Expertise is Always Political

This essay was published earlier this month as part of the International Social Science Council Forum on Experts: Past, Present, Future, commissioned and edited by Anna Barbara Sum and Frank Trentmann. Posts in the forum all deal with expertise and experts in a variety of political, social and economic areas and arenas from the 19th century to the present, and from multi-disciplinary perspectives. The editors’ aim is to foster exchange between historians, social scientists and policy experts. Their introductory post can be found here. Jessica Reinisch’s original post is available here.

Expertise is Always Political

By Jessica Reinisch

The debate about the relevance of experts in contemporary democratic societies is unlikely to stop any time soon. From some vantage points, the challenges to “expertise” seem to represent a very fundamental division. On one side are the experts, inherently elitist and anti-democratic, secluded in their ivory towers, attempting to protect their privilege and authority and arrogantly insisting on their superiority, while refusing to acknowledge their biases. On the other are the uneducated masses, resenting, above all, their marginalisation and being told what to do, or simply unsatisfied with their lot and looking for someone to blame.

Nor are these caricatures simply a product of the anti-expert polemic unleashed last year by Michael Gove and his allies. This stark divide reflects a growing gap between voters who have university degrees and those who don’t, as David Runciman and others have pointed out. It is further reinforced by a number of experts’ claims that their expertise is a matter of “pure insight”, aloof from and unpolluted by mere material or political concerns. Both sides tend to agree that there is a gulf of difference between them.

However, this polarised debate makes it easy to forget that experts are, in fact, a far from homogenous group, their authority and status secured by a range of factors. History can help to remind us of the fragility and precariousness of the status of experts and the politically-charged controversies in which they have always been involved (and thrived on). Experts derive their authority from the contexts in which they operate, and when those contexts change, they tend to lose their crowns, at least temporarily.

UNRRA microscopes in Warsaw (Photo: United Nations Archives and Records Management)

In this post I want to juxtapose current concerns about expertise with those that arose about one particular international organization, important but long defunct, in which technical experts played a crucial role. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, UNRRA in short, was one of the first and most ambitious agencies created by the wartime Allies (US, UK, USSR) during the Second World War. UNRRA was an inter-governmental organization, initially composed of 43 member countries, who together agreed its enormous brief: to assist the rehabilitation of nations liberated from Nazi control by bringing emergency food, clothing, medicines, farming and building supplies; and to organize the return home of the many millions of Allied nationals displaced by the war and the Holocaust.

UNRRA was supposed to achieve all this with the help of carefully negotiated agreements for the international pooling of donations and supplies, by which the countries most damaged during the years of foreign occupation and war could begin to rebuild themselves with help from those more affluent and secure. In practice, this meant that the United States was UNRRA’s biggest funder, contributing around 73% of its huge budget. Between 1943 and 1947, UNRRA delivered over 4 billion dollars worth of supplies (which made it the most generously funded refugee and relief programme of its time). At its peak it had a staff of almost 25,000, who distributed aid in 16 so-called “receiving” countries, 12 of them in a belt across southern, central and eastern Europe, where the war had left its most visible traces.

Dr H.Holle (Chief of UNRRA Medical Services) & Dr Franciszek Litwin (Minister of Health), Poland [1946] (Photo): UNRRA/ 4593, UNited Nations Archives and Records Management)

Experts, often referred to as “specialists” or “technicians” in the organization’s files, formed the backbone of UNRRA’s efforts. Without its economists, agricultural and industrial specialists, shipping experts, pathologists, medical officers, sanitary engineers, welfare officers, public relations officers or communication experts, to name but a few, UNRRA would not have been able to do very much at all. In fact, the relief and reconstruction project at the end of the war coincided with a high point of technical experts’ importance and influence. In the wake of the biggest and bloodiest war in history, many politicians — US President Franklin D. Roosevelt among them — as well as the experts themselves, argued that there was no group of people better suited for laying the foundations of a new, peaceful world. This new world would be organized rationally, on the basis of scientific and technological insights, and secured by diplomatic instruments that would prevent irrationality, political excesses and war from ever taking root again. In other words, the answer to future peace and well-being lay in technocracy — a coalition of non-political technical specialists with benign democratic and internationally-minded leaders.

Within UNRRA, not all kinds of expertise were equally valued. Its Washington-based economists were the undeniable expert heavyweights, and frequently outranked and overrode the, say, welfare officers or transport specialists in the field. Questions of age, nationality, gender, geographical location, social status and connectedness all played a role in how well they were paid and how much influence they had in practice. But in spite of clear hierarchies, UNRRA’s various specialists tended to share a sense of professional mission, and a belief in the importance of training, skills and the promises of technocratic government.

And yet, UNRRA and its experts were far from universally trusted or cherished. Although it was a self-proclaimed non-political, ‘technical’ agency, eager to side-step areas of political controversy, it was in fact inextricably entwined with the political debates of the mid-1940s about post-war reconstruction, the nature of the state, international governance, and the global roles of the United States — and there were plenty of people who disagreed with what UNRRA set out to do and how it went about it.

To name but one example: UNRRA’s mandate enshrined the principle of national sovereignty and the importance of healthy, rebuilt nation-states, tied together in a system of multilateral agreements. UNRRA teams would enter countries only if invited by the national authorities to do so. Their explicit instruction was to support the work of the receiving countries’ native officials.

However, barely a year into its post-war field work, it was precisely this focus that irked UNRRA’s critics the most. Amid the increasing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, American commentators in particular attacked UNRRA as pandering to Soviet aims by propping up apparently ‘hostile regimes’ on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, and thereby failing to uphold the moral tenets of its main funders, chiefly the United States. UNRRA’s aid, in other words, was helping to rebuild the wrong kind of nation-states.

Challenging UNRRA’s mandate was akin to challenging its experts’ authority and ability. Indeed, these protests about UNRRA’s work in Eastern Europe were accompanied by a growing chorus of accusations about the apparent incompetence of UNRRA’s staff, its participation in black market activities, and espionage. In the bipolar world of the Cold War, specialists who refused to take sides had become political liabilities.

How could UNRRA’s experts have gone from being saviours of the world in 1943 to posing a threat to Western values in 1946? The answer lies in the importance of the context in which any expert’s authority is constructed. The end of the war-time alliance brought with it the end of a certain vision of apolitical technocracy and multilateralism as represented by UNRRA.

However, it was not the end of the experts themselves. In fact, what is perhaps most striking in the history of experts is not just that their status is tied to certain political priorities which can come and go, but also the flexibility that enables many of them to operate in very different political settings. After UNRRA disbanded in 1947, many of its experts signed up to work in the new international organizations that were better than UNRRA at conforming with Cold War requirements — among them the World Bank, UN Development Programme (UNDP), World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) — and found plenty of new opportunities to apply their insights.

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