Thursday, July 09, 2009

Development in dangerous places

In 2001 the United Nations announced the Millennium Development Goals, pledging to end global poverty by 2015. I argued then that it needed to focus its concern on a much smaller group of countries than it had identified. There is, as I argued in The Bottom Billion, an essential difference between a poor family in China and an equally poor family in Chad. Although both enter into the global headcount of families living in extreme poverty, the poor family in China has credible hope that its children will grow up in a society of transformed opportunities: China will be part of the future global economy. Credible hope for the future of one’s children makes poverty bearable; that was the condition accepted by millions of immigrants to America. In contrast, Chad has not offered its population a credible basis for hope.

Chad is not alone. It is one of a group of about 60 small, impoverished, post-colonial countries that “came unnatural into the world.” With neither the social unity needed for cooperation, nor the size to reap the benefits of larger scale, they are structurally unable to provide the public goods—such as security—that are critical for decent quality of life and imperative for economic development. They have diverged from the rest of mankind. They will never tap their vast reservoir of frustrated human potential unless the international community, at least for a time, supplies basic public goods that go beyond the typical aid agenda. This, stated baldly, is the thesis of my new book, Wars, Guns, and Votes. It is a troubling thesis. I have come to it reluctantly, and the international community has shied away from it, as have the societies of the bottom billion themselves.

Why is outside intervention necessary? The countries of the bottom billion are, paradoxically, too large to be nations, yet too small to be states. They are too large to be nations because, with rare exceptions, too many different peoples, with too many distinct ethnic and religious identities, live in them. This is not because they have large populations: on the contrary, the typical bottom-billion country has only a few million people. But these populations have yet to forge a strong sense of national identity that overrides older sub-national ethnic and religious identities. Considerable research shows that where sub-national identities predominate, it is more difficult for people to cooperate in providing public goods.
That's Paul Collier in the Boston Review. Link via Amitava Kumar. Update: William Easterly launches a scathing critique.


Pallavi Shrivastava said...

Can premise in the last paragraph be held true for India? On a somewhat related topic, Collier on rebuilding a broken nation:

Hari said...


Thanks for the link!

I don't think the last paragraph holds for India. India has a fairly strong civilizational identity. Just as an example, when I mention Shiva or Vishnu or Ganesha you understand the reference immediately even though you are from a different part of the country and your mother tongue is different. Besides, large swathes of India have been under the same empire, beginning with the Mauryan Empire, circa 300 BC. This has given the country its glue. The British did their bit too by providing infrastructure that spanned the subcontinent.

Sub-saharan Africa, on the other hand, had some very sophisticated kingdoms and tribes, but for some reason they did not develop into large empires. To exacerbate the problem, Europeans, not Africans, created the boundaries of modern day African nations. These boundaries were unfortunately pretty random and not based on any templates from African history.