Now Portugal’s former colonies are performing much better than Portugal

January 6, 2013

This year's list of fastest-growing economies, as ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit, is mostly made up of what just a few years ago would have been considered a roster of economic underdogs, with most located in far-flung parts of Asia and Africa:

Economist/ Olga Khazan
Economist/ Olga Khazan

Mongolia is the clear front-runner, its growth driven by China's demand for minerals. In the first half of 2013, Mongolia is expected to reach full production in its "Oyu Tolgoi," or "Turquoise Hill," copper and gold mine near the Chinese border, which will eventually account for one-third of its GDP. 

The other economic superstars have had similar, fortuitous resource gains. Libya and Iraq are rich with oil. Bhutan has been bolstered by hydroelectric power.

Meanwhile, for the obvious reason of the ongoing euro crisis, Spain, Portugal and Greece, along with their European neighbors, are listed as the three "fastest shrinkers." They have GDP growth rates of -1.2, -2.2 percent and -1.8 percent, respectively. 

In a turn of tragic irony, this means that as Portugal continues to suffer, its former colonies -- Macau, Mozambique and East Timor among them --- are booming.

Although the euro zone seems to be stepping back from the brink of disaster, Portugal is still scrambling to get out from under its mountain of debt. The Economist predicts it will be another lean year for the Portuguese:

The recession—the economy will contract for a third straight year—will deepen and the unemployment rate will rise. Popular protest and political opposition will intensify.

Meanwhile, the countries from Portugal's former empire are prospering. The last Portuguese governor left Macau in 1999, and it became a special administrative region of China. Since then, its economy has grown tremendously from a combination of Chinese tourism and from casinos, which the also-prospering Chinese are increasingly willing to frequent. It's now the world's largest casino market, raking in $38 billion in gambling revenues in 2012.

Portugal began to decolonize Timor-Leste in 1974, and though the country endured heavy violence in the mid-2000s, it has since profited from its oil reserves and government spending.

And although Mozambique, which has been independent since 1975, is still a very poor country, its economy has grown by 7.2 percent over the past decade thanks to discoveries of coal and natural gas. 

Now, jobless and with few prospects in their own country, some Portuguese are even heeding the call of their better-off former colonies. As the Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan reported, the number of Portuguese who registered with their embassy in Mozambique's capital, Maputo, increased about 21 percent to nearly 19,000 from 2009 to 2011, and the embassy estimates that more than 23,000 Portuguese live in the Maputo and Beira regions. 

Take Marcio Charata, who lost his well-paying job in Portugal two years ago and is now a senior executive at a Mozambican media company.

"I’m not proud of what my ancestors did,” Charata told the Post. “This is an ironic situation. We’re trying to make a second life in the very country that we were expelled from.”

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Ben Sumner | January 5, 2013