found, and problems solved, not by applying recipes or formulas, but by exercising creative judgment.


For Ellerman, autonomy is valuable not only for itself, but as a source of long-range survival for any economic alternative, including worker cooperatives. On his view, "for cooperatives to survive in an economic world hostile to that form, cooperation can neither be an imposition nor a gift: it must arise out of the autonomous activity of the doers."  I am inclined overall to agree with this, but the book itself provides no evidence for it. I would agree with it even more if it recognized that some gifts, and even some impositions, can foster gradual increases in self-development or self-reliance, or even awaken autonomy. Moreover, years of University teaching have left me with a persistent worry about "autonomy": what is to be done when people, doers, students, co-workers, clients, neighbors, friends,

etc. don't especially care about their own autonomy, or that its been compromised, not to mention that of their peers or fellow citizens? There are days when this seems to me almost the "normal" condition in this autonomy-challenged society.


Not surprisingly, Ellerman's response to this worry is original and challenging. "Autonomy-respecting help," he claims, "need not always involve Zen non-directedness; at a certain point, the 'tough love' of kicking a bird out of the nest is how it learns to fly on its own." One "modest proposal" he would make in this vein involves placing term limits on jobs (e.g., 8-10 years)―beyond which one would have to join in forming a spin-off enterprise. Cooperatives and other democratic firms would be more likely to favor this approach than conventional firms, where owners and management want to retain or expand their control over all productive units. In fact, the Empresarial Division of the CLP in Mondragon, now a separate coop, actually fosters such spin-offs. He concludes, "... the term limit idea is a crude kicking-out-of-the-nest that could prove autonomy-enhancing overall. I would like to see some more experimentation here."


This is a book to be read and re-read. It will provoke, but it will also connect the work of economic and cooperative development to a rich, liberating, and too often overlooked tradition of practice and theory, one that includes such diverse notables as Ella Jo Baker, John Dewey, Mary Parker Follett, Paulo Freire, Mohandas Gandhi, Paul Goodman, Myles Horton, Carl Rogers, and Ernesto Sirolli. (For more on this tradition, see Mary Belenky's A Tradition That Has No Name, as well as Myles Horton's The Long Haul and the Rahman book mentioned above.) And when that connection takes root, old truths will become stale, and fresh questions will arise.


*Author's note: Several of the Ellerman quotes in this review wonąt be found in the book, but are from a lengthy conversation he and I had this summer, the whole of which is on the GEO web site,


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