Independence: Why nations fail

AS Zimbabweans commemorate — not celebrate anymore — 35 years of independence tomorrow, I have had to think of a good gift for President Robert Mugabe and his ministers to take great delight in as they take a journey down memory lane reminiscing over their heroics of the past.

Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Muleya

As an independence tribute, last year I recommended to Mugabe to read or reread, depending on whatever applies, Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth, a thorough critique of nationalism, imperialism and post-colonial Africa.

It says history teaches us clearly that the battle against colonialism does not run straight away along the lines of nationalism. And that independence, instead of being the all-embracing crystallisation of the people’s hopes and aspirations, eventually becomes only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.

No leader, however valuable he may be, can substitute himself or herself for the popular will. Above all it speaks of how post-colonial leaders sell their countries to their most terrifying enemy: stupidity.

But this time around I would rather recommend to Mugabe Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. The two are top intellectual heavyweights, one a professor of economics at MIT, the other political science guru at Harvard.

I read the book with a great deal of pleasure: it’s written by top scholars, cutting-edge and tackles a vital subject. It’s packed, from beginning to end, with historical vignettes that are both erudite and fascinating. It’s a must-read.

Just this week, I gave the book to a former journalist to photocopy to read. Probingly written, Why Nations Fail answers the question that has puzzled experts for centuries: Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine?

The narrative, structure and prose are brilliant. It starts by back grounding issues with colonial history and then asks is it culture, the weather or geography? Perhaps ignorance? Simply no!; it says as it dispels established myths.

None of these factors apply. Otherwise, how do you explain why Botswana has become one of the most successful countries in Africa, while other nations, including neighbours such as Zimbabwe, the DRC and Sierra Leone, are mired in poverty and violence? It draws case studies from Africa to Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe.

The book takes the graphic example of the twin towns of Nogales, one on the Mexican side of the border, the other on the United States side, asking why does a border make such a world of difference?

Self-evidently, this question matters, because growing global inequality generates other problems: admiration, fear and resentment; rising tides and pressures of immigration and troubles when some nations do not merely regress, but fall apart.

Zimbabwe and South Africa present such an example, and the current wave of barbaric xenophobic violence across the Limpopo speaks to some of these issues.

Scholars have struggled for decades to find a convincing answer to explain why some nations are rich and some poor. Initially, the drift and thrust of research on the issue was technocratic. Later the dominant explanation became that poor countries lacked capital, yet of late it has been that some countries are poor because of leadership and policy failures.

But Acemoglu and Robinson conclusively show that it is man-made political and economic institutions, extractive or inclusive, that underlie economic success or failure.

Their argument is modern levels of prosperity rest upon political foundations. They say you need inclusive politics and institutions — not extractive arrangements — as well as order in society to ensure economic prosperity. In the case of Zimbabwe, it’s clear the nation has failed because of its extractive politics and institutions.

3 thoughts on “Independence: Why nations fail”

  1. gutter poet says:

    Many thanks for this Vince. The reason why some companies like nations fail or succeed has nothing to do with theft, skullduggery or hostile is leadership failure. Some management theorists actually aportion 92% of company failures to leadership or lack thereof.

  2. gutter poet says:

    Oh my god, apologies to Dumi Muleya..many thanks for the article Dumi! Why I thought Vince had penned this I dont know, apologies again!

  3. kwv says:

    It should be obvious that what determines the success or otherwise of a nation is the leadership and what I call the National Ethos. Here are some examples of basically the same people but with different leadership and ethos: North and South Korea, East and West Germany, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, Zimbabwe and Zambia, Russia and Europe.

    It is not difficult or complex to see which systems work well, and which do not. In most cases the prosperity of a nation does not depend on natural resources but on human resources, leadership and ethos. Think of Switzerland and Hong Kong as prosperous countries with no natural resources at all.

    Obviously, it is the leaders who guide every country so therefore correct leadership is essential. That is to say, leadership that has the intelligence and integrity to look around and choose one of the systems proven to work. Equally, to reject systems proven not to work, as the Chinese have done. There is also the fact that leadership that is freely chosen always seems to work better than leadership that is imposed on a nation.

    One of the advantages of the democratic system is that if the population make a mistake and elect a bad leader, they can change their minds and elect someone else in four or five years, hopefully before too much damage is done. From my observations, countries that have “forever” leaders generally do not do well.

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