There is no way around the basics: Development will take time

I just read Chris Blattman’s response to the UK Prime Minister’s op-ed in the Journal. It reminded me of a lot of the things that I have been reading lately in preparation for my fieldwork (My dissertation will tackle the subject of legislative (under)development in Africa, with a focus on the Kenyan and Zambian legislatures).

Cameron’s sentiments in the op-ed are emblematic of the problems of development assistance. Like in all kinds of foreign intervention, developed states often try to externalize their institutions (and more generally, ways of doing things). These attempts often ignore the lived realities of the countries being assisted.

Forgetting the history of his own country (think autocratic monarchs, monopolies, limited suffrage), Cameron thinks that democracy, human rights and free markets (all great things) will magically create jobs in the developing states of the world. They don’t. In fact, they often lag the job creation process. For development assistance to be effective it must eschew these feel-good approaches to the problem of underdevelopment.

Blattman is spot on on a number of points:

  1. Unchecked leaders are bad for economic development (this is why I am so much into PARLIAMENTS!!!): Also, democracy is NOT synonymous with limited government. Heads of state like Queen Victoria or Hu Jintao or Bismarck or even Seretse Khama were in no measure democrats. However, they reined under systems with strong (sometimes extra-constitutional) checks to their power. That made a difference.
  2. Institutions rule, yes, but the right kinds of institutions: 1688 moments do not drop out of the sky. They are often preceded by decades if not centuries of civil strife, economic change and plain old learning. Institutional development takes time. Plus each society requires its own unique and appropriate mix of institutional arrangements to meet unique economic and social needs. A procrustean approach to institutional development (embodied in global capacity building) will inevitably fail. Institutional development must never be allowed to be captured by those who think that we can transform Chad simply by having them adopt Swedish institutions.
  3. Growth will require creation of jobs, i.e. industrial development: The poor countries of the world need real jobs for high school-leavers and other less educated people. The present focus on the “sexy” entrepreneural sectors – whether they are small businesses for the poor or tech hubs for the very highly educated – as the engines for growth in the developing world is misguided. I reiterate, starting a business is a very risky venture that should be left to the wealthy and the occasional dare devil. The poor in the global south need stable 9-5 jobs. Lots of them.

And lastly, where do strong institutions come from? There is no easy answer to this question. What we know is:

  1. History matters: Present countries with a long history of stateness have a better track record of building strong institutions for development. Yes, they may not always be democratic, but countries with a long history of centralized rule have strong states (and institutions) that deliver for their people (for more on this see Englebert and Gennaioli and Rainer).
  2. Democracy does not always create strong institutions: Since 1945 many have chosen to forget the fact that universal suffrage is a pretty recent phenomenon in the political history of the world. For the longest time world polities were ruled by power barons who held de facto power (as opposed to the procedural de jure power in democracies). When democracy came along after the Enlightenment the resulting structures of rule often reflected these de facto configurations of power. Over time institutions in these countries were cemented enough to allow for complete outsiders like say the current president of the United States to be elected without upsetting the balance of power (in another era he would have had to have mounted a coup). This is the challenge of the democratization in the new post-WWII states. How do you make democracy serve the interests of the people, rather that purely that of the elite? How do you use democracy to create strong institutions? Is this even possible? And if not, what other options do we have?

exactly when did the rain start beating africa?

HDI divergence

The new HDI rankings are out. Some in the blogosphere have beef with the new geometric (as opposed to additive) method of calculating final scores. I don’t.

Aid Watch’s beef is that:

The biggest change in method was that the new HDI is a geometric average rather than a normal (additive) average. Geometric average means you multiply the separate indices (each ranging between 0 and 1) for income, life expectancy, and education together and then take the cube root (I know your pulse starts to race here…)

Now, students, please notice the following: if one of these indices is zero, then the new HDI will be zero, regardless of how great the other indices are. The same mostly applies if one of the indices is close to zero. The new HDI has a “you’re only as strong as your weakest link” property, and in practice the weakest link turns out to be very low income (and guess which region has very low income).

My two cents on this discussion is that the Continent looks bad irrespective of how we arrive at its HDI scores. It’s best performers are tiny Botswana and Mauritius. It’s biggest countries and potential engines for growth are the DRC, Ethiopia and Nigeria, need I say more? And per capita income has not changed in most places in half a century.

I rarely disagree with Easterly but on this count I do. Let’s not shift posts for Africa. The idea of “African Standards” is condescending and demeaning to Africans. Norway and Chad look like they are eons apart. If the numbers reflect that fact so be it.

I hope this year’s report embarrasses the African ruling elite enough to wake them up from their stupor (come on, I am allowed one wishful thought per post).

More on this here and here. For a summary of this see Blattman.

africa headed for mdg disappointment

As African leaders continue to be preoccupied with civil strife and trying to hang on to power, figures indicate that the region will be the only place on the planet to have not met the millenium development goals by the deadline of 2015.

Child mortality, fertility, illiteracy, extreme poverty, among other indicators are still depressingly grim for this region of the world. The little or no growth experienced over the last two decades has all been swallowed up by a stratospheric fertility rate – all but one of the countries with fertility rates of more than 5 children per woman are in Africa. The number of Africans living in extreme poverty has increased by 90 million.

It is very depressing that the only people who seem to be disturbed by these aweful projections are non-Africans like Bono and Jeff Sachs and not the people who have contributed to the mess – the greedy, mostly illiterate kleptocrats who rule most of the continent.

If the trend is not reversed soon, the African future will be a re-run of post-79 Africa – a vast and dry continent that seems to have more than its fair share of famines, wars, disease and inexplicably high levels of poverty and suffering that belong in the premodern periods of human history. This is the reality that hundreds of millions of Africans are facing.