Is “Why Nations Fail” a little racist?

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu (winner of John Bates Clark medal, also top 10 most cited economist in the world) and James Robinson, came out a couple years ago. I happened to read it last year for an undergraduate course and also for my thesis on foreign aid, but there are a few nagging issues that have continued to bother me ever since.

See here for a nice summary of the work (and a blog along with it!).

I have a couple smaller issues and will mention one of them, and then one really big concern that applies to more than just this particular book, but is instead, unfortunately, something plaguing much of contemporary development writing. I believe there is an insidious air of subtle elitism, and perhaps implicit racism, in many of the recent outpourings of development texts.

I have no problem with the straightforward, succinct writing style employed by Daren and John and would actually encourage it, since economists are notorious for using heady jargon (mainly to scare off other social scientists, I think, and to make our profession seem more impressive than it is). However, I do not believe that they give a fair chance or analysis of the other commonly cited theories for the failure of development. In a very brief span of a couple pages, they dismiss valid, contributing reasons for why, in particular regions including landlocked countries or countries with particular resources, development has failed.

But here’s what gets me. The entire premise of Why Nations Fail is faulty. Why? Because the authors’ definition of development is that a small, rural community consolidates resources with other like communities until it becomes a strong, large entity that may then grow (with proper political willpower and “critical junctures”) into an industrialized, rich, and prosperous nationstate.

You may ask, “Why is this a problem, Natalie? Sounds like development to me.” To which I respond, this is an issue because there are many communities around the world that do not want, I repeat, do not want to become the next UK, US, or USSR. These groups (including many indigenous and traditional communities in both the developing and developed world) have other definitions of development. Alternative definitions that do not include mass industrialization are not recognized in any way by Daren or John. Communities may be striving for better healthcare and education, but not necessarily individual property rights and democratic populism. Why Nations Fail does not seem to recognize the former processes as development, unless they are in conjunction with the latter.

By defining development in such a limited sense and by excluding so many people and groups from development’s definition, Daren and John run the risk of de-legitimizing the development that these communities have achieved or are on the path to achieving. At its worst extent, Why Nations Fail teeters on a fence suggesting that if the indigenous communities do not pursue a very Western model of development, then they are regressive and part of the problem of non-development.

My concern is that the near-exclusive focus on economically dominant systems and equating them with successful development misses the point of development. At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about the money, but instead it’s if the desired outcomes of the communities are met.

Unfortunately, Daren and John are not the only ones to characterize development in this way. Instead of being seen as a broad, all encompassing ideal for which people and nations could pursue, “development” has become caught up in numbers, statistics, modalities and targets. To let someone greater than myself take the floor, here is Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen from his seminal work, Development as Freedom, who says that development is “the process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy.”

Let us allow the communities themselves, not development experts, technocrats, political scientists, politicians, nor economists, to better determine how exactly those freedoms will take shape.




The Olympic Idol

You may not know this about me, but in a past life I competed at the international level in modern pentathlon. An obscure sport in the U.S., but historically significant for the modern Olympics. And by “international level”, I mean that I was 2x US National Champion for the under-18 category and had several inter-American and World competitions under my belt. An up-and-coming, potential future Olympian would not be too great of an exaggeration.

And why have I left the sport?  Some part of the decision was made simply by the immense difficulty of training in 5 sports while being an undergraduate and a DI swimmer. But I was successful even in those circumstances for my first year and could have continued on. What made the decision was the sneaking suspicion, which had been growing for some time, that the Olympic dream was really an illusion, or maybe something that had once been a reality, but now replaced by old stories and idealism (someone quote Barthes for me).

These realizations have surfaced due to recent news on Brazil, the upcoming 2016 summer Olympics, and especially the “International Day of Sport for Development and Peace.” The modern games have a long history of promoting understanding between nations, peace through competition, and camaraderie amongst people of different nationalities. How much of that ideal is true, though? Certainly, there have been key moments when the status quo has been rejected and overcome through the amazing performances of athletes. For example, Jesse Owens standing up to racism at home and abroad in 1936.

The vast majority of the time, however, the Olympics are the stages for political one-upping, for unspoken gold-medal counting, for video feed money-racking. And not to mention the negative, if not potentially devastating, effects of actually hosting an Olympic game. See the Economist, the Atlantic, the NYT…there is plenty more out there for you to keep reading.

Looking to this year’s summer games in Rio de Janeiro, many are already pointing out major concerns about human rights violations including forceable migration and labor, demolition of property, and human trafficking. A journal article from Northwestern’s Julie Liu optimistically opined that the 2008 Olympics could be a vehicle for human rights agenda of China to improve, and look how much good that did. And I am not picking on Latin America or even developing nations more broadly. London was not above reproach, either.

Why do we defend the Olympic ideal? Why are we all so obsessed with the success of the few at the expense of so many? Is the Olympic idol worth it?

My decision to leave the sport was facilitated by a newfound love of academia, especially international relations and economics. I felt I could do more good in these capacities than I could do being an Olympian or world-class athlete. I could be wrong. And I certainly would not dare tell other athletes that they should retire and find new careers. But my answer to the questions above, for myself, is a resounding no.

Book Review: Witches of America

witches-of-americaI have conflicting feelings about this book and the ethics of it, but a book review is first and foremost about the book, and in the case of the book, I quite liked it. Part of this is my own identification with the author; her struggles are struggles that are currently prevalent in my life.

The book tells the story of Alex Mar, and her exploration in Pagan religions in America during and following the production of her documentary American Mystic. Unlike American Mystic, this book is not an exploration of American Paganism, or intended to give information on it to the reader. There is plenty of information, but this is grounding for Alex Mar to discuss a personal spiritual endeavor. I think it would be dishonest to try to understand this as a sociological or anthropological texts (which it would seriously fail us) when Mar is honest about the book as a personal story.

Mar illustrates the magnetism of the spiritual leaders she finds herself drawn to, the charisma and inspiration of these individuals come through the page to the readers, making one ready to convert themselves. She is brutally honest; and, as would be the case if any of us were brutally honest, she says some cringe-worthy things. She maintains a maybe unhealthy dose of skepticism, fighting any sense of spiritual opening and closing herself off whenever she finds herself vulnerable in groups.

Mar is constantly self-questioning; some have taken offense to this as a negative voyeuristic judgement of the people around her, but to me it seemed clearly a judgement only directed at herself. She cannot find her spiritual truth, but she reaches it through these people because she believes they are reaching theirs. Mar, in this way, has a solid respect for these people and their beliefs.

In a deeply personal way, Mar shows the pull of these traditions, the rich history, and the deep effect they have on their members. She shows us with total honesty the brief moments that she can enter into this spiritual world, and does not hide her hopes and fears. She acknowledges her own drives; she does not lie. Mar wants the deep secrets of the world, and she wants the charisma and insight of the spiritual leaders she sees, and despite these questionable motivations, she does the right thing, she tries to learn things the right way, and most importantly she does not lie to us and pretend she lacks these motivations, which I think will become the main evidence that makes me more forgiving of some of the transgressions that others take issue with.

The truth in this memoir is a touchstone for me. I take a certain comfort in Mar’s struggles, which may be coloring my opinion and making this a bit too personal. Maybe I’m too forgiving because of it. However, this book is a comfort. These traditions are ones I wouldn’t personally enter, but I understand, and I can understand because of her total transparency at least with the leader if not with the individuals she interacts with, why she reaches for these traditions. I recognize the search, and the struggle to let go and enter into something bigger.

At this point, I will enter more into an argument surrounding this book rather than a book review.

However, I do have some problems with this book. In telling her story, she dragged a lot of people somewhere they didn’t want to be. While she did restrain from telling certain religious secrets, she did at points reveal too much, and the problem of consent given for her to do this is in question in a way that cannot be ignored. The traditions that she describes her are some of the more sensationalist ones active, which (no judgement on these traditions) does give an inadequate overall view of what most American pagans are life, and she does not adequately announce this fact to the reader. I can’t help but question if these were chosen for the sake of the book, or because they truly did speak to her most.

However, being a memoir, and extremely personal type of writing, I find myself not able to judge her as harshly as others might. There is a problem of intent that I cannot identify. However, as someone personally reaching for a religious tradition and a spiritual tradition, I understand this memoir and some of the unsavory descriptions of those she practices with as a personal struggle with a desire to believe. Sensational traditions have a particular pull, ritualistic traditions have a particular familiarity to those of us from Catholic and Orthodox backgrounds, and if Mar is being honest with us, she is honestly describing a personal struggle with things that she respects, even when sometimes she says things that may seem contrary to this. The idea that she somehow is not allowed to search spiritually or right about that searching is really ridiculous, especially when she is honest about her own position and failings.

In the process of being honest about her experiences, she overshared about others, but malicious intent does not seem to be there, and I find it hard to believe that she doesn’t care for or respect the people she speaks of. I also find evidence of her sincerity in this: when she recognizes, finally, a tradition is not for her, she leaves it, she does not stick around for the sake of knowledge, for the sake of the voyeuristic study she has been accused of. She is honest with herself and with her teacher, and leaves the tradition and its secrets behind.

All in all, my rating will be based on book quality, being a book review and not a morality review.

Rating: 4/5

Note: I want to admit that I have definitely failed to read up enough on some of the arguments against this book, in a desire to describe my own opinions and impressions adequately and with minimal outside influence. However, I find this article enlightening and would suggest reading it for a rather nuanced understanding from someone in the community.