Monday, February 7, 2011

Development in Three ... Words

Over the weekend, @bill_easterly very generously posted to this to the @AidWatch blog, with the title "Development in 3 Sentences":
I liked this formulation from the blog The Coming Prosperity, posted today as a link on Twitter:
"If solutions are known, need $$. If solutions are knowable, need evaluations. If solutions are evolving, need entrepreneurs."
In response, @calestous, a colleague of mine at the Kennedy School's Belfer Center (where I'm an external associate), wrote this:
 @auerswald @bill_easterly Problems and solutions are always evolving.
Put these two together, and what do you get?

In my view, you get development in three words: Entrepreneurship, technology, and innovation.

I am not claiming this is original. In fact, it is downright old school. In my next three posts I'm going to look into each of these, one at a time, and how they add up to "development." But before I do, let me just note again how strong the consensus among economists is around this general framing. In the last century alone (much written of relevance before that!): Joseph Schumpeter, A.O. Hirschman, F.A. Hayek, Robert Solow, Karl Shell, Jane Jacobs, Mancur Olson, Paul Romer, to name but a few. All have articulated variants of this theme. Even apparent intellectual adversaries @jeffdsachs and Easterly agree on this. The Jeffrey Sachs version:
I believe that the single most important reason why prosperity spread, and why it continues to spread, is the transmission of technologies and the ideas underlying them. (The End of Poverty, p. 41)
And Easterly:
Historically, industrialization arose in initially poor countries which have since become rich, with the common theme of a heavy reliance on both domestic and international market opportunities and decentralized private entrepreneurship.
Good that we can all agree on something.

Note: Thanks to @m_clem for previous shout out about the same three sentences (above). They sum up core point of The Coming Prosperity.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Enemy of My Enemy is ... My Next Enemy

1941-1945: To oppose the Nazis, the United States allied with the Soviets. (ref. ... the Cold War)

1979-1989: To oppose the Soviets, the United States supported and funded the Mujahideen. (ref. ... emergence of al-Qaeda, 9/11 attacks)

ca. 1986: To oppose the Sandanistas, the United States supported and funded Manuel Noriega. (ref. ... U.S. invasion of Panama.)

1980-1988: To oppose the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States supported and funded Saddam Hussein. (ref. ... Iraq Wars I and II)

1981-2011: To oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, counter "Islamist" movements elsewhere in the Middle East, and enhance regional stability, the United States supports Hosni Mubarak.(ref. ...  #Jan25, #Jan28, #Feb2 ...)

The enemy of our enemies turns out, more often than not, to become our next enemy.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink this strategy.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Bottleneck is at the Top of the Bottle

The momentous events of the past week have reminded me repeatedly of an outstanding essay published nine years ago by GrameenPhone founder and Innovations journal co-editor Iqbal Quadir titled "The Bottleneck is at the Top of the Bottle." Iqbal's point in this essay--a key part of our shared motivation for starting  Innovations together--is that information and communications technologies (ICTs) don't just benefit societies by lowering transactions costs and making work more efficient. They also disperse power and create the preconditions for political change:
Countries are impoverished in the first place because their governments have historically been unable to adopt beneficial policies. The attitudes of these governments towards ICTs are likely to be consistent with their past record of failing to take advantage of development opportunities. The real question worth discussing is whether ICTs can transform governments so that they are compelled to pay more attention to their citizens’ broader priorities. By influencing governance, these technologies can release resources trapped beneath vested interests. This impact is far greater than the conveniences for which such technologies are ordinarily known.
Along similar lines, I highly recommend this talk that Iqbal gave at the Long Now Foundation a couple of years ago. (Starts at 4:14.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Inevitability of Human Freedom

For the last few days the passion and the dignity that has been demonstrate by the people of Egypt has been an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom.
--Barack Obama (February 1, 2011)
I don't need Obama, I don't need Clinton. I will free Egypt with my Mom and Dad.
--Young child at Tahrir Square (February 1, 2011)
Things were boiling in Tunisia for 15 or 20 years.
--Sami Zaoui, Tunisian Secretary of State for Communications (January 31, 2011)

As last, a statement from the President of the United States that gets to the heart of the matter: The inevitability of human freedom. Simple words that hold so much promise, and so much reproach.

The promise is evident. It is a promise based not on optimism, but on physics. People can not be contained any more than the elements. Heat water in a pot and it will boil. Seal the pot and it will explode. When? Under precisely what circumstances? Impossible to predict. As Gregory Bateson wrote in his classic (and I mean classic) book, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity:
Under tension, a chain will break at its weakest link. That much is predictable. What is difficult is to identify the weakest link before it breaks. The generic we can know, but the specific eludes us. Some chains are designed to break at a certain tension and at a certain link. But a good chain is homogeneous, and no prediction is possible. And because we cannot know which link is weakest, we cannot know precisely how much tension will be needed to break the chain. 
There is an deep irony contained in this prosaic description: Control creates its own ignorance. The more effectively people are oppressed, the more vulnerable is the oppressor. The precise moment at which human freedom exerts itself is as unpredictable as the ultimate outcome is inevitable.

This brings me to the reproach. A common refrain this week from the "policy community" and "area experts" was that no one could have predicted #Jan25 #Jan28 #Egypt. Indeed, only a year ago, a Council on Foreign Relations "Contingency Planning Memorandum" on the topic of "Political Instability in Egypt" noted that "most analysts believe that the current Egyptian regime will muddle through its myriad challenges and endure indefinitely." This translates as "The sealed pot is not moving;" or, alternately, "the chain is not breaking."

The same CFR memorandum offered a contrasting view, stating that "there are a variety of scenarios emerging from Egypt’s present political, economic, and social environment that could result in acute instability or even decomposition of the regime." This translates as "The pot about to explode;" or alternately, "The chain is about to break."

My friend and colleague @p_mandaville Tweeted something of great importance to folks interested in United States foreign policy two days ago: 
Public break w/Mubarak changes rules for entire region. A watershed decision point for U.S. foreign policy. #Egypt #Jan25
He is right. The rules have changed. A fundamental, sweeping rethink is in order.

But what hasn't changed are the laws of physics. Going forward, it won't be enough to say "Who was to know...?" or "How could we have predicted...?" The specific eludes us, but the generic we can know.

The generic lesson is this: Repression makes the repressor vulnerable. It is not only immoral, and inhuman, it is also fundamentally ineffective to chain people. The United States is not made more secure by perpetuating circumstances anywhere in the world which, by their very fundamentals, deprives people of their freedom and us of our security.

It is for this reason that only a strategy based on principle and genuine expression of core values can possibly be effective in the 21st century. It is for this reason that I believe the way forward for the United States is to work with partners around the world to facilitate the search for, and implementation of, entrepreneurial solutions to global challenges. 

But whether we choose this course, or not, progress will come, as it has this week in Egypt. After all, human freedom is inevitable.