The most pressing economic problem of our time is that so many of what we usually call “developing economies” are, in fact, not developing. It is shocking to most citizens of the industrialized Western democracies to realize that in Uganda, or Ethiopia, or Malawi, neither men nor women can expect to live even to age forty-five. Or that in Sierra Leone 28 percent of all children die before reaching their fifth birthday. Or that in India more than half of all children are malnourished. Or that in Bangladesh just half of the adult men, and fewer than one fourth of adult women, can read and write.1
What is more troubling still, however, is to realize that many if not most of the world’s poorest countries, where very low incomes and incompetent governments combine to create such appalling human tragedy, are making no progress—at least not on the economic front. Of the fifty countries where per capita incomes were lowest in 1990 (on average, just $1,450 per annum in today’s US dollars, even after we allow for the huge differences in the cost of living in those countries and in the US), twenty-three had lower average incomes in 1999 than they did in 1990. And of the twenty-seven that managed to achieve at least some positive growth, the average rate of increase was only 2.7 percent per annum. At that rate it will take them another seventy-nine years to reach the income level now enjoyed by Greece, the poorest member of the European Union.2
This sorry situation stands in sharp contrast to the buoyant optimism, both economic and political, of the early postwar period. The economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron’s classic essay “Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective” suggested that countries that were far behind the technological frontier of their day enjoyed a great advantage: they could simply imitate what had already proved successful elsewhere, without having to assume either the costs or the risks of innovating on their own. The economist and demographer Simon Kuznets, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, observed that economic inequalities often widen when a country first begins to industrialize, but argued that they then narrow again as development proceeds. Albert Hirschman, an economist and social thinker, put forward the hypothesis that, for a while, at the beginning of a country’s economic development, the tolerance of its citizens for inequality increases, so that the temporary widening that troubled Kuznets need not be an insuperable obstacle. Throughout the countries that had been colonies of the great European empires, the view of the departing powers was that the newly installed democratic institutions and forms they were leaving behind would follow the path of the Western democracies. Political alliances, like the myriad regional pacts established during the Eisenhower-Dulles era (SEATO, CENTO, and all the others), would help cement these gains in place.
Not surprisingly, the contrast between that earlier…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.