The New Arab Logo

Breaking News
Overcoming our underdevelopment Open in fullscreen

Bassel Salloukh

Overcoming our underdevelopment

Institutions and political economies shape what are otherwise euphemistically labelled cultural practices [AFP]

Date of publication: 22 July, 2016

Share this page:
  • 0

  • twitter
Comment: For the global South to make progress, it will require an institutionally strong state, with visionary leadership and economic intervention, writes Bassel F. Salloukh.

Every time I find myself in the air, I ask myself why, as a resident of a country that belongs to the so-called developing world, we cannot overcome our underdevelopment.

The good news is that the World Bank recently decided to drop the label "developed" and "developing" countries from its data collection vocabulary, arguing correctly though belatedly that one cannot lump widely diverse countries such as Malaysia and Malawi, Singapore and Sierra Leone, or Brazil and Bangladesh into one single, monolithic, developing basket.

The bad news is that this necessary first step in breaking down colonially-inspired mental boundaries does not change the sad reality of everyday lawlessness, weak public institutions, economic monopolies and a lack of political accountability across much of the developing world.

To be sure, historical experiences shaped future possibilities in the global South. Colonialism destroyed many native societies, remade local economies to fit its own insatiable raw-material metropolitan needs, and affected the institutional trajectories of new states with direct implications on post-independence realities.

Some of these states continue to suffer from their dependency on single export commodities; in others, we can trace the construction of politicised ethnic, tribal, or sectarian identities to hegemonic colonial state policies, with bloody repercussions on contemporary politics.

After independence, struggles for regime consolidation also shaped political economic choices and performance for decades to come, often sacrificing democracy for an authoritarianism based on a homogenised imagining of the state, and sound long-term economic logic for short-term political ends.

History, economic policies and institutional choices shaped future prospects, locking states into path-dependent trajectories. All this is true. But this doesn't explain the success stories of one-time developing states that ultimately made it economically and - at least some of them- translated their economic success into a measure of political openness and democracy.

This necessary first step in breaking down colonially-inspired mental boundaries does not change the sad reality of everyday lawlessness

Nor are cultural explanations - the argument that some cultures are more predisposed to an ethic of discipline, hard work and democracy - useful. Bracketing their reductionist, circular, and residual logic, cultural explanations confuse cause and effect, and often fail the test of time.

Think of all the arguments made about South America's Iberic political culture before the continent's democratisation commenced in earnest in the 1980s; or the Orientalist arguments explaining the Arab peoples' presumed antipathy to democracy until the popular uprisings that exploded in December 2010 proved otherwise, only to be derailed by a combination of sectarianised geopolitical battles and authoritarian regime responses.

Historical experiences and much of the scholarly literature converge on a set of clear prescriptions to be followed by countries aspiring to exit from their underdevelopment: Investment in technology, infrastructure, health care, education and agriculture are deemed necessary but insufficient prerequisites for socioeconomic take-off.

And to accomplish all this requires an institutionally strong state, with a visionary leadership that can claim significant autonomy from the predatory powers of the country's socioeconomic elite. In other words, and contrary to the claims of the proponents of economic liberalisation, economic development – and democracy at a later stage – require more – but strategic – state intervention rather than less.

To explain underdevelopment by invoking the unchanging, timeless, power of traditional cultures is to miss the point

As Sandra Halperin reminds us in "Power to the People: Nationally Embedded Development and Mass Armies in the Making of Democracy", the history of democracy in the West is organically connected not to open markets and state retrenchment, but rather to the exact opposite: "the emergence of a relatively more nationally 'embedded' capitalism, involving greater restrictions on capital and an increase in state regulatory and welfare functions". So much for the voodoo proclamations of the false prophets of the Washington Consensus!

But what about the personal choices we make in our everyday lives in this immensely complicated global South?

The will to conquer public space for selfish private ends; the nepotism inbuilt into almost all public and private transactions; the callous and never-ending destruction of nature without the slightest regard for the well-being of future generations; the cranes that transform once pristine, dreamy skylines into Gothem-like dystopias; the empty high-rises that turn urban cities into faceless concrete jungles; the preoccupation with vulgar consumerism; and the obsessive disregard for the rule of law? And then there's all that noise, all kinds of disorganized noises, the hallmark of urban life in much of the global South.

As mentioned above, to explain underdevelopment by invoking the unchanging, timeless, power of traditional cultures is to miss the point. Nor can cultural arguments explain regional and sub-regional variations within the global South.

Tragically, in some parts of the global South the whole post-independence era has produced nothing to show for

Institutions and political economies shape what are otherwise euphemistically labelled cultural practices, not the other way around. Weak state institutions, colonised by all kinds of neopatrimonial networks and predatory instincts, are at the heart of these perennial aberrations, obfuscating peoples' incentive structures and locking whole societies into a vicious cycle of political instability and economic inefficiency.

Tragically, in some parts of the global South the whole post-independence era has produced nothing to show for: Neither sustainable development nor economic diversification; just overcrowded urban cities and an underdeveloped countryside.

Yet as my plane lands in one of those exceptions that give hope where hope is in short supply, and I step out into a dazzling airport that makes any travel and technology lover jealous, I am reassured that there are always alternatives to our underdevelopment. That with the right combination of state institutional power and economic intervention we can overcome our underdevelopment.

Then comes the difficult task of opening political systems to popular accountability and institutionalised uncertainty. In the meantime, we should all stare our wanton lawlessness in the face and realise that even this can be overcome, only if we try.



Dr Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

The New ArabComments

Most Popular

Most Popular

    Read More