Was Singapore’s growth really exceptional?

The success of the Asian Tiger economies has always posed an interesting question for African economic policy: if these post-colonial countries could grow so rapidly, why haven’t most others?  Strong authoritarian leadership and favorable geography are generally thought to explain some of the difference, but the rest is usually attributed to poor industrial policy on the part of African leaders.

Since the death of Lee Kuan Yew earlier this week, I’ve seen a number of articles questioning this narrative of Singapore’s exceptional growth.  Kevin Lees notes that Lee’s own policy ideas weren’t always very good – the disasterous federation with Malaya being prime among them – and that he was supported by capable finance ministers who might have achieved good outcomes even under a different leader.  More importantly, however, both Singapore and Hong Kong benefited greatly as destinations for overseas investment from China.  As Lees writes, “The obvious inference is that, though British colonial rule of Hong Kong through 1997 may not have been democratic, liberal freedoms didn’t especially hinder the same kind of economic ‘miracle’ there.”

Tom Pepinsky points out that Singapore’s per capita GDP was already fairly high at independence.  In his words,

Already by the 1970s, Singaporean GDP per capita actually exceeded that of the UK. But the main point to take away … is that Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time. That Singapore has progressed tremendously since independence is true, but not a story of turning the “Third World” into the first. If anything, it is a story of how to escape the middle income trap.

In another post, Tom shared a video that makes a similar point: the Singapore of 1957 looked more similar to the Singapore of today than one might have expected.

While not directly related to economic growth, I also found Emmanuel Yujuico’s post on the establishment of the Singaporean military fascinating.  Lacking the domestic capability to build a strong army quickly, Lee solicited help from Israel, and the strong military relationship between the two countries persists to this day.

Forecasting the growth of municipal budgets in Africa

The Prepaid Economy has a good piece on the challenges of budgeting for rapid growth in major African cities.  I’m not sure how the figures in the graph below were derived, but it’s an interesting way of thinking about the relationship between current city size, population growth, and GDP growth.  Looks like Kinshasa won’t be overtaking Lagos as the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa any time soon if these population growth projections hold true.

municipal budgets

Where is the DRC’s population?

Mostly in the east and the south, as it turns out.  Here’s a a map from NASA’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center.

DRC pop 1

Compare that to this more granular depiction from WorldPop.  The density in the east really stands out.

DRC pop 2

For good measure, here are the major cities, again from SEDAC.  They might have picked a color scheme that looked less like a case of the measles, though.

DRC city

If you’d like to make yourself feel better after looking at this, check out the Racial Dot Map of the US, which is an absolutely stunning visualization of population data.

Five myths about governance and development

The World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog recently ran a post that questioned pretty much all the conventional wisdom about making Northern-style good governance the centerpiece of development efforts.  All five  points are worth a read.  Here are the first two:

1. Good governance is important for development. If this means that a large set of worthy ideals – including transparency in public affairs, accountability of power-holders to citizens, ability of citizens to make demands, absence of corruption, freedom of enterprise, secure property rights and rule of law – are necessary conditions for development success, the answer is clearly no.

The history of human progress, from 17th century England to 21st century China and Vietnam, is completely clear on this point: governance ideals are realised over time on the back of economic progress, not the other way round.

2. Governance-improvement is a good entry-point for developmental reform. This corollary might appear more defensible, but it isn’t. All experience tells us that institutions and social norms change slowly at best. Aid-supported institutional change has a well-documented tendency to produce either ‘capability traps’ or purely cosmetic improvements. History, especially the last half-century in Asia, shows that very significant gains in economic transformation and human well-being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems. Reform initiatives should surely aim to repeat those gains by whatever means are to hand.

As Matt Andrews and his colleagues have been arguing, reforms should be problem-driven and oriented to finding appropriate solutions. There is increasing evidence that problem-solving, adaptive methods can work, even when governments are largely unwilling partners in change. In contrast, donor ‘governance programmes’ contradict the idea of problem-driven reform almost by definition: even in the best of cases, their solutions are set out in advance.

The women of the FARDC

The New York Times is running a remarkable photo essay on Sgt. Madot Dagbinza, who was one of only about 3000 women in the 150,000-strong FARDC before she died in an ambush in 2014.  Absolutely worth a read, along with Maria Eriksson Baaz & Maria Stern’s article on the experiences of female FARDC soldiers.


The NYT piece is also notable for moving past simplistic depictions of the FARDC as an incompetent force that does nothing but rape and steal.  There are still many units who abuse civilians, but it isn’t uniform – others are better trained and better disciplined.  Christoph Vogel consulted with the NYT journalists on this aspect of the story, and has written a very good summary of the FARDC as a “chameleon army.”  Maria Eriksson Baaz’s other work on this subject is also critical reading, such as this paper with Maria Stern on soldiers’ perceptions of violence, and this paper with Judith Verweijen on how the military sometimes solves disputes between civilians in places where civilian courts are inaccessible.

Reevaluating large land deals in Ghana

Festus Boamah recently had an interesting piece at Democracy in Africa on “land grabbing” for large-scale biofuel production in Ghana.  He makes the valuable point that while there are poor farmers who are losing their land, the fault for this lies not only with the (mostly European and North American) companies which buy the land, but also with the chiefs who have the legal right to reallocate it:

Whereas Ghanaian governments used to negotiation the allocation of large land areas in the early post-independence era, Ghanaian chiefs have now taken on this role: an indication of the state’s waning authority over land. …

A recent paper published in Review of African Political Economy shows that the representation of biofuel investors as ‘land grabbers’ obscures the fact that land deals have been utilized by chiefs to re-establish their authority over stool land (i.e. land areas under the control of chiefs), formalizing the boundaries of stool land―which lack formal demarcations―and creating economic opportunities for village residents in their respective communities. Chiefs’ quests to formalize land boundaries was premised on the claim that migrant farmers often evade land rent payments, which threatens the authority of the institution of chieftancy…

The chief’s power to label certain areas of land as mfofoa – marginal land – was also crucial. Through these labels, chiefs could create the impression that jatropha projects were ‘pro poor’, and would work to the benefit of local citizens in biofuel project areas. Such maneuvers hide the damage done to the land use rights of many local citizens, and the value of land that could provide local households with goods such as oil palm fruits, mango fruits and firewood, forming an important part of the local agricultural production cycle.

File this in the broad category of research which points out that power disparities between rich and poor states are real, but goes on to challenge the assumption that this strips people in poor countries of any agency.

Visualizing aid flows to Africa

The World Bank has announced an updated version of its global project map which includes its complete portfolio of projects for the first time.  Of course I had to check out the Africa section.  I definitely didn’t expect Nigeria to be the single biggest recipient of Bank aid, given that it’s currently the largest economy south of the Sahara.  Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique round out the top five.

World Bank - Africa

The AFDB also publishes geocoded data on its projects, along with an interactive map. It’s not quite as attractive as the Bank’s, but does give a more precise breakdown of project locations.  With the exception of South Africa and Somalia, projects appear to basically be distributed in accordance with population density (only logical, of course).

AFDB Africa

Finally, AidData also publishes geocoded datasets and has a useful maps portal, with both interactive and static maps.  The visualization is a bit less intuitive when the interactive map is zoomed out to cover the whole continent – note that the bubble for 1606 projects in Mozambique is the same size as that for 161 projects in South Africa – but ultimately this is the single best source of data on aid flows, as it incorporates the WB and AFDB data as well as data from other donors when available.

aid data africa