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What produces success or failure of nations?

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How the arguments advanced to explain nations that have rapidly transformed are the same for the nations that failed

What made South Korea (and Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia) develop so rapidly that was absent in sub-Sahara Africa and South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma and Nepal)?

I argued last week that while we have an idea about the factors that produce rapid social and economic transformation, we do not know how these factors interact with one another to bring this about. This is because even the worst development disasters have similar factors as the success stories.

Let us do a roll call of some of the arguments we often raise to justify our criticism of governments that have failed or in praise of those that have succeeded. I admit from the beginning that I am as guilty as everyone else of making these assertions, which on close examination turn out to be false.

First: Having a strong leader, like Gen. Park Chang Hee in South Korea (just like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore or Chiang Kai Shek in Taiwan) is what drives rapid development. Park was a tough guy who killed opponents, rigged elections, ruled by decree under martial law from 1972-79. He extended subsidies, cheap loans and tax waivers to businesses owned by his cronies, suppressed the media, cracked on trade unions and gagged students. Yew and Chiang did similar things. These actions can also be used to make the case against leaders who presided over developmental disasters such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Idi Amin of Uganda, Samuel Doe of Liberia, Sani Abacha of Nigeria, Siad Barre of Somalia etc.

Second: Park (like Lee and Chiang) was a benevolent tyrant with good policies i.e. openness to trade, massive investment in education and supporting local entrepreneurs. However, the policies Park pursued in South Korea like export-led industrialisation by supporting a select group of domestic industrial houses and in alliance with America were also pursued by other countries led by strong men like Kenya (under Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi), Pakistan (under Field Marshal Mohamed Ayub Khan), Philippines (under Ferdinand Marcos), Nigeria (under Yakubu Gowon and Olusegun Obasanjo) and Zaire (under Mobutu). There may have been variations in detail but not in substance. And as Harvard’s Lant Pritchette has shown, many of the failed countries in Africa (e.g. Zambia and Angola) enjoyed faster expansion in human capital than South Korea.

Third: the problem with African leaders is that they tend to overstay in power: Mobutu (32 years in Zaire), a Paul Biya (32 years in Cameroon), an Eduardo Dos Santos (35 years in Angola), a Yoweri Museveni (28 years in Uganda), a Robert Mugabe (34 years in Zimbabwe), an Omar Bongo (42 years in Gabon) or a Gnassingbe Eyadema (42 years in Togo). Well leaders in East Asia overstayed in power as well. Park ruled from 1961 to 1979 (18 years) when he was assassinated (and he was not planning to retire; Malaysia (24 years of Mahathir Mohamed), Taiwan (30 years of Chiang Kai Shek), Singapore (32 years of Lee Kuan Yew) and Indonesia (32 years of Suharto). If longevity is responsible for the failure of sub-Sahara African countries to transform as rapidly as East Asian countries did, then we must understand the specific way in which it played this dysfunctional role.

Fourth: sometimes the coin is flipped. Africa failed because it was not democratic. Yet all historical experience shows that regular democratic changes of government through free and fair elections have not produced a rapid success story except in Mauritius (Botswana has been ruled by one political party for all its 48 years of independence). The largest democracy in the world, India, has experienced mediocre developmental performance in spite of (and many studies demonstrate “also because of” its free and fair regular elections, free press, multiparty competition and a vibrant civic life).

Nearly all the countries of Europe and North America were not democracies as we understand it today when they began their journey of transformation from agricultural to industrial economies. For example, women could not vote in almost all of Europe until after it was industrialised: UK 1918, France 1944, Italy 1945, Switzerland 1972, Germany 1918, Belgium 1918, Netherlands 1919, Denmark 1915, etc. In the USA, blacks got the real vote in 1965. In all these cases it took a big war to force through electoral reforms. Democracy seems to have been a product of transformation rather than a cause of it.

Fifth: corruption. Mobutu, Dos Santos, Abacha, Moi, Eyadema, Bongo, Museveni, Mugabe et al have presided over corrupt governments. That is why poverty is persistent. But there was as much corruption in South Korea as in Uganda today. In 1996, former President Roh Tae-woo of South Korea was arrested and he admitted to accumulating a fortune of US$650 million while in office. His predecessor, Chun Doo-hwan, was directed by the Supreme Court to return $200 million he took in bribes while in office. Indeed, as David Kang has demonstrated in his book, Crony Capitalism, corruption was not just a side effect of South Korea’s process of rapid industrial transformation but rather the very basis of it. Similar high levels of family-orchestrated “loot” were present in Suharto’s Indonesia - but it transformed.

Over years reading politics, economics and political economy, I have become skeptical of standard arguments about what drives success in poor countries. Now I believe that to understand the process of economic change, we should not deal with such issues as democracy versus dictatorship, honest versus corrupt government, good versus bad leaders, compromised or autonomous political institutions, good versus bad public policies on face value. All these arguments tend to obscure rather than illuminate the issues. This is because we deal with these issues as we do with a black box.

We need to open this black box and look at its contents – how all above elements interact to foster or impede progress. It is possible that a corrupt dictatorship in one country at a given time is what is necessary to achieve rapid change. But it can become dysfunctional in another country with different social and political dynamics. The building of a national identity and an effective state in homogenous Rwanda under a Tutsi president may demand honest government; but in heterogeneous Nigeria or DRC, corruption may be the glue to bring and hold diverse interests of powerful elites together. There is no one size that fits all.

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Comments (29)Add Comment
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written by OPIO, June 16, 2014
KALE BINO BIKI??what a pathetic attempt to justify m7 continued stay. It sounds like it was written in m7s bedroom. what a disgrace this mwenda has become. gwe mwenda don't treat your readers like idiots thinking they cant see thro' your disguised agenda. Plucking out examples that r completely unconnected and use them to string together a completly unconvincing argument. This writing reminds me of that guy in kenya onyango obbo. Elites like mwenda sit in yr pampered little rich island of Kla and think in 30 yrs things r changing everywhere in ug by basing on m7's cooked up economic statistics.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, June 16, 2014
@Opio. Even the statistics that are being cooked, boiled/roasted should be scientific. What is there for show given that our inflation has been in double digits for the last 15yrs, population growth at 3%, unemployment at 65% and the ever swelling public debt? If Mwenda was a chef, he would be, a every bad one.
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written by Scott, June 16, 2014
A very well written article - relevant for Ugandan and Africans in general. Keep it up.
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written by Musinguzi, June 16, 2014
In all these explanatory variables that have (or thought to have) caused transformational change in some countries but certainly not in the others, what is the effect of the attributes of the ruled before we talk about the rulers? In last week's article, you talked of the two ladies who went on marathon to stop you from performing a task they considered theirs- draw curtains. How many do you find here of such quality and attributes? How many of us spend sleepless night simply because we have not achieved what we are paid to perform? Where is that burning desire to achieve amongst us the Africans? How can we ever make it without these high performance attributes? I think leadership is important in a country's tranfromation but the led are even more important
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written by Musinguzi, June 16, 2014
It seems to me that sub Sahara Africa has therefore lacked core individual developmental attribues in both the rulers and the ruled. Where one of those attributes has worked somewhat, the outcomes are different. In Kenya, where the individual drive in the population (the ruled) is somewhat better than say in Uganda, the private sector is doing much better than ours and in Rwanda where government (the ruler) is on top of its game, public service is better than Uganda's. This is my two cent contribution but I could be wrong too.......
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written by Tina, June 16, 2014
Reasons why countries are successful
1.Attracting foreign investors is the way to go. the wealthiest people in America,UK are either Indians,Russians,Italians, or Germans this is seen with the Lehman brothers,Abromovich,Goldman Sachs and others. there is no single country that was developed by indigenous citizens unless Ug wants to break the record which is unlikely.
2. We need to change our mindset i believe poverty is in the mind we easily give up.
3. Uganda/Africa is even lucky that we are in the era of ICT and inter trade and Globalization one would expect us to have at least picked up by now but suddenly its not the case.
4.Industrial Revolution in Europe was real i don't know which revolution Uganda needs.
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written by Ocheto, June 16, 2014
It is people who develop countries not the so-called lazy free-loading fake elites. These days the elites (more like occupants of elite positions)are motivated by the power they grab, not by their abilities to serve or solve problem. So you have a lot of buffoons in places of power, authority and responsibility not because they deserve or are qualified to occupy these places but because they are clueless and ignorant frauds. And so now as in here they keep recycling same garbage over and over again as new information or more grandiosely, euphemistically called new thinking or ideas.
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written by Marvin ya kuku, June 16, 2014
When it's human rights issues this author blasts ngos and the UN for bringing western solutions to peculiar African problems. But on development, he claims all countries are the same never mind that in south korea the similarities make them richer while Uganda they make us poor. No one but God can explain this paradox he says. Seems to me these are just tailor made arguments to produce an outcome the author is comfortable with. The irony in all this? Yours truly was blasting African journalists for sacrificing fact for opinions just a few days ago!
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written by Marvin ya kuku, June 16, 2014
There is nothing wrong with building an argument to prop up your views. Problem is when these arguments begin to affect citizens negatively. I will be horrified if young Ugandans grow up imagining their country's predicament cannot be explained relative to South Korea's.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, June 17, 2014
@Musinguzi. I like your argument, specifically when you talk about "rulers" and "the ruled" But in the first place, the ruled only have to be "subservient" to the rule. Which makes the rulers the all more important. What do you think?
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written by derek, June 17, 2014
why did the ancient greeks,romans, egyptians or even chinese not invent the plastics,iphone, plane,tarmac, anticancer drugs yet the raw materials were known to them and they were equally on average as intelligent as modern people ? ....or why didnt precolonial baganda build houses of bricks yet they knew how to make clay pots and had an abudant supply of soil to build brick houses that were more durable than their thatched huts ....
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written by derek, June 17, 2014
or why did the universe come into existence or why do equally intelligent hardworking people with same desire for material success starting from the same level have different levels of material sucess after at time t.. some times its random with no reason just simple random chance of events just like africa sharing so much with skorea ,taiwan,singapore intially and 50 years later being very different.
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written by Musinguzi, June 17, 2014
@Rajab: I think you can make that urguement besides, we are told that when a lion leads sheep, sheep behave like lions and when lions are led by a sheep, lions might even start trying grass as food. I find one flaw In this analogy though, if the sheep fired by their lion leader met a buffalo and charged at it because of their leaders' drive, how much would they really achieve? would the sheep be able to damage the buffalo or even a giraffe? In this analogy, it would help if the lion-led sheep were at least hyenas for they have the inherent or learned ability to bite and cause damage. If you agree, it therefore matters what rulers and the ruled are made of in order for them to perform tasks effectively and sustainably
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written by Musinguzi, June 17, 2014
Due to nurture and not nature, we Africans have learned not to take matters in our hands but rather delegated our responsibilities to others: we produce children hoping the NGOs will look after them, the govt swindles all the money hoping the donors will come in and help. It is this casual look at things, tolerating mediocrity, putting up with so much failure (potholes, dark nights, bodaboda, inadequate water and electricity etc) that we have even tolerated unworthy rulers for so long. We can change this nurture and be the high-performance, incompetence-intolerant people. What if we had the Kenyan- drive in all of us, the Rwandan-focus in leadership with the Ugandan incumbency in leadership? Would our destiny have been different? Please advise
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written by Rajab Kakyama, June 17, 2014
@Musinguzi. To back up your argument, it's often said that, it is not the size of the dog but rather the size of the fight in the dog the matters in the fight. I will then take you on a journey where the sheep has been the lion. Bill Clinton inherited a weak economy from Bush (Senior), he, however, under the1993 Economic Plan, cut taxes on 15 million low-income families and made tax cuts available to 90% of small businesses while raising taxes on just 1.2% of the wealthiest taxpayers. In 2001, when George Bush became President he had inherited a relatively strong economy.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, June 17, 2014
He, however, embarked on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Economists, Linda Bilmes & Joseph Stiglitz put it that $3 billion were spent thus returning America to permanent deficits. Qatar, in 1995, Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father, primarily because the king was out of step with the country's economic reforms. Qatar now boosts of a GDP (PPP) of $182 billion a GDP (Per Capita) of $102,943 (no poverty) and an unemployment level of 0.4%. It is destined to hold the 2022 World Cup. Musinguzi, I am drawing you examples of two presidents who changed peoples' fortunes within a generation. The people hadn't changed but it is the leadership that had changed.
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written by Rajab Kakyama, June 17, 2014
Coming closer to Rwanda. The RPF gov't claims that the genocide was masterminded by the then leadership and under 20yrs in power they have masterminded these very people into economic development. Note: the very people who were organised into genocide, are the very people who are masterminding economic transformation. What has changed in Rwanda? The leadership. (Hoping that this were to be true). It is not that Africa lacks the sheep in the lions skin, it is that this rare breed of Africans is hellbent on abusing people's trust and doing evil.
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written by Musinguzi, June 18, 2014
@Rajab: I always admire how far you go to base your arguments on information. We might differ, like I am going to, on the interpretation of the information presented but I like the approach. Leadership is crucial but like I said, I think it is just a lubricant in the wheel. You have over-simplified the development pathway Rwanda has taken. President Kagame realising he has a vision for his country but lacks skilled manpower with the attitude to give him results in a time frame he wanted, opens the door to Kenyans to work in Rwanda. Rwanda and Kenya were the first two EA countries where work permit requirement was waived. In addition to privatisation policy, this allowed Kenyans and other nationals almost to takeover implementation in all major sectors.
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written by Musinguzi, June 18, 2014
This approach allowed the country to puch above its own capacity weight. With the work attitude( like Ugandans) have and with beautiful Rwandan ladies still believing that you have to walk and speak slowly to reflect your beauty, Rwanda would have had a challenge depending on this manpower to achieve the results they have today. The smart thing PK dis was to understudy each of those expatriates with a Rwandan national, hoping that they will learn from the Kenyans. This shows you how much leadership and the followers have to be in concert to move forward. Uganda built a road to two border points and the results are different:
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written by Musinguzi, June 18, 2014
a first class bitumen road from Bundibugyo connecting to DRC that is used by cattle and goats for resting implying people have not used it as an advantage to grow crops for Congo. These Banyoro are still there crying about poverty. The second road connects Uganda to both Rwanda at Kyanika and DRC at Bunagana through Kisoro. The Bafumbira are producing foods, against bad terrain, selling it to DRC, Rwanda and as far as S. Sudan before the way broke out, improvinf their economic situation. In this example, it is the same leadership, same service provided but the attitude of the recipients about work is different and the results are different. In a nutshell, even for a visionary leader, the group of people and their attitude that you have to work with to realise your vision do matter.
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written by BARACK ODUOR, June 18, 2014
I agree to a great extent,but direct comparison of African states that had different colonial masters,socio-economic upbringing and political challenges makes it blurred.
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written by Winnie, June 19, 2014
1.America was discovered by Columbus reason he was hunting for treasure meaning that he had a vision/plan unlike Africa where there were disagreements with local chiefs and kings over land,women,Animals.such mentality has followed Africans up to now we lack focus.
2.Others nations work as a team but here in Africa there is always a shouting match between leaders,the press as if it makes them better.
3. We should learn how to save imagine if one opens up an account for their children and deposit 50 pounds or50,000 shillings per month for 20 years how much money is that?
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written by Winnie, June 19, 2014
4.Rajab and Omeros were asking me how i felt when i saw the Face book photos of Andrew and some babe of course there were shock waves but this is Africa there is no man with one wife besides that i wish Andrew the best that babe looks young she should produce for Andrew 11 KIDS.
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written by Maceni, June 19, 2014
@Musinguzi Of course you are wrong . Kenyans and Rwandans are not an ideal to emulate for Uganda in almost every aspect. The knee jerk reaction to explain differences by attributing them to behavioral dispositions ( paying attention to the shiny object) of the ruler and the ruled clearly minimizes the real reasons some societies thrive and others lag. It simply comes down to the extent of inclusiveness in social, political and economic aspects of a society and the associated institutions, and the implementation of good ideas.
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written by Maceni, June 19, 2014
@ Winnie 1. Basically you are saying that if in the pursuit of vision I commit genocide , employ slave labor, steal, and destroy whole civilizations its fair game.
2.Isn't competition and fierce individualism lauded as the fuel that spurs economic and individual success, Isn't fierce disagreement between politicians to a point of stalemate lauded as a marker of democracy. Your solution in some parts of the world would be called the 'S' word : SOCIALISM
3.First things first -- how does one get 50,000 shillings per month in the first place. I think you had a Maria Antoinette-- let them eat cake- moment here.
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written by Musinguzi, June 20, 2014
@Maceni: Is the building of a road in Bunyoro part of what you would call 'implementation of good ideas' or are you suggesting that government should cultivate land for the drunken Banyoro? Why don't you write a counter argument with local examples instead of cutting and pasting those tired jargons that this articles shows haven't worked in every situation? We have to have enough balls, as we aspire to become better, to tell ourselves what is not working ,even amongst or with ourselves. Always chosing an to explain all our failures in leadership as if we are doing all that we can and and should do, is simply kicking th can down the road
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written by Kahwa Benard, June 20, 2014
Mwenda, while I agree with you on most of the points, I feel you have forgotten an important point. As you have argued, absence of democracy, overstay in power, dictatorship and corruption do not hinder development, granted!
However the problem is not necessary the acts (corruption, dictatorship et al) per se, but rather the belief those acts instill in people. We shouldn’t look at the acts but belief citizens derive from those acts which to me demoralizes them in whatever they do. We shouldn’t limit development to only what government does, but also what people do.
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written by Kahwa Benard, June 20, 2014

Specifically on point five; while corruption doesn’t hinder development, the biggest danger is unfair distribution of income as well as consumption and enjoyment. One of the main functions of the government is distribution of national resources, and therefore when resources or money is concentrated within few privileged individuals because of the offices they occupy that give them access to funds, that is where the problem is.
Therefore the danger of corruption is not the money stolen per se but demoralization that other citizens get as a result of the act.

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written by Maceni, June 20, 2014
@ Musinguzi. A good idea is what is of intrinsic value to the particular society with self evident wide spread benefits. Building a road can be a bad idea, converting drunken villagers to productive farmers can be a good idea - Its all contextual. The rules and models for development are not based on immutable laws that can be applied from one society to another. So Ugandans may have a bad work ethic when working for someone else ,but they also recorded the highest entrepreneurial activity of any nation. Ironically the current system stifles local entrepreneurship and does more to reward quack foreign investors providing "employment". Here's you example : Stifling local entrepreneurship is a bad idea!

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