Who runs the world?

May be it is just because my adviser at some point studied the politics of language and identity (see here and here), but this morning over breakfast as I was watching the newly elected appointed successor of Hu Jintao as president of China give his inaugural speech to the press I was reminded of the continued soft (and hard) power of the English speaking North Atlantic world – or just simply the US.

In my opinion, it says a lot that the Chinese authorities felt the need to have a translator in the room, and for Mr. Xi Jinping to wait after every paragraph or so for the English translation to go through (they may have had translations to other languages as well, I was watching it live on the BBC).

Imagine the day when a newly elected US president, standing on the steps of the Capitol, gives a speech in English but has to wait every now and then for a Mandarin Chinese translation to go through.

I may be making too much of this. It all might have been a deliberate attempt to engage the rest of the world. As Time reports, Mr. Xi urged the press to facilitate more exchanges between China and the rest of the world:

But most of all, Xi was in a celebratory mood, advising the gathered press to do their part in furthering cross-cultural awareness. “Friends from the press, just as China needs to learn more about the world, so does the world need to learn more about China,” he said in a jocular tone. “I hope you will continue your efforts to deepen mutual understanding between China and the world.”

Language is very central to human interactions, and whoever has power over language usually has a lot of sway (as is argued in the books above). This morning someone won the politics of language. And it was not Beijing.

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Where do the poor live, and how do we make them become middle class?

The Economist reports:

“WHERE do the world’s poor live? The obvious answer: in poor countries. But in a recent series of articles Andy Sumner of Britain’s Institute of Development Studies showed that the obvious answer is wrong. Four-fifths of those surviving on less than $2 a day, he found, live in middle-income countries with a gross national income per head of between $1,000 and $12,500, not poor ones. His finding reflects the fact that a long but inequitable period of economic growth has lifted many developing countries into middle-income status but left a minority of their populations mired in poverty. Since the countries involved include giants like China and India, even a minority amounts to a very large number of people. That matters because middle-income countries can afford to help their own poor.”

The article raises important issues that inform the debate on how to tackle problems of poverty and underdevelopment – is it all about politics & governance or all about economic expansion? The answer, of course is that it is a moderate mix of both.

But since political realities often force governments to concentrate on one or the other, a responsible answer is that it is all context-dependent; some places need strong economic expansion first, before political reforms can be anchored in society. In others, political change should be top of the checklist.

The Botswanas and Singapores of this world are lucky in that their leaders were smart enough to know what their countries needed and pursued it with singular ambition, despite the unavoidable mess that came with the choices they made.

This of course goes against the received wisdom among academics (me included) who believe in the strong power of the right types of (liberal, in the classical sense) institutions to put countries on the path to becoming Denmark. The problem with this approach is that it does not tell us how to compress the more than 600 years that transpired between the Magna Carta and the voting reform legislations in England in the latter part of the 19th century. Lest we forget, England (which is every scholar’s favorite source of empirical conceptualization of institutional development) has not always had good institutions.

Institutions take a lot of time to build. A lot more time than the average human life span.

So the question still stands: How do we get the most number of people out of poverty in the least amount of time with the least harm to their political and human rights?

More on this here.