Development Economics

Do Elections Improve Economic Policy? Democracy in Burma

Today, the people of Myanmar for the first time in twenty years will elect a new government.  Actually, they will simply participate in a rigged election process that will legitimize the repressive military regime that has controlled the country by force for the past half-century.  Under pressure from the West and perhaps craving a bizarro sense of legitimacy, the military is holding elections for the first time in twenty years, yet it has effectively guaranteed that the country will remain under its control.  No matter what, the military will maintain 25% of the seats in parliament and will control three key cabinet posts (defense, interior, and border).  The two main political parties are offshoots of the military.  And the ethnic regions in the east and north will not even be given the chance to vote, as it is "too dangerous" to man polling stations in these regions.   No foreign journalists or elections monitors will be allowed in the country and the flow of information has been stifled as the Internet is all but crippled.   Not exactly ideal conditions for creating a fair and truly participatory democracy.

This is the reality of these types of elections.  But this kind of outrageous and brazen election-rigging is not uncommon in countries like Myanmar.  Unfortunately, holding elections in countries that are not ready to have them is a core component of our foreign policy.  According to the theory, when leaders are voted into office in free and consistently-held elections, they have greater accountability in terms of supporting sensible economic policies that benefit the country.  This theory is true...in theory, but not always in practice The belief that elections are a necessary tool for creating economic growth is too simplistic, and lacks an understanding of the institutions that make democracies successful.  In order for elections to actually translate into positive policy reforms and economic growth, a country requires a system of checks and balances that prevents the incumbent party from using illegal means to secure its place in government.  What is happening in Burma right now is a perfect example of how a country without these necessary checks and balances is basically f-ed. (more…)

Development Economics

Zimbabwe’s Diamonds and the Natural Resource Trap

In my last post, I discussed why access to abundant natural resources is actually counterproductive to the development of poor countries.  The idea comes from Paul Collier, a development economist who penned the book The Bottom Billion, a summary of his findings from thirty years in the industry.  While much of the world lives below the poverty line, there are only a handful of countries that have made no progress in terms of economic development over the last few decades.  In fact, most of these “bottom billion” countries have actually regressed, posting negative GDP growth.  According to these countries, each of these countries has fallen into one or more “traps,” which produce a self-perpetuating cycle of stagnancy, at best, or decline.   Access to natural resources is one of these traps.  Here is an overview of why this is so:

Natural resource wealth, in addition to increasing a country’s propensity for civil war, also creates its own trap. In Collier’s view, natural resources can be a curse, because of “Dutch Disease”, which makes a country’s other export activities uncompetitive, and causes commodity price volatility. Countries of the bottom billion are often too poor to harness the wealth they gain from natural resources, such that other sectors of the economy remain stagnant, prohibiting future economic development.
So the money gained from natural resources is not properly invested in improving other industries, such as manufacturing and agriculture, causing them to atrophy.   Once the natural resources dry up, these industries - the real economy - are unable to sustain the false productivity levels during the natural resource boom, to the detriment of the economy as a whole.  (more…)

Development Economics

Oil Drilling in the Niger Delta

In a little-known story from the southeastern United States, a large oil rig recently exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing a nominal amount of mildly polluting oil into ocean, killing a few birds and galvanizing retirees in Florida - a political sleeping giant - into action.  This minor environmental calamity, which can hardly be considered more than a nuisance, is indeed tragic, but it pales in comparison to what happens elsewhere in the world.  Take this article from the Guardian, a British tabloid newspaper:

With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution. Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 years over the past two generations. Locals blame the oil that pollutes their land and can scarcely believe the contrast with the steps taken by BP and the US government to try to stop the Gulf oil leak and to protect the Louisiana shoreline from pollution. "If this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention," said the writer Ben Ikari, a member of the Ogoni people. "This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta." (more…)