Why Poor Countries are Poor

The Five Ps of Poverty: Politics

Politics means governance and rule of law…the how and why of running a country.

What a government looks like on the ground is a function of many, many ingredients: political philosophies, leaders, systems, practices, institutions, outside influences, to name just a few.  Politics intersects Place, Past, People, and Peace – in fact, this P is how countries seek to manage all the other Ps.

Political scientist Michael Mandelbaum provides a great framework for examining governments, noting that you need to look at both “intentions” and “capacity.”  It seems that politics is where the two come together in consonance and dissonance.

When looking at politics in poor countries, it is critical to ask…

Does rule of law exist?

“Rule of law” is another of those terms that sounds boring, but is packed with meaning.  It refers to how laws are written, who writes them, who passes them, who enforces them…and how.  Rule of law requires that citizens know what their government is doing, that they understand the policies and practices codified into laws, and that they have some recourse against the state or each other when laws are breached. Needless to say, poor countries have a difficult time with this, and this, in turn, exacerbates their poverty.

How is the leadership?

Too weak?  Too strong?  Competent?  It is important to note that leadersship refers to not only the top dog in the government, but also to his or her inner circle.  Elites who surround leaders, and benefit from their leadership, are part of the picture.  Good governance is generally carried out by people who are knowledgeable, educated, qualified, honest, and independent of conflicts of interest.  They may or may not be charismatic.

Weak leaders have difficulty controlling ethnic, social, and economic tensions, as well as promoting pro-growth, anti-poverty policies.  They are constantly in jeopardy of being overthrown by war or coup, and are generally perceived as illegitimate by their people and a bad risk for the international community.

Overly strong leaders pose a different set of problems, but also ultimately suffer from lack of legitimacy and support from the international community.  Strong leaders may be able to keep order by violent and extreme means.  However, this does not mean they are necessarily any better at promoting economic growth.  For example, strongman Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe exerts a tremendous amount of control over his impoverished country.

What does the institutional landscape look like?

Institutions are a bulwark against bad leadership.  When governing takes place in a context of solid, well-crafted processes and procedures, it may be said that the institutional infrastructure of a country is sound. These institutions may have economic, judicial, electoral, monitoring, or social roles.  They may be local, regional, or national.  To act as a check and balance against abuse of power by leaders and powerful interest groups, institutions must be independent, transparent, and accountable themselves.

Does good governance have to be in the form of a democracy?

Welcome to one of the defining debates of our time.  See key salvos in the conversation by Bruno Bueno de Mesquita, Fareed Zakaria, Marc Plattner. Suffice it to say that, practices associated with democracy (defining democracy as not only the process of holding elections, but also ensuring civil rights) are generally similar to those associated with good governance. But many democracies (especially in poor countries) are not truly democracies in the fullest sense of the word.  See What Is Democracy? and What Factors Influence the Development of Democracy from the Democracy Around the World edition of The World Savvy Monitor.

Democracy, like any other political system, is only good if it is used to further positive outcomes for a country’s citizens.  In theory, it should introduce accountability into the picture.   See Freedom House’s framework for rating governments.

Bottom Line on Politics and Poverty

Poorly governed poor countries are generally characterized by predation – when society exists for the benefit of the government, rather than the other way around . In poorly governed poor countries, both the public and private sectors fail to thrive as public funds go missing, services are compromised, individuals do not feel secure in starting businesses, and outside investors stay away.  Bouncing back from bad governance is really hard, especially if you have never known good governance – even with aid and development assistance from the international community. Reformers are ineffective or silenced; the status quo reinforced.  And the cycle continues…


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