Daron Acemoglu, a professor of developmental economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and James A. Robinson, a professor of political science at Harvard, have earned well-deserved reputations for doing excellent academic work in political economics.
Intended for a general audience, their book “Why Nations Fail” starts with a gripping account of the 2011 Arab Spring that will overwhelm veterans of our own People Power Revolution in 1986 with a great sense of pride and a poignant déjà vu feeling.
They write matter-of-factly: “This book is about the huge differences in incomes and standards of living that separate the rich countries of the world, such as the United States, Great Britain and Germany, from the poor, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and South Asia.”
“Why Nations Fail” is an ambitious attempt to explain why 1.29-billion people in the developing world subsist on less than $1.25 a day. That includes the Philippines.
The average American, on the other hand, is seven times more prosperous than the average Mexican; 10 times more than the average Peruvian; about 20 times more than the average inhabitant of sub-Saharan Africa; and about 40 times more than the average citizen of such impoverished African countries as Mali, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. How explain such gaping disparities?
As the authors were completing the book, the “Arab Spring” of discontent erupted in the Middle East. But if we disregarded the world setting as the book was being written, we could almost sense a replay of our own People Power Revolution 25 years earlier.
The authors say: “As we write this preface, North Africa and the Middle East have been shaken by the ‘Arab Spring’ started by the so-called Jasmine Revolution, which was initially ignited by public outrage over the self-immolation of a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, on December 17, 2010.
“By Jan. 14, 2011, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia since 1987, had stepped down, but far from abating, the revolutionary fervor against the rule of privileged elites in Tunisia was getting stronger and had already spread to the rest of the Middle East. Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt with a tight grip for almost thirty years, was ousted on February 11, 2011. ”
Suspension of disbelief
If we suspended our disbelief, the following account could be situated at Edsa in 1986:
“Noha Hamed, twenty-four, a worker at an advertising agency in Cairo, made her views clear as she demonstrated in Tahrir Square: ‘We are suffering from corruption, oppression and bad education. We are living amid a corrupt system which has to change.’
“Another in the square, Mosaab El Shami, twenty, a pharmacy student, concurred: ‘I hope that by the end of this year we will have an elected government and that universal freedoms are applied and that we put an end to the corruption that has taken over this country.”
The authors continue, reminding us of EDSA 1986: “The protestors in Tahrir Square spoke with one voice about the corruption of the government, its inability to deliver public services, and the lack of equality of opportunity in their country. They particularly complained about repression and the absence of political rights.”
Almost replicating our condition 25 years ago, the authors write ominously: “Egyptians and Tunisians both saw their economic problems as being fundamentally caused by their lack of political rights. When the protestors started to formulate their demands more systematically, the first twelve immediate demands posted by Wael Khalil, the software engineer and blogger who emerged as one of the leaders of the Egyptian protest movement, were all focused on political change. Issues such as raising the minimum wage appeared only among the transitional demands that were to be implemented later.”
“To Egyptians, the things that have held them back include an ineffective and corrupt state and a society where they cannot use their talent, ambition, ingenuity, and what education they can get. But they also recognize that the roots of these problems are political. All the economic impediments they face stem from the way political power in Egypt is exercised and monopolized by a narrow elite. This, they understand, is the first thing that has to change,” the authors write.
“Yet, in believing this, the protestors of Tahrir Square have sharply diverged from the conventional wisdom on this topic. When they reason about why a country such as Egypt is poor, most academics and commentators emphasize completely different factors.”
Underdevelopment is traced to Egypt’s alleged barren geography and the “cultural attributes of Egyptians that are supposedly inimical to economic development and prosperity.”
“A third approach, the one dominant among economists and policy pundits, is based on the notion that the rulers of Egypt simply don’t know what is needed to make their country prosperous, and have followed incorrect policies and strategies in the past. If these rulers would only get the right advice from the right advisers, the thinking goes, prosperity would follow.”
The right idea
The authors argue that “the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, not most academics and commentators, have the right idea. In fact, Egypt is poor precisely because it has been ruled by a narrow elite that have organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people.”
The authors say that “this interpretation of Egyptian poverty, the people’s interpretation, turns out to provide a general explanation for why poor countries are poor. Whether it is North Korea, Sierra Leone, or Zimbabwe, we’ll show that poor countries are poor for the same reason that Egypt is poor.”
“Countries such as Great Britain and the United States became rich because their citizens overthrew the elites who controlled power and created a society where political rights were much more broadly distributed, where the government was accountable and responsive to citizens, and where the great mass of people could take advantage of economic opportunities,” the authors write.
“Fundamentally it is a political transformation of this sort that is required for a poor society to become rich. There is evidence that this may be happening in Egypt. Reda Metwaly, another protestor in Tahrir Square, argued, ‘Now you see Muslims and Christians together, now you see old and young together, all wanting the same thing.’”
That sounds uncannily close to what we heard at Edsa in 1986. The rest of the book tells us how we may proceed to reap the fruits of our own People Power revolution.