Saturday, July 18, 2009

Security and Development Wonkery

There was a series of articles on recently in response to an article by Peter Collier, the author of “The Bottom Billion.” They are by some of the biggest names in development, and are worth checking out if you’re into this sort of thing. Forgive the nerdery, but I’m going to take my own shot at a response.

I like Collier’s focus on public goods, but I disagree with almost all of his analysis and conclusions. We share the similar opinion that public goods (e.g., infrastructure, natural resources, etc) are both uniquely important to development and also uniquely difficult to provide. As the early American institutional economists knew well, public goods sit atop a complex pyramid of institutions, every one of which is wholly necessary for reliable electricity or clean running water (as an aside, I ran out of water for the first time here yesterday! Luckily it returned after a few hours).

We also agree that security is one of the most often overlooked perquisites for public good management. Emory Troxel, an economist writing in the 1930s, (I believe – Jeff Makholm may have to correct me if I’m wrong) made this amazing map of the public good pyramid that lies out the various institutional powers outlined in the US Constitution and state constitutions that are necessary for reliable utility service. They include the usual suspects of balance of power, regulatory commissions, ect., but it also includes one this that, at first, struck me as out of place: the police force.

In the US, we tend to take for granted the fact that the police will arrest you if they catch you breaking the law, but in so much of the world that is not always the case. Because it’s so second nature to us, economist-consultants often fail to realize how amazing it is that our police force works when offering their development prescriptions, and yet this was absolutely critical to our development. Good luck getting running water if someone can just make an illegal tap, pay off the police, and sell the water back to the people it was intended for at twice the price.

Of course, in Africa, the impact of bribery pales in comparison to the impact of civil war, which is still security, more broadly defined. One of the great questions of economics is: how does one generate national unity? I like Collier’s description of the problem, but I think he understates somewhat just how internally diverse the major economies were when they formed: the States who eventually became United initially thought of themselves as just as fundamentally different as Ghanaians think they are from Nigerians. He erroneously claims that China has a longstanding national identity (ask the Uighur what they think of that). India’s ethnolinguistic fragmentation is extreme. Even Belgium has at least four ethnic groups.

Collier’s prescription is an international peacekeeping force that would stage coups in any county where a leader steals an election, citing as his inspiration the combined effects of the Marshall Plan and NATO in redeveloping Europe. I find his assertion patently ridiculous. One need only look at a more recent redevelopment program, Iraq, to see why: it is just too expensive. Apart from the fact that Europe already had extremely talented people, while Africa has the lowest levels of human capital anywhere, it would just plain bankrupt the US.

My prescription is… well, I don’t have one (yet). Perhaps that we should avoid absurd prescriptions.

I’m brought back to a moment in my political economics class senior year at Pomona when a friend suggested that the US declare war on Africa. The continent. The idea would be to force Africa to think of itself as a national unit and develop the institutions necessary for defense. We could call the war before any fighting starts, so long as they get ready for a defense. Everyone thought he was joking, but there is a crazy logic to his idea. Perhaps I’m not entirely against absurd prescriptions.

No comments:

Post a Comment