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?

On technology, governance and development

By now many of you have perhaps seen the takedowns of TED talks (see here, highly recommended), which some think have become rather pedestrian (I still find most TED talks insightful, just for the record).

The pushback against the belief among some disciples of TED talks that technology is the answer to all of humanity’s problems (whether this depiction is accurate or not) also speaks to the issues of governance and development. As Shea, the Journal’s blogger points out:

……. Morozov also detects, besides superficiality, a distinctively TED-style attitude toward politics in which institutions and democratic debate are derided and technology is looked to as a deus ex machina that will solve such once-intractable problems as poverty and illiteracy—obviating those pesky voters and squabbling elected leaders.

The global “development sector” has recently seen a wave of tech-inspired attempts to accelerate development by bypassing politics and other socio-cultural inhibitors, with little success (development economists are also implicated here). The lesson that many have missed is that bad governance and underdevelopment are not primarily technical problems that can be fixed by experts. Many have fallen to the temptation of thinking that,

…. technology is an autonomous force with its own logic that does not bend under the wicked pressure of politics or capitalism or tribalism; all that we humans can do is find a way to harness its logic for our own purposes. Technology is the magic wand that lifts nations from poverty, cures diseases, redistributes power, and promises immortality to the human race.

The characterization of governance and development as purely technical risks abstracting too much away from the human beings that development is supposed to help. Think of how scientific communism worked out. Statements like the one below are a reminder that bad ideas die hard.

Using technology to deliberate on matters of national importance, deliver public services, and incorporate citizen feedback may ultimately be a truer form of direct participation than a system of indirect representation and infrequent elections. Democracy depends on the participation of crowds, but doesn’t guarantee their wisdom. We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy. It is precisely these nonfunctional democracies that are prime candidates to be superseded by better-designed technocracies—likely delivering more benefits to their citizens…. To the extent that China provides guidance for governance that Western democracies don’t, it is in having “technocrats with term limits.”

The problem, of course, is that more often than not these “technocrats” in the poor countries of the world (read those with the most and biggest guns, a.k.a autocrats) are woefully incompetent (see here) and never observe their term limits (this classic on dictatorship comes to mind).

The question of what to do with the relatively more competent autocrats will be the subject of a future post.

H/T Ideas Market

So you want to be a bank robber?

Turns out being a bank robber is not as lucrative as it may sound.

“In what’s billed as the first cost-benefit analysis of such crimes, the authors note that Britain saw 106 attempted or successful robberies of 10,500 branch banks in 2007. The average haul was $31,600, including the one-third of attempts that came up empty. The average “successful” heist landed about $46,600 — but about 20% of those successes were later tarnished, to say the least, when the raiders were arrested. Each incident involved an average of 1.6 people, resulting in a per-person take of $19,750: a mere half-years’ worth of wages for the average Britisher. (In the U.S., the authors say, the average total bank-robbery take, per incident, is even smaller, just over $4,000.) Think a half-year’s salary isn’t bad for one day’s work, plus a little planning? A “career” bank robber would more likely than not be arrested after only four attempts” [Shea, WSJ Blog]

More on this here.

The Extramarital Origins of Poverty and dictatorship?

Polygyny is widespread across many human societies….

Yet in much of the world, particularly the wealthier parts, monogamy — albeit with cheating around the edges — has flourished. Why? The article says the answer lies in the “group selection” advantages conferred by the one-wife norm, which reduces the pool of men who can’t find any wife at all, making them less likely to become socially alienated and violent. And the practice helps the elite, too: “By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, normative monogamy increases savings, child investment and economic productivity.”

It is important to note that:

The authors stress that it is not only monogamy that causes cultures to flourish but any “polygyny-inhibiting” cultural practices. That would include Islam’s restrictions on the number of wives men can take (four, the authors say).

In conclusion the authors note that:

it is worth speculating that the spread of normative monogamy, which represents a form of egalitarianism, may have helped create the conditions for the emergence of democracy and political equality at all levels of government. Within the anthropological record, there is a statistical linkage between democratic institutions and normative monogamy. Pushing this point, these authors argue that dissipating the pool of unmarried males weakens despots, as it reduces their ability to find soldiers or henchman.

The entire paper (click here) has more nuance than this summary depicts. You may not agree with all the implications of the findings (I for one remain dubious, I couldn’t help but suspect potentially serious cases of omitted variable bias), but it is definitely worth a read.

HT WSJ Blog here.