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Leadership and Development

April 29, 2010


In a recent op-ed piece, New York Times‘ columnist Nicholas Kristof asked the question, “Why is Africa poor?” [“Young Superheroes in a Hut,” 10 April 2010]. He admits that the answer to that question is not entirely straight forward. “Is it a legacy of colonial exploitation? Tropical diseases and parasites? Or is it that local mammals, like the zebra and the African elephant, were difficult to domesticate and harness in agriculture? There’s truth in each of these explanations.” Kristof doesn’t believe, however, that even taken together these challenges explain why Africa remains poor. He believes that the single greatest contributor to Africa’s poverty is bad leadership. He writes:

“A visit to Zimbabwe highlights perhaps the main reason [for Africa’s poverty]: bad governance. The tyrannical, incompetent and corrupt rule of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, has turned one of Africa’s most advanced countries into a shambles.”

Kristof notes that “westerners sometimes think that Africa’s problem is a lack of initiative or hard work.” Walking among people struggling to survive, however, Kristof asserts that “nobody could think that after talking to … Zimbabweans who display a resilience and courage” that left him inspired.” He calls these people superheroes because “parents sacrifice meals to keep their children in wretched schools (one teacher showed me his two textbooks for a class of 50). And a growing number of Zimbabweans risk crocodiles, drowning and violence to sneak into South Africa in search of work.” He concludes:

“So Zimbabwe’s tragedy isn’t its people, but its leader. Likewise, Africa’s failure has been, above all, one of leadership. It is telling that Africa’s greatest success story, Botswana, is adjacent to one of its greatest failures, Zimbabwe. The difference is that for decades Botswana has been exceptionally well and honestly managed, and Zimbabwe pillaged.”

Africa, of course, doesn’t have a monopoly on bad leadership. If bad leadership can send people spiraling into poverty, one would hope that good leadership could help lift them out of it. There is evidence out of India that supports the notion that good leadership can turn around even the most intractable cases of poverty [“Turnaround of India State Could Serve as a Model,” by Lydia Polgreen, New York Times, 10 April 2010]. The India state to which Polgreen refers is Bihar. How bad were things in Bihar?

“For decades the sprawling state of Bihar, flat and scorching as a griddle, was something between a punch line and a cautionary tale, the exact opposite of the high-tech, rapidly growing, rising global power India has sought to become. Criminals could count on the police for protection, not prosecution. Highwaymen ruled the shredded roads and kidnapping was one of the state’s most profitable businesses. Violence raged between Muslims and Hindus, between upper castes and lower castes. Its economy, peopled by impoverished subsistence farmers struggling through alternating floods and droughts, shriveled. Its government, led by politicians who used divisive identity politics to entrench their rule, was so corrupt that it required a newly coined phrase: the Jungle Raj. The name captured everything that was wrong with the old India — a combustible mix of crime, corruption and caste politics in a state crucible that stifled economic growth.”

This sounds a lot like conditions in Somali — almost universally recognized as the world’s most failed state. Polgreen reports, however, that Bihar is no longer the punch line of jokes. “Bihar announced earlier this year that it had notched an 11 percent average growth rate for the last five years.” According to Polgreen that makes Bihar “the second fastest-growing economy in the country.” More importantly, she writes, “the news … [signaled] that even India’s most intractable corners of backwardness and misery were being transformed.” She continues:

“‘If even Bihar can change, then anywhere in India can change,’ said Shaibal Gupta of the Asian Development Research Institute, an independent think tank here. ‘With good governance, good policy and law and order anything is possible.’ Bihar’s turnaround illustrates how a handful of seemingly small changes can yield big results in India’s most impoverished and badly governed regions. It also demonstrates how crucial the governments of India’s 28 states, many of which are larger than most countries, will be to India’s aspirations to superpower status. State governments are responsible for everything from schools to hospitals to policing to building and maintaining most roads. Failing states, especially large ones like Bihar and its troubled neighbor, Uttar Pradesh, could make or break those hopes. … Bihar is a textbook case of how leadership determines development.”

Polgreen has a lot of unkind things to say about Lalu Prasad, who ran Bihar for 15 years until he was forced to step aside in a corruption scandal — only to see his wife replace him. She simply carried on her husband’s poor leadership, which “did little to improve the daily lives of Biharis. Its already dismal roads disintegrated into impassable tracks. Its schools crumbled; teachers did not show up for work. Its health centers were left unstaffed.” In 2005, all of that changed. Polgreen continues:

“In 2005 the current chief minister, Nitish Kumar, himself from a lower caste, cobbled together an uneasy but successful alliance of the wealthy upper caste that Mr. Prasad had exiled from power and the very lowest of the Dalits, or untouchables. He promised to dismantle Mr. Prasad’s Jungle Raj. ‘It was not a case of bad governance,’ Mr. Kumar said in an interview. ‘Governance was completely absent from the state of Bihar.’ When Mr. Kumar took over, he found government offices filled with dusty files and Remington typewriters. It was as if most of the 20th century had passed Bihar by.”

How Mr. Kumar fostered Bihar’s turnaround is enlightening. In past posts on development, I have repeatedly stressed the importance of security. Security and development go hand in hand. You simply can’t have one without the other. Abraham Maslow taught that people don’t start thinking about long-term plans if they are daily struggling to survive. Mr. Kumar recognized this and tackled crime first.

“The order went down to the lowliest constable — the law was to be enforced, and criminals would be punished, no matter their political connections. Powerful men were arrested, many of them sitting members of Parliament and the state assembly. They were convicted quickly in fast-track courts. ‘That gave a clear signal that the law will prevail,’ Mr. Kumar said.”

Once people felt safe from crime and corruption, Mr. Kumar was able to turn to public services like education and health. Polgreen continues:

“Next came schools and hospitals. More than 2.5 million school-age children were not attending classes; by 2010 that number was reduced to fewer than 800,000. Clinics that had been seeing 30 patients a month because they had no medicine or doctors were staffed up and restocked. By 2006, the patient load had increased tenfold.”

He also addressed another critical area for development — infrastructure:

“He loosened bureaucratic rules to move important infrastructure projects along more quickly. Before, projects costing little more than $50,000 required cabinet-level approval, and piled up on the desks of senior officials as the fiscal year ticked away. Mr. Kumar raised that limit to $4.4 million, and billions of dollars in infrastructure have been built. This progress, and its limitations, is clearly on display in the villages of rural Bihar. Reaching the village of Pawna from the district capital, Ara, once took more than two hours, but today it is a 30-minute drive. Solar lights illuminate narrow lanes. The street market that used to shut promptly at sundown because of bandits now bustles late into the evening. The village has a new police station, more schools and new water pumps.”

Polgreen notes that the last people to benefit from all of this progress are the poorest of the poor — “those with nowhere to go on the new roads and nothing to steal.” As I noted in an earlier post entitled Development at Home, almost every country in the world struggles when trying to erase all vestiges of poverty. Even with an annual double-digit economic growth rate, Bihar is finding poverty hard to conquer. Polgreen continues:

“The first layer of reforms have produced spectacular results, but more complex problems like changing feudal land laws to give land to [poor farmers] will be much trickier, analysts said. And Bihar’s growth, of course, is relative, and given its dismal state until recently, the smallest gains have outsized impact. Almost no private investment has come into Bihar despite the improvements. Gangotri Iron and Steel, a company manufacturing rebar to fuel the state’s construction boom, recently opened a plant in the town of Bihta on the outskirts of Patna. Umesh Sangarayam, the plant’s operations manager, said that while the law and order situation had improved, the absence of reliable electricity and the unpredictability of the state’s politics may be scaring investors away. ‘If the wrong people come into power in Bihar, you could be finished,’ he said. Indeed, it is a testament to the enduring power of caste in India’s politics that Mr. Kumar, despite his achievements, will face a tough election battle later this year. His main opponent is likely to be Mr. Prasad, who dismisses Mr. Kumar’s success. ‘He cheated the people of Bihar,’ he said, flanked by a phalanx of advisers who vigorously nodded at his every word and attended by a manservant whose only job appeared to be flicking mosquitoes away with a white towel. ‘I am committed to the poor people, the depressed people, the lower-caste people.’ It is a message that cannot be discounted, Mr. Gupta said. ‘Identity politics is strong,’ he said. ‘We hope that voters will choose development over caste. But in Bihar one never knows.'”

I’m glad that Polgreen brought up the subject of electrical power. I’ve noted repeatedly in the past that reliable and affordable electricity is one of the key ingredients for development. Just like in Bihar, if you don’t have it, you are not going to attract investors. Without investors, your progress can only go so far. In a three-part series [entitled India’s Struggle to Develop, Part 1, Part 2, Conclusion], I noted that India’s history has been both a platform for and an anchor against progress. The caste system is one of the main reasons that India continues to struggle. It is a sad situation when a discredited leader can return to challenge an individual with a solid record of good governance. It happens everywhere, however, even in America. Get the leadership wrong and the whole country goes wrong with him or her. For Tom Barnett’s take on this story, read his post entitled “India working its own Gap with some genuinely serious gains.”

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