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.