This graph doesn’t tell us what you think it does (Because stateness matters)

You probably saw this graph in your undergraduate development class — almost invariably as a demonstration of South Korea’s massive growth relative to countries that were allegedly at similar levels of “development” in the early 1960s.

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But were these countries really at the same level of development as South Korea?

The simple answer is no.

And to know why you need to read States and Markets: The Advantage of an Early Start:

A longer history of statehood might prove favorable to economic development under the circumstances of recent decades for several reasons. There may be learning by doing in the ways of public administration, in which case long-standing states, with larger pools of experienced personnel, may do what they do better than newly formed states. The operation of a state may support the development of attitudes consistent with bureaucratic discipline and hierarchical control, making for greater state (and perhaps more broadly, organizational) effectiveness. An experienced state like China seems to have been capable of fostering basic industrialization and the upgrading of its human capital stock even under institutions of government planning and state property in the 1960s and 1970s, whereas an inexperienced state like Mozambique sowed economic disaster when attempting to pursue similar policies a few years later. Such differences may carry over to a market setting — contrast, for instance, the late 20th century economic development of Japan and South Korea, modern countries with ancient national histories, with that of the Philippines, a nation that lacked a state before its 16th century colonization by Spain.

Development is not just about income. It also involves a lot of intangible socio-political variables. Going back to the graph, a key difference in 1960 between Ghana, India, and South Korea was the degree of coherent stateness. On this measure South Korea was way ahead of its developing country peers.

For more on this Dani Rodrik has a delightfully concise take on how South Korea and Taiwan grew rich.

Even within Africa, historical stateness makes a difference in development outcomes. A neat recent example can be found in Ethiopia’s ability to build a light rail in Addis in record time as Nigeria floundered.

No shortcuts to sustained economic growth

Dani Rodrik keeps reminding us that one of the factors slowing down the anti-poverty fight in Africa is the slow growth in manufacturing which comes with the risk of “premature” de-industrialization. Economic histories of several countries over the last two centuries tells us that rapid and sustained growth only occurred on the back of industrialization. In Africa on the other hand manufacturing is still a paltry 10.1% of annual output on average (and ranges between 10-14%, which is bad for a developing region). Compare this to 34% in Thailand, 31% in South Korea and 24% in Malaysia. Furthermore, productivity in the manufacturing sector in Africa has actually declined over the last 40 years (see figure below).


Productivity in Manufacturing (USA=100)

Now, starry-eyed technophile African leaders can talk about leapfrogging the historical stages of economic growth until the cows come home but there is no hiding from the fact that sustained growth and reduction of poverty will only come once Africa’s poor (up to 70% of whom still depend on subsistence agriculture in SSA) have access to well paying jobs. Yes, the types of jobs and products will be different, from say steam powered 18-19th century northwestern Europe or even 20th century East Asia, but there will have to be jobs for the masses. M-apps won’t do, as they will only benefit those who are already well off (mainly the creators), once they are sufficiently monetized. Asking poor people to be “entrepreneurial” with high interest micro-loans and grow themselves out of poverty as a matter of national development policy will also not work.

To quote Chris Blattman:

The difference between a country with $1,500 and $15,000 of income a head is simple: industry. All the microfinance and microenterprise programs in the world are not going to build large firms and import technology and provide most people with what they really want: a stable job, regular wages, and a decent work environment.

The good thing is that in quite a few countries on the Continent structural conditions favorable to mass job creation are beginning to congeal. Hopefully sooner, rather than later, PRSPs will start focusing less on pro-poverty “pro-poor” initiatives and more on strategies for mass job creation. Remember, “making the lives of poor people better is not the same thing as fighting poverty.” Over to you Development Economists and African policymakers.

selective unconditional convergence and growth

Rodrik has a finding that reinforces the importance of politics and other macro conditions for economic development. He points out the existence of the paradox of unconditional convergence at the industry level but not at the national level. Rodrik stresses the importance of structural change that channels labor into the right industries. To this we should add political change that provides certainty and the requisite legal and physical infrastructure for economic growth.

Industries that thrive in poorly run places – like telecoms, banks and construction firms in Nigeria or Kenya’s retail giants – do so despite their governments. Non-existent roads, underdeveloped railway systems, sporadic and expensive electricity, bad schools, legal uncertainty and massive amounts of political risk all serve to limit the extent to which within-industry gains can be extended to other sectors.

The massive uptake of mobile telephones across Africa suggests that consumerism in SSA is alive and well, just under-exploited. Sectors like textiles, agriculture and construction remain largely untouched because of cheap imports and bad regulation.

Development is a complex enterprise that requires massive amounts of (implicit) coordination. There has to be a link between California’s Silicon Valley, Massachusets’ Route 128 and New York’s Wall Street, in addition to other growth clusters. In this game synergy is King. The provision of the legal, human capital and physical infrastructure to facilitate coordination of this scale is largely dependent on well-functioning governance structures.

Here’s Rodrik.

Poor countries have access to new technologies already developed elsewhere so should grow more rapidly than richer economies. This is one of the implications of standard growth models, as well as of common sense.

But in reality, there is no automatic tendency for economic “convergence” among countries at different levels of income. Convergence depends instead on a number of additional determinants. It is only those developing nations with the “appropriate” preconditions – for example, adequate schooling or physical investment – that manage to absorb new technologies sufficiently rapidly and therefore to catch up. In the language of growth economics, there is conditional convergence, but not unconditional convergence.

When we look at the same question at the level of individual industries rather than countries a surprising finding emerges. Suppose we focus on, say, plastics, furniture, or the auto industry in developing countries. Does productivity in these (and other) industries experience automatic convergence with the technological frontier? Or is convergence once again conditional, depending on a host of country-level variables?

The interesting (and I think new) finding is that productivity convergence appears to be unconditional at the industry level – at least for manufacturing industries and for the period since the 1980s.

what I am reading

(Whenever time permits) I am currently reading the following books:

The King of Capital: The Remarkable Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone by J. Morris

Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises by Kindleberger and Aliber

The two are quick reads targeted at the general audience. The King of Capital, in particular, is very catchy and hard to put down, especially if you are interested in the intrigues of high finance. Manias and Panics dispels the notion that “this time its different” and reminds us that bubbles are part of the wild schumpetarian ride we call capitalism.

I also just ordered Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of World Economy by Dani Rodrik.  I have read a bunch of good reviews of the book and will probably write something about it once it hits my mailbox since its all about a subject that is close to my heart.

In the meantime check out Rodrik’s blog.