Kofi Annan’s mission is unlikely to lead to a meaningful resolution to the crisis in Syria (see here). This is not only because the conflict has in all likelihood reached the point of no return, but also because the Syrian regime would have probably never acquiesced to a peaceful transition in the first place. It is useful to understand why Bashar al-Assad’s regime decided to fight it out, with only the flimsiest attempt to reform and placate opponents.
Why Nations Fail
Surely even the most kleptocratic dictator would be in favor of economic development. Economic development means greater income, greater taxes and more stuff to grab, so what’s not to like about it? But actually, it often doesn’t work that way.
Allan Meltzer’s article raises a lot of interesting issues. The main argument is that top one percent has increased its share of national income pretty much everywhere, and this underscores that the causes of this trend should be sought in global trends. It is true that there have been important global trends — in particular, skill-biased technological change and growing international trade — increasing the demand for skills. See for example Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz’s magnum opus on this, or this discussion of their book, or this article on technology and inequality. None of this is (very) controversial.
Sierra Leone is not the only African nation that has been ravaged by civil war. They have been all too common, and any explanation for African poverty that does not come to grips with these all-too-frequent civil wars is bound to be incomplete. Though the number and death tolls of African civil wars have been declining, they are still ongoing in many parts of the subcontinent, including in various parts of the Niger Delta, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, and of course Somalia.
The economic institutions that keep Sierra Leone poor are not just national. Most people in Sierra Leone still live in villages, and their lives are governed by chiefs. Chiefs raise taxes, hire the local police, dispense justice and control the most important resource in rural Sierra Leone today – land. The chiefs are the “custodians of the land” which in effect means that they decide who gets what. Here are two imposing Paramount Chiefs photographed in the 1980s, Madam Yatta K. Saffawab II and M.K. Mustapha Ngebeb IV (from “Portriats of Paramount Chiefs of Sierra Leone”, by Vera Viditz-Ward and Roslyn A Walker, Smithsonian, 1990).
Where do you think this fancy school is located?
Not in the United States. Not on a Greek island, financed by tourism revenues and EU funds. It is in Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world with about 1/50 of the income per capita of the US, where only 41% of the adult population can read and write. But it is not in Freetown, the capital city, nor is in Bo, the next biggest city and capital of the south. Indeed, it is not in any of the major urban centers. It is a small village, Yoni in Bombali district. It was recently built there by China Aid. Why would anyone want to build a wonderful school in the middle of what Africans call “the bush”?