Opinion

Why Nations Fail

Welcome … to the world of failed nations

By Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
March 1, 2012

Failure is all around us. When you hear of failed nations, you may immediately think or Somalia or Afghanistan, where state institutions have all but completely collapsed. But failed nations are much more ubiquitous. In this globalized and integrated world of ours, there are huge differences in economic prosperity across nations. According to the latest World Bank data, income per-capita in the US, at $47,360 is about 50 times that of Sierra Leone, of 40 times that of Nepal, or about 15 times that of El Salvador or Uzbekistan. These countries have not experienced the sort of state collapse that Somalia or Afghanistan did. They have nonetheless failed in reaching anything close to the sort of prosperity that countries like the US, Switzerland or Germany have. This is a failure no less consequential than that experienced by Somalia and Afghanistan. And it is every bit as much a result of the choices that these countries — or to be more exact, their elites and leaders — have made.

This blog is devoted to understanding why nations fail and to shed light on current economic, political, and social events through the lenses of the theory we have developed in our book Why Nations Fail.

Welcome to the sad world of failed nations.

For starters, take Uzbekistan. Why does it have 1/15 of the US income per capita? Perhaps it is because of “human capital” — Uzbekis having less education and education and skills? Well there’s a surprise, Uzbekistan has close to complete primary and secondary school enrollment, and close to 100% literacy. But look a bit deeper, and you’ll see something a little unusual going on in Uzbeki schools.

The basis of Uzbekistan’s economy is cotton, which makes up 45% of exports. The cotton bolls start to ripen and are ready to be picked in early September, at about the same time that children return to school. But as soon as the children arrive the schools are emptied of 2.7 million children (2006 figures) who are sent by the government to pick the cotton. Teachers, instead of being instructors, became labor recruiters. In the words of Gulnaz, a mother of two of these children:

At the beginning of each school year, approximately at the beginning of September, the classes in school are suspended, and instead of classes children are sent to the cotton harvest. Nobody asks for the consent of parents. They don’t have weekend holidays [during the harvesting season]. If a child is for any reason left at home, his teacher or class curator comes over and denounces the parents. They assign a plan to each child, from 20 to 60 kg per day depending on the child’s age. If a child fails to fulfill this plan then next morning he is lambasted in front of the whole class.

The harvest lasts for two months. Rural children lucky enough to be assigned to farms close to home can walk or are bused to work. Children farther away or from urban areas have to sleep in the sheds or storehouses with the machinery and animals. There are no toilets or kitchens. Children have to bring their own food for lunch. In the spring, school is closed for compulsory hoeing, weeding, and transplanting (see here).

So school or no school, children aren’t learning all that much in Uzbeki schools. They are instead being coerced to work. This type of coercion is actually all too common, and is indicative of the sorts of institutions that not only fail to impart human capital to children, but are at the root of much more widespread economic and social failure. And it is not in place by accident or as an inevitable remnant of some past practices as we will see in our next post.

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