Opinion

Why Nations Fail

The failure of Uzbekistan

So why are millions of Uzbek schoolchildren out in the fields picking cotton?

Uzbekistan gained its independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Ismail Karimov, previously first secretary for Uzbekistan of the Soviet Communist Party, declared himself an Uzbek nationalist and became, and since then has remained, president through fraudulent elections and repression.

After independence, farmland that was previously under the control of state-owned firms was distributed to farmers. But they weren’t suddenly free to plant and sell what they wished. The government introduced regulations that determined what they should plant and how much they should sell it for. For cotton, that meant they would receive a tiny fraction of the world market price. For many, it wouldn’t make sense to grow cotton at these prices. But the government dictated that they had to. Before independence, much of the cotton was picked by combine harvesters. Yet given these rewards, farmers stopped investing in or maintaining farm machinery. So coerced child labor was Karimov’s cost-effective method of picking cotton.

Part of Uzbekistan is also ideal for growing tea. Interspan, a US company, invested heavily. But by 2006, Karimov’s daughter, Harvard graduate and international jet setter, Gulnara Karimova, had taken an interest in this market. Gulnara is a woman of many talents as you can see from her web page: http:\http://gulnarakarimova.com/en/. For example she hangs out with rock stars like Sting and even duets with Julio Iglesias: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFDVWJ0N89U

Gulnara’s interest meant taking over Interspan’s assets and business. And this was not going to be by making an attractive offer. The company reports that men with machine guns, allegedly working for the Uzbek intelligence services, entered its offices and warehouses, and seized its assets and inventory. Its personnel were arrested and tortured. By August 2006, the company pulled out of Uzbekistan, and tea was now a Karimov family monopoly. The tea market is not the only one which Gulnara Karimova is said to have used coercion and expropriation to have taken control of. She has allegedly acquired shares in the Coca-Cola bottling franchise and in the oil sector through similar means, and controls the largest mobile phone operator, and has major interests in several other sectors, including cement and nightclubs. (Ironically, one of Karimov’s other daughters, Lola, is a “campaigner for the rights of children”!).

Government-imposed prices at which you’re forced to sell; coerced labor; expropriation of assets by the intelligence services and the president’s family. These are just some of the examples of what we call extractive economic institutions — economic institutions designed to extract resources from the population and businesses for the benefit of a narrow elite.

Welcome … to the world of failed nations

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.

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