The problem is that economists, journalists, politicians, analysts, and everyone else think they know
I am writing this article from Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Sitting on the reading table in my suite in my hotel, I can see through the window a forest of skyscrapers stretching beyond what my eyes can see. When I walk to the glass elevator, on the opposite side of the hotel, and roll down from the 23rd floor to the lobby, I can see another forest of skyscrapers stretching for miles on end. East, west, north and south of where I am you see this endless stretch of high-rise buildings in the thousands. Down on the eight-lane streets, you see thousands of cars speeding by, a vast number of which are Kia, Daewoo and Hyundai i.e. made in South Korea.
Across the street from my hotel is a Samsung office complex and beyond it Samsung apartments. I am watching television on a Samsung screen, boiling my tea in a Samsung kettle, warming my food in a Samsung microwave, which I just pulled out of a Samsung refrigerator while writing this article on a Samsung laptop and chatting with friends around the world on a Samsung S4 mobile phone handset – which I also use as my still and video camera, notebook, voice recorder and everything else in between. There must, therefore, be a link between Samsung’s success (and the success of such companies as LG, Hyundai, Kia etc) and the miraculous development of South Korea. Which may also suggest that countries that do not produce such national champions may be relegated to remaining poor.
South Korea did in 50 years what took Great Britain (the birthplace of the industrial revolution) 200 years to do – transitioning from an agricultural to an industrial society. How did they achieve this feat? When you ask Koreans, they have quick answers. We had a strong leader (Park Chung Hee), they say. Park was the father of the current president, Park Geun Hye. Others say it is because Koreans are loyal to their leaders – so what a leader asks them to do is what they follow. (False, Park faced a lot of resistance from workers and students, massive protests led him to declare marshal law in 1972) and he was assassinated by his chief of security in 1979 during mass protests in Seoul.
A young lady who studied in the United Kingdom told me South Korea developed because of a fear of being overrun militarily by the north. But the north has the same fear, so why has it got a per capita income of US$900 when the south has nominal per capital income of US$24,000 (US$ 32,000 on purchasing power parity)? Of course the north has one big problem – the bad policy of communism. But would Uganda, if it had the same policies as South Korea and a strong leader (President Yoweri Museveni does not strike me as a weak leader) produce the kind of industrial dynamism we see in South Korea?
Other Koreans told me it has to do with family values that penalise failure severely and over-emphasise success. Yet others say it is because of American support during the cold war. Some Korean economists told me their proximity to Japan, which was rapidly industrializing made their own industrialization possible. A few told me it is because there was no democracy, so leaders could pursue their vision without political pressure from mobilised demand groups. I would add that South Korea had a high concentration of technical skills – with technology diffuse in most of the country. It is possible all these reasons played a part. But I also think these same qualities and factors can be found in the countries that failed spectacularly.
I do not (or no longer) believe in the great leader theory in explaining the development of nations. Good leaders just play an important but small role. There is no leader who transformed Britain, France, USA, Germany, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium or Italy. The forces of change lay within the society itself. The role of a leader is to tap into them. Some leaders may succeed in doing that, some may fail – that explains the divergent developmental outcomes of South and North Korea. However, if the conditions for rapid change are not in existence, there is little leaders can do.
Koreans are hard working. They are very fast at managing their tasks. If you ask a young lady in a restaurant to do something, she goes running – I mean she goes literally running. I was taking breakfast on the 20th floor of my hotel near a window whose curtain was down. I wanted to remove it to have a good view. As I began rolling it, a young lady came running at high speed and took over from me. The next day, I did the same and another girl (different) came running (and I mean a mini-sprint) to take over the task from me.
When I was young, less read, and less travelled, I believed I knew a lot. So I spoke with the conviction of a fanatic. Yet every time I read a new set of books on a given subject, I realised that I actually know little. Every time I travel – from Thailand to Korea, Nigeria to Mauritius, India to the United States, Brazil to China, Dubai to Morocco, I encounter many different cultures, beliefs, norms, values, biases, prejudices, ideas, attitudes and cuisines that make me only realise how the values of my village and country are just one small part of a richer cultural universe. In many ways therefore, travel and reading have transformed and humbled me.
The factors to explain South Korea’s development that I have outlined above are all possibly true. How they interact to produce rapid change is something no one knows. The problem is that economists, journalists, politicians, analysts and everyone else in between thinks they know how it works. Yet each person identifies a few factors and working in retrospect argues that they are the ones that brought about development. The only one who can win the argument is the one who claims development is a byproduct of blessing from God (or the gods) because then we cannot consult them for proof. Next week I will show that the worst national developmental disasters have shared the same characteristics as South Korea.