Monday, 2 July 2012

The Bad and the Ugly

Failed States

An interesting article in the latest edition of Foreign Policy magazine has been published.  It is entitled Ten Reasons Countries Fall Apart, with the sub-title, "States don't fail overnight. The seeds of of their destruction are sown deep within their political institutions."

The ten reasons (each with a specific example) are:

1. North Korea: Lack of property rights
North Korea's economic institutions make it almost impossible for people to own property; the state owns everything, including nearly all land and capital. Agriculture is organized via collective farms. People work for the ruling Korean Workers' Party, not themselves, which destroys their incentive to succeed. . . .

Not only has North Korea failed to grow economically -- while South Korea has grown rapidly -- but its people have literally failed to flourish. Trapped in this debilitating cycle, North Koreans are not only much poorer than South Koreans but also as much as 3 inches shorter on average than the neighbors from whom they have been cut off for the last six decades.

2. Uzbekistan: Forced labor
Coercion is a surefire way to fail. Yet, until recently, at least in the scope of human history, most economies were based on the coercion of workers -- think slavery, serfdom, and other forms of forced labor. In fact, the list of strategies for getting people to do what they don't want to do is as long as the list of societies that relied on them. Forced labor is also responsible for the lack of innovation and technological progress in most of these societies, ranging from ancient Rome to the U.S. South.

Modern Uzbekistan is a perfect example of what that tragic past looked like. Cotton is among Uzbekistan's biggest exports. In September, as the cotton bolls ripen, the schools empty of children, who are forced to pick the crop. Instead of educators, teachers become labor recruiters. Children are given daily quotas from between 20 to 60 kilograms, depending on their age. The main beneficiaries of this system are President Islam Karimov and his cronies, who control the production and sale of the cotton. The losers are not only the 2.7 million children coerced to work under harsh conditions in the cotton fields instead of going to school, but also Uzbek society at large, which has failed to break out of poverty. Its per capita income today is not far from its low level when the Soviet Union collapsed -- except for the income of Karimov's family, which, with its dominance of domestic oil and gas exploration, is doing quite well.

3. South Africa: A tilted playing field
In 1904 in South Africa, the mining industry created a caste system for jobs. From then on, only Europeans could be blacksmiths, brickmakers, boilermakers -- basically any skilled job or profession. This "color bar," as South Africans called it, was extended to the entire economy in 1926 and lasted until the 1980s, robbing black South Africans of any opportunity to use their skills and talents. They were condemned to work as unskilled laborers in the mines and in agriculture -- and at very low wages, too, making it extremely profitable for the elite who owned the mines and farms. Unsurprisingly, South Africa under apartheid failed to improve the living standards of 80 percent of its population for almost a century. For 15 years before the collapse of apartheid, the South African economy contracted. Since 1994 and the advent of a democratic state, it has grown consistently.

4. Egypt: The big men get greedy
When elites control an economy, they often use their power to create monopolies and block the entry of new people and firms. This was exactly how Egypt worked for three decades under Hosni Mubarak. The government and military owned vast swaths of the economy -- by some estimates, as much as 40 percent. Even when they did "liberalize," they privatized large parts of the economy right into the hands of Mubarak's friends and those of his son Gamal. Big businessmen close to the regime, such as Ahmed Ezz (iron and steel), the Sawiris family (multimedia, beverages, and telecommunications), and Mohamed Nosseir (beverages and telecommunications) received not only protection from the state but also government contracts and large bank loans without needing to put up collateral.

Together, these big businessmen were known as the "whales." Their stranglehold on the economy created fabulous profits for regime insiders, but blocked opportunities for the vast mass of Egyptians to move out of poverty. Meanwhile, the Mubarak family accumulated a vast fortune estimated as high as $70 billion.

5. Austria and Russia: Elites block new technologies
New technologies are extremely disruptive. They sweep aside old business models and make existing skills and organizations obsolete. They redistribute not just income and wealth but also political power. This gives elites a big incentive to try to stop the march of progress. Good for them, but not for society.

Consider what happened in the 19th century, as railways were spreading across Britain and the United States. When a proposal to build a railway was put before Francis I, emperor of Austria, he was still haunted by the specter of the 1789 French Revolution and replied, "No, no, I will have nothing to do with it, lest the revolution might come into the country." The same thing happened in Russia until the 1860s. With new technologies blocked, the tsarist regime was safe, at least for a while. As Britain and the United States grew rapidly, however, Austria and Russia failed to do so. The track tells the tale: In the 1840s, tiny Britain was undergoing a railway mania in which more than 6,000 miles of track were built, while only one railway ran in vast continental Russia. Even this line was not built for the benefit of the Russian people; it ran 17 miles from St. Petersburg to the tsar's imperial residences at Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk.

6. Somalia: No law and order
One must-have for successful economies is an effective centralized state. Without this, there is no hope of providing order, an effective system of laws, mechanisms for resolving disputes, or basic public goods.
Yet large parts of the world today are still dominated by stateless societies. Although countries like Somalia or the new country of South Sudan do have internationally recognized governments, they exercise little power outside their capitals, and maybe not even there. Both countries have been built atop societies that historically never created a centralized state but were divided into clans where decisions were made by consensus among adult males. No clan was ever able to dominate or create a set of nationally respected laws or rules. There were no political positions, no administrators, no taxes, no government expenditures, no police, no lawyers -- in other words, no government .. . .

Without a central state, there can be no law and order; without law and order, there can be no real economy; and without a real economy, a country is doomed to fail.

7. Colombia: A weak central government
Colombia isn't Somalia. All the same, its central government is unable or unwilling to exert control over probably half the country, which is dominated by left-wing guerrillas, most famously the FARC, and, increasingly, right-wing paramilitaries. The drug lords may be on the run, but the state's absence from much of the country leads not only to lack of public services such as roads and health care, but also to lack of well-defined, institutionalized property rights. . . .

8. Peru: Bad public services
Calca and nearby Acomayo are two Peruvian provinces. Both are high in the mountains, and both are inhabited by the Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas. Both grow the same crops, yet Acomayo is much poorer, with its inhabitants consuming about one-third less than those in Calca. The people know this. In Acomayo, they ask intrepid foreigners, "Don't you know that the people here are poorer than the people over there in Calca? Why would you ever want to come here?"

Indeed, it is much harder to get to Acomayo from the regional capital of Cusco, the ancient center of the Inca Empire, than it is to get to Calca. The road to Calca is paved, while the one  to Acomayo is in terrible disrepair. To get beyond Acomayo you need a horse or a mule -- not due to any differences in topography, but because there are no paved roads. In Calca, they sell their corn and beans on the market for money, while in Acomayo they grow the same crops for their own subsistence. Acomayo's people are one-third poorer than Calca's as a a result. Infrastructure matters. 

9. Bolivia: Political exploitation
Bolivia has a long history of extractive institutions dating back to Spanish times -- a history that has brewed resentment over the years. . . .

For the great mass of rural Bolivians, one elite had simply replaced another in what German sociologist Robert Michels called the "iron law of oligarchy." Rural people still had insecure property rights and still had to sell their votes for access to land, credit, or work. The main difference was that instead of providing these services to the traditional landowners, they now provided them to the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement.

10. Sierra Leone: Fighting over the spoils

Intense extraction breeds instability and failure because, consistent with the iron law of oligarchy, it creates incentives for others to depose the existing elites and take over.  This is exactly what happened in Sierra Leone. Siaka Stevens and his All People's Congress (APC) party ran the country from 1967 until 1985 as their personal fiefdom. Little changed when Stevens stepped aside, passing the baton to his protégé, Joseph Momoh, who just continued the plunder.

The trouble is that this sort of extraction creates deep-seated grievances and invites contests for power from would-be strongmen hoping to get their hands on the loot. In March 1991, Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front, with the support and most likely the command of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, crossed into Sierra Leone and plunged the country into a vicious, decade-long civil war. Sankoh and Taylor were interested in only one thing: power, which they could use, among other things, to steal diamonds, and they could do so because of the regime that Stevens and his APC had created.

The country soon descended into chaos, with the civil war taking the lives of about 1 percent of the population and maiming countless others. Sierra Leone's state and institutions totally collapsed. Government revenues went from 15 percent of national income to practically zero by 1991. The state, in other words, didn't so much fail as disappear entirely.

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