he Poverty of Dictatorship
Dani Rodrik, Project Suyndicate, 09 February 2011
Perhaps the most striking finding in the United Nations’ recent 20th anniversary Human Development Report is the outstanding performance of the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Here was Tunisia, ranked sixth among 135 countries in terms of improvement in its Human Development Index (HDI) over the previous four decades, ahead of Malaysia, Hong Kong, Mexico, and India. Not far behind was Egypt, ranked 14th.
The HDI is a measure of development that captures achievements in health and education alongside economic growth. Egypt and (especially) Tunisia did well enough on the growth front, but where they really shone was on these broader indicators. At 74, Tunisia’s life expectancy edges out Hungary’s and Estonia’s, countries that are more than twice as wealthy. Some 69% of Egypt’s children are in school, a ratio that matches much richer Malaysia’s. Clearly, these were states that did not fail in providing social services or distributing the benefits of economic growth widely.
Yet in the end it did not matter. The Tunisian and Egyptian people were, to paraphrase Howard Beale, mad as hell at their governments, and they were not going to take it anymore. If Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were hoping for political popularity as a reward for economic gains, they must have been sorely disappointed. One lesson of the Arab annus mirabilis, then, is that good economics need not always mean good politics; the two can part ways for quite some time. It is true that the world’s wealthy countries are almost all democracies. But democratic politics is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for economic development over a period of several decades.
Despite the economic advances they registered, Tunisia, Egypt, and many other Middle Eastern countries remained authoritarian countries ruled by a narrow group of cronies, with corruption, clientelism, and nepotism running rife. These countries’ rankings on political freedoms and corruption stand in glaring contrast to their rankings on development indicators. In Tunisia, Freedom House reported prior to the Jasmine revolution, “the authorities continued to harass, arrest, and imprison journalists and bloggers, human rights activists, and political opponents of the government.” The Egyptian government was ranked 111th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2009 survey of corruption. And of course, the converse is also true: India has been democratic since independence in 1947, yet the country didn’t begin to escape of its low “Hindu rate of growth” until the early 1980’s.
A second lesson is that rapid economic growth does not buy political stability on its own, unless political institutions are allowed to develop and mature rapidly as well. In fact, economic growth itself generates social and economic mobilization, a fundamental source of political instability. As the late political scientist Samuel Huntington put it more than 40 years ago, “social and economic change – urbanization, increases in literacy and education, industrialization, mass media expansion – extend political consciousness, multiply political demands, broaden political participation.” Now add social media such as Twitter and Facebook to the equation, and the destabilizing forces that rapid economic change sets into motion can become overwhelming.
These forces become most potent when the gap between social mobilization and the quality of political institutions
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