A different look at global income inequality

Something that has long struck me about modern discourses on international development is the idea that poverty is somehow shocking, an aberrance in our age of wealth.  It’s not!  Plenty of people in the world live in the way that humans have lived for most of history.  If anything, it is the wealth of the developed West that is profoundly and ahistorically abnormal.

Worldmapper has some good maps of population and wealth through history that offer a bit of perspective on this topic.  Data for year 1 CE was taken from Angus Maddison’s historical estimates of the world economy.  Check out these maps of estimated population and wealth at this time:

Population, 1 CE (source)

Wealth, 1 CE (source)

You’ll note that the maps are virtually identical, reflecting the facts that per capita GDP (imputed to modern territories, as these states obviously didn’t exist in 1 CE) varied extremely little around the world.  Maddison has estimated it at an average of $445 annually per person.

Now check out population and wealth in 2000:

Population, 2000 CE (source)

Wealth, 2002 CE (source)

Hello disparities!  Latin America is the only region where wealth appears to have grown roughly commensurately with population.  The US, Europe and Japan, of course, are looking a bit bloated, whilst most of sub-Saharan Africa appears to be doing worse (relative to the rest of the world) than it was 2000 years ago.  Average global per capita GDP in 2000 was about $5200, meaning that even the massive population growth of the last two millennia has not prevented the world’s citizens from growing (on average) more than ten times as rich as they were in 1 CE.

It should go without saying that the conclusions one can actually draw from a set of maps drawn with imputed data is limited.  However, I still find it useful to have a reminder that we shouldn’t assume the normalcy or inevitability of the world as we see it today.

Fukuyama on state-building

A powerhouse duo came to SAIS to speak on state-building in the DRC a few weeks ago: Frank Fukuyama (on the “state-building” side of the equation) and Severine Autesserre (on the “DRC” side).  Whilst Fukuyama admitted to not having any particular experience in the DRC, he’s obviously done a great deal of thinking on state-building, and mentioned some general precepts that seemed applicable here.

One of his first points was that state-building is essentially the process of “getting to Denmark” – but this is complicated by the fact that even the Danes don’t necessarily know how they got to Denmark.  Generally speaking, the Western liberal state is characterized by three things: a monopoly of violence (or “state-building”), the rule of law, and accountability between the rulers and the ruled.  Fukuyama’s take on success stories like Denmark, and Europe more generally, is that these are places where the rule of law developed alongside or preceded a monopoly of violence by the state.  He cites both Catholic canon law and feudal order as placing constraints on the power of rulers well before they could fully exert power & monopolize violence across all of their territory. (Based on this review, it looks like he’s going to develop this thesis more fully in his upcoming book.)  From this perspective, attempts to solidify state control of ungoverned areas before building up the rule of law is going about state-building backwards.  (Autesserre, as I’ll write about later, seems to agree in the specific case of the DRC – as does this recent HRW report on whether there should be “justice before peace” in the Congo and Burundi.)

Fukuyama also raised the interesting point that many contemporary strong states explicitly focused on nation-building alongside or after state-building – but before they began to work towards accountability.  (The classic African example is that of Tanzania, with its unique national language and de-emphasis of tribal identity, vs. Kenya, where tribal identity is still highly salient.)  He feels that the importance of nation-building is underappreciated by contemporary theorists of state-building, although (in my opinion) much of this is a warranted backlash against the type of cultural imperialism that delegitimated “local” and “native” cultures in the Western mind for the past few centuries.  More generally, Fukuyama points out that the increased push towards democratic accountability at all levels makes any nation-building project much more difficult.

Lots of future post ideas coming out of this talk, for sure!  I am in the end of two minds about the nation-building point.  But the focus on promoting the rule of law before the expansion of state territorial control seems well-founded.  It makes me think here of Bull’s The Anarchical Society and its point about social order developing independently of formal governance; of Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed; and of whether there’s some type of principal-agent problem in the justice-vs-territorial-control debate, where people might value the rule of law from any entity more than participating in a formal state, but the state naturally wants to focus on expanding territorial control and subsumes the idea of justice within the projection of power…  Will hopefully write more on this soon.

NB: Thanks to James Wilson for catching a typo in an earlier version!

Don Alvaro, King of Kongo

It’s interesting to remember that there was a pre-colonial time when the European imagination hadn’t yet essentialized Africa into a land of savages.  I purchased the image below – a reprint of an engraving from a 1668 book on African exploration – on a trip to South Africa last year, intrigued by seeing a European artist using European symbols of power to demonstrate the position of an African king.  (In other words, he is rather reasonably providing an accessible visual interpretation of African “power” for his audience.)  Note the Latin inscription “Don Alvarez, Rex Kongo” and the elegant European-style interior:

“Don Alvaro, king of Kongo, giving audience to the Dutch in 1642”

The Kingdom of Kongo, as it turns out, had a long and fascinating pre-colonial history.  From origins just south of Matadi (in the present-day DRC), it expanded to cover an area from the north of (modern-day) Angola to the south of the Republic of Congo, and remained extent as a political entity from roughly 1400 to 1914.  Its territory was divided into anywhere from 6-15 provinces and sub-provinces, with provincial rulers taxing local trade and paying revenues upward to the king.  In the early 17th century, the population of its capital, Mbanza-Kongo, and the surrounding hinterland was estimated at 100,000 people.

So whence this engraving?  The Portuguese came into contact with the Kongo in 1483, when Diogo Cao made his famous voyage up the Congo River.  Subsequent relations seem to have ranged from amicable to strategic to hostile, mostly centered around the slave trade and factional struggles for the throne of Kongo.  By the 1600s, however, the Dutch were competing with the Portuguese for the spice trade, and they captured Luanda from the Portuguese in 1641.  In 1642, Kongo agreed to provide them with military assistance, and in return the Dutch helped the then-king of Kongo, Garcia II, put down a rebellion in the south.  (Garcia’s predecessor, who died in 1641, was Alvaro IV.  Presumably either the name or the year in the print above is incorrect.)

Kongo held out, through wars, factional struggles, and a post-Berlin wave of Portuguese colonialism, until 1914.  But even today, the kingdom’s afterlife continues.  The DRC-based religico-political group Bundu dia Kongo has pressed for a revival of the Kongo culture and kingdom since the late 1960s, and has gotten attention more recently for demonstrating against (and being brutally suppressed by) the Kabila regime.

Development wishlist

One of the fun parts of doing the job hunt/grad school application thing is that it gives you a structured opportunity to articulate what you’d like to see the development community doing, and how you’d like to participate in it.  After straining out all the things that will actually be going into personal statements, everything that’s left is being added to my only moderately unrealistic economic development wishlist:

  • I want to see more economic development practitioners talking to economic historians. There’s a strong share of immediacy in much dialogue on international economic development – the demand to stop dithering and end poverty now.  I think this is a moderately useful moral statement, and a nearly useless policy formulation for engendering broad & sustainable increases in the incomes of the poor.  Frankly, it promotes a strain of analysis that approaches successful, present-day Western economic policies as if they developed in a vacuum, and often gives short shrift to the historical quirks, accidents, and forethought that went into their development – the messy, long-term process of actualizing beneficial policy.  I’d love to see more practitioners drawing from research into historical processes of economic development (such as De Soto’s work on the Homestead Act in the US), and much less poorly-considered application of Western present-day policies to non-Western situations.  (Another great example is Roodman’s work on microfinance in Europe & the US as long ago as 1800.  Which brings me to my next point…)
  • I want to discourse on innovation balanced with discourse on not reinventing the wheel. I’m obviously not anti-innovation.  People are doing some great thinking on how the constraints of poverty both necessitate and facilitate innovation.  But I’ve also come to realize that, if you’re a smart & dedicated person and have an innovative idea, there’s a significant chance that at least one other smart & dedicated person has had a similar idea.  At this point in your promotion of said innovative idea, you (generally) could A) seek out other people working on it and collaborate, B) learn about the shortcomings of the other idea and compete with an improved product, or C) independently develop & fund multiple small duplicative non-competing projects based on the same idea.  I don’t mean to pick on stove projects uniquely – I think they’re tackling an important issue, and they were the first example that came to mind rather than the most egregious.  But I do wonder how much of the time & how many of the resources spent on social enterprise product development (or program development more broadly) is genuinely productive, and how much goes to needlessly reinventing the wheel instead of learning from existing examples.  (See also Easterly’s critique of learning in aid programs since 1938.)
  • I want to see less programmatic emphasis on solving every problem simultaneously, and more on sequential implementation in increasing order of difficulty. You could equally rephrase this as, “it’s not always wise to do the hardest thing first.”  There’s a lot of value in starting with a feasible goal, learning by doing, and expanding into implementation of more complex or wide-ranging programs later – and it’s much more likely to be successful.

I’d love to know, dear readers: what’s on your wishlists?