Planned Poverty in Failed States

Would a person or a family intentionally choose to be poor? Faced with clear opportunities for economic advancement, would individuals opt for a life of scarcity? Robert Bates argues that this scenario is a common one in failed states.

Before I turn to Bates’ argument, it is helpful to indicate what we are not discussing. First, it is very clear that devout religious adherents from many faiths choose poverty. Some pursue the life of an ascetic; some continually give away their material resources and pursue planned poverty. Second, many poor people have few economic options available to them. Even ardent supporters of free markets can recognize that some persons have greater life chances, even if they are born into poverty. Innate intelligence, social support networks, or good schools can help lift a person from poverty.

In the book When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa, Bates argues that insecurity and uncertainty associated with state failure may lead some to consciously choose poverty. His argument proceeds along a Hobbesian line. Remember the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes? According to Hobbes’ assessment of human affairs, life in a “natural state” – that is, without an organized political community (or state) – is uncertain and miserable. Here is one of the most famous passages from Hobbes’ Leviathan:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

For Bates, a contemporary observer of societies like Somalia, the political context of failed states can be truly Hobbesian. In a context of rampant criminality and intense physical insecurity, it may be preferable to avoid accumulating wealth. Without wealth, a person is less likely to be targeted by robbers or other armed marauders. In short, it is better to preserve life than property. Or, the difficulties of accumulating wealth in a failed state may dissuade many from trying.

For the sake of argument, let’s stick with the example of Somalia, a clear example of a failed state. Critics of Bates could rightly point to a surprising level of commerce and business activity since the fall of the Mohammed Siad Barre government in 1991. Institutions of local government – more or less formalized – have filled some of the gap left by an absence of central government. Even so, physical insecurity and unpredictability have surely convinced many Somalis that planned poverty is a reasonable choice.

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Natural Disasters and Failed States

I live in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and we are currently being pounded by a 800-kilometer wide hurricane (cyclone). This week’s storm refocuses our attention on natural disasters. Aside from their physical power, these events tell us much about societies and development around the world.

The most basic fact about natural disasters around the world is the highly variable death tolls they bring. Major disasters in developed countries are considered very deadly if they kill a few hundred people. Storms, earthquakes, or droughts of similar intensity can kill thousands, or even tens of thousands, in developing countries. True, it can be challenging to compare the severity of disasters in different contexts, but the basic global pattern is stark and sobering. With the important exception of Japan’s mega-disaster in 2011, modern mega-disasters exclusively occur in poorer countries, and especially those with weak governments. Here are just a few recent catastrophes:

  • Haiti earthquake (2010): more than 200,000 killed
  • Myanmar (Burma) cyclone (2008): more than 130,000 killed
  • Pakistan earthquake (2006): more than 70,000 killed
  • Indian Ocean tsunami (2004, Indonesia and other countries): more than 270,000 killed
  • Bangladesh cyclone (1991): more than 130,000 killed

And, lest you think that developing countries are simply more prone to natural disasters, North America (and the United States especially) is the most disaster-prone region in the world.

Why, then, do developing countries experience so much more loss of life in natural disasters? The answers are many, and vary by the type of disaster. In general, though, poor and weakly governed states suffer from the following problems:

  • Less effective advanced warning.
  • Illiteracy and lower levels of education.
  • Less sturdy buildings and infrastructure.
  • Less effective land use planning.
  • Slower and less effective disaster recovery.
  • In some cases, an unwillingness to accept international assistance, as with the case of Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and North Korea during various episodes of famine.

On a positive note, some developing countries are dramatically improving their disaster preparedness and response. Chile, for example, sustained relatively few casualties after a massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake in  February 2010. Even though major population centers were affected, only about 500 deaths were reported. Progress is possible.

Book Launch – Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses

The book Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses by Brennan Kraxberger has just been published. The book is currently available through Amazon, and will be available via other distributors later this week. For more information – including an expanded free sample (with table of contents and index) – click here. The ebook version’s price is $4.99 (U.S. dollars). If you are a reviewer or a college instructor, please contact the author for a complimentary copy.

Pakistan’s Schools

For many, Pakistan is the most worrisome critically weak or failed state. It has a huge population (about 180 million people) with a relatively limited base of natural resources and arable land. The country has persisting deep ethno-regional divisions, despite a common Islamic heritage. Since its independence in 1947, the central government has not proven capable of administering peripheral regions of the state. And, not least, Pakistan’s relations with its neighbors have long been characterized by tensions and open conflict. And, we could go on ….

An under-emphasized aspect of Pakistan’s fragility is its public education system. Here it is no exaggeration to declare a national crisis of huge proportions. A 2010 film by FRONTLINE/World, Pakistan: The Lost Generation, documented key dimensions of the crisis. In terms of the big picture, less than 45 percent of the country’s school age children are enrolled in a school of any kind, private or public. The public education system that serves the majority of these children is hardly deserving of the label “system.” As the film so vividly shows, many of Pakistan’s “schools” are really just meeting points. Here is a quote from the film’s synopsis:

There are some 20,000 “shelterless” schools throughout Pakistan. And even when there are buildings, 60 percent have no electricity, and 40 percent have no drinking water. Because the schools are so bad, Pakistan has the lowest enrollment rate in all of South Asia.

To be clear, millions of Pakistani kids attend classes in makeshift outdoor spaces. For those with buildings, they are rarely minimally equipped for instruction and learning. Though the film clearly emphasizes the worst of Pakistan’s schools, this portrait provides significant insight into the whole system.

Leaving other issues aside, such as teacher recruitment and retention, curriculum, and ideology, Pakistan’s educational deficit provides stark evidence of state weakness. In terms of educational outcomes, there is truly a vast “lost generation” of illiterate and uneducated in Pakistan. That legacy will hinder future political and economic development for decades to come. Beyond this, however, is the contemporary reality of governance. The physical status of the country’s schools is not just a reflection of the country’s poverty. Though Pakistan is a low-income society, incompetence and corruption have led to terrible delivery of services. Construction contractors are paid for work that was never completed in part or whole. Civil servants are not held accountable for their malfeasance. At the same time, elites send their children to private schools, the main preserve of quality education.

Going forward, it is not clear that outsiders can do much to reform Pakistan’s schools. After all, reforming the educational system will require better governance, not just technocratic fixes.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.