Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Missing Pieces: China, Genetics and Development, and More

by Isobel Coleman
July 29, 2011

A high speed bullet train runs past a railway bridge past carriage wreckage (below) after two trains crashed and derailed in Wenzhou, China, July 25, 2011 (REUTERS/China Daily Information Corp – CDIC).

In this week’s Missing Pieces, Charles Landow, associate director of CFR’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative, highlights a wide range of stories and studies. Please let us know what you think of the selection, and feel free to suggest additional materials that you find interesting. We will put relevant items in a future post. Enjoy!

  • China’s Train Tragedy: A flood of commentary and analysis has followed last weekend’s crash of two high-speed trains in Zhejiang province. The disaster has intensified longstanding concerns about safety and corruption in the rush to build a high-speed rail network, which Beijing hopes will fuel China’s development and generate valuable technologies for export. Chinese authorities at first sought to bury the story–literally–before Premier Wen Jiabao visited the crash site and promised a transparent investigation. CFR’s Liz Economy writes in a sharp blog post about Chinese citizens’ skeptical reaction to the official handling of the crash. She advises the government to be forthcoming lest it sacrifice both export opportunities and its own legitimacy. A piece on Bloomberg chronicles the fallout across the spectrum of Chinese opinion. And a Financial Times article puts the crash in the context of China’s ambitions and struggles with high-speed rail.
  • The Genetics of Development: Is genetic diversity good for economic growth? In a provocative new working paper from the National Bureau for Economic Research, economists Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor tackle this question through the entire sweep of human history. The paper is based on the Out of Africa hypothesis, which posits that humans originated in East Africa, and the related finding that genetic diversity decreases with distance from this point of origin. Using a sample of 143 countries, the authors argue that genetic diversity has exercised an important impact on wealth today. An intermediate level of diversity is ideal for development, they find; more homogeneous and more heterogeneous societies tend to be less well-off. It appears this is because diversity has both positive and negative effects on an economy’s productivity: it can increase the “capacity for technological advancement” but also engender “reduced cooperation and efficiency.” Single-cause theories like this merit skepticism, but the paper is a thought-provoking read.
  • Poverty and State Failure: An article in this week’s Economist explores a counter-intuitive trend: not all failed or fragile states are extremely poor. Instead, a group of countries has reached middle-income status while remaining atrociously governed. As the article puts it, “once-poor states have grown richer, but no more functional.” Examples range from the tiny, such as Kiribati and São Tomé and Príncipe, to the huge and significant, such as Nigeria and Pakistan. The Economist argues that donors do not know how to tackle conflict and lingering poverty in these somewhat-developed, unstable contexts. Also of interest is a paper by Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz of the Brookings Institution that is cited in the article; it explores how poverty is increasingly concentrated in middle-income countries and fragile states. And for a rethinking of the conventional wisdom on state failure and its effects, see Weak Links, a new book by CFR’s Stewart Patrick.
  • Indonesia’s Technological Potential: Could Indonesia–a country of some 17,500 islands–become the Silicon Archipelago? Global Post reports on Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s visit to an entrepreneurship summit in Bali, where he talked up the “internet explosion” that he said will change Indonesia. As the Global Post piece and this Economist article note, Indonesia hosts the world’s second-largest number of Facebook users and third-largest number of Twitter users. The population–about 240 million and growing–is largely young and income is on the rise, driving huge demand for smartphones and related technologies. Indeed, as this other Global Post article points out, Indonesian start-ups are multiplying and attracting investment. But a common caveat runs through these analyses: Indonesia needs to improve its infrastructure and business climate if it is to become a technological hub. The country ranked 121st on the World Bank’s 2011 Doing Business survey, a decline of 6 places from its 2010 score.
  • Egypt’s Ongoing Struggle: Last week I highlighted a Freedom House brief on the shortcomings of Egypt’s transition to democracy. This week I turn to the New Yorker, where Wendell Steavenson offers a deep and illuminating look at the unfinished revolution. The piece explore the contest between the protesters, who continue to regularly occupy Tahrir Square, and Egypt’s military rulers, who seek to navigate between responsiveness to the people and preservation of the military’s political and economic interests. Egypt faces a daunting slate of issues, from contested electoral procedures to unemployment and sorely needed economic reforms. But if recent months are any guide, Egyptians will continue to forcefully assert their rights and aspirations, preserving hope that a prosperous and democratic country will emerge. Along these lines, CFR’s Steven Cook has a nice guest post on his blog about the significance–win or lose–of Bothaina Kamel, Egypt’s female presidential contender.

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