“Why Nations Fail” is a sweeping attempt to explain the gut-wrenching poverty that leaves 1.29 billion people in the developing world struggling to live on less than $1.25 a day. You might expect it to be a bleak, numbing read. It’s not. It’s bracing, garrulous, wildly ambitious and ultimately hopeful. It may, in fact, be a bit of a masterpiece.
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, two energetic, widely respected development scholars, start with a bit of perspective: Even in today’s glum economic climate, the average American is seven times as prosperous as the average Mexican, 10 times as prosperous as the average Peruvian, about 20 times as prosperous as the average inhabitant of sub-Saharan Africa and about 40 times as prosperous as the average citizen of such particularly desperate African countries as Mali, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. What explains such stupefying disparities?
The authors’ answer is simple: “institutions, institutions, institutions.” They are impatient with traditional social-science arguments for the persistence of poverty, which variously chalk it up to bad geographic luck, hobbling cultural patterns, or ignorant leaders and technocrats. Instead, “Why Nations Fail” focuses on the historical currents and critical junctures that mold modern polities: the processes of institutional drift that produce political and economic institutions that can be either inclusive — focused on power-sharing, productivity, education, technological advances and the well-being of the nation as a whole; or extractive — bent on grabbing wealth and resources away from one part of society to benefit another.
To understand what extractive institutions look like, consider les Grosses Legumes (the Big Vegetables), the sardonic Congolese nickname for the obscenely pampered clique around Mobutu Sese Seko, the strongman who ruled what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1965 to 1997. When Mobutu decreed that he wanted a palace built for himself at his birthplace, the authors note, he made sure that the airport had a landing strip big enough to accommodate the Concordes he liked to rent from Air France. Mobutu and the Big Vegetables weren’t interested in developing Congo. They were interested in strip-mining it, sucking out its vast mineral wealth for themselves. They were, at best, vampire capitalists.
But the roots of Congo’s nightmarish poverty and strife go back centuries. Before the arrival of European imperialists, what was then known as the Kingdom of Kongo was ruled by the oligarchic forerunners of the Big Vegetables, who drew their staggering wealth from arbitrary taxation and a busy slave trade. And when the European colonists showed up, they made a dreadful situation even worse — especially under the rapacious rule of King Leopold II of Belgium.
When Congo finally won its independence in 1960, it was a feeble, decentralized state burdened with a predatory political class and exploitative economic institutions — too weak to deliver basic services but just strong enough to keep Mobutu and his cronies on top; too poor to provide for its citizenry but just wealthy enough to give elites something to fight over.