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: Syria’s Conflict, Latin America’s Cities, and More

by Isobel Coleman
September 12, 2011

Syrian government loyalists hold up placards during a protest outside the U.S. embassy in Damascus, July 11, 2011 (Courtesy Reuters).

In this week’s Missing Pieces, Charles Landow highlights the latest developments in Syria and Pakistan, as well as interesting scholarly work on other regions and issues. I hope you enjoy the selection and look forward to your comments.

  • Syria’s Political Perspectives: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has managed to retain power through six months of rebellion and the fall of three fellow Arab autocrats. The New York Times last week offered a fascinating glimpse at a central reason why: many Damascus elites support Assad’s regime and deny that their country is in upheaval. The piece explores the views of clients at a fancy Damascus salon, where the debate centers not on democracy but on nail polish. Some agree with the government that protesters are seeking to foment division. Others are minorities, such as Christians, who fear life under Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority in a post-Assad era. The article gives a starkly different perspective from most news reports on Syria, making it a valuable read. For a longer but no less worthwhile look at the country’s revolutionary stirrings, see Wendell Steavenson’s “Roads to Freedom” in the August 29 issue of the New Yorker. It offers a nuanced portrait of several leading revolutionaries, ending on an optimistic note for Syria’s future.
  • Latin America’s Cities: China’s booming cities rightfully draw considerable attention. But Latin America’s cities are equally crucial, if not more so, to their region’s future prosperity. So suggests a new McKinsey Global Institute report, “Building Globally Competitive Cities: The Key to Latin American Growth.” The study notes that Latin America is by far the most heavily urbanized developing region. Its ten largest cities generate about 30 percent of its GDP, some 10 points higher than the analogous figure for China. This means that creating solid jobs in Latin America’s cities and managing their urban woes is essential for sustainable growth and social cohesion, the report argues. But many big cities that were once engines of growth have slipped because of uncoordinated planning, insufficient funding for infrastructure and public services, and other shortcomings. To combat these ills and boost job creation, the study recommends reforms in four areas: economic performance, social conditions, sustainable resource use, and urban governance. Fortunately, there are sound policies from cities around the region that can serve as examples. An article in McKinsey Quarterly sums it all up.
  • Humanitarian Relief by Phone: It seems obvious where to deliver humanitarian assistance to refugees and the displaced following a disaster. But this is not always as simple as it seems in isolated and chaotic locations. A new study in the PLoS Medicine journal offers a novel solution: tracking people through position data from their mobile phones. The co-authors analyzed data from SIM cards in Haiti before and after the January 2010 earthquake. They tracked almost 200,000 cards that were in Port-au-Prince before the quake but not after, corresponding to about 630,000 people who fled the capital because of the disaster. The SIM cards suggested a population distribution much different from a Haitian government estimate at the time that was used to direct relief. But the SIM card results were similar to a more comprehensive UN Population Fund study done later. This means that standard estimates might send supplies to the wrong places and that phones could be a better way to track vulnerable people after disasters, at least in places where mobile phone use is reasonably high. The authors do offer some important caveats. For example, women, the elderly, and the poor often have fewer phones than other groups.
  • Karachi’s Enduring Violence: The problems in Pakistan’s northwest tend to monopolize headlines, but the southern port of Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city, is facing serious strife of its own. A BBC headline from March captures it well: “Karachi: Pakistan’s untold story of violence.” Hundreds have died in a simmering political-ethnic conflict driven by the city’s main political parties, each of which largely represents an ethnic group and uses violence to advance its interests. The authorities have recently gone on the offensive; last week, police continued a series of raids to arrest suspects and seize weapons and equipment. According to the Express Tribune in Pakistan, almost 30 “target killers” and more than 650 other suspects have been arrested since August 23. Pakistan’s Supreme Court also launched an inquiry into the violence last week, and there is talk of deploying the army. But as Pakistani analyst Mosharraf Zaidi argues in this recent interview, the roots of the violence lie in poor governance. “The state’s ability to enforce the rule of law is significantly compromised,” Zaidi says. He contends that more effective police, judicial institutions, and prisons are all needed to break the cycle of conflict.
  • Education and Political Leadership: Democracy’s proponents cite many virtues: freedom, accountability, rule of law, tolerance for robust debate. An article in the new American Political Science Review adds another: democracies, it seems, tend to have more highly educated leaders. The authors examine 1,468 national leaders between 1848 and 2004. They find that democracies are 22 percent more likely than autocracies to have a leader with a graduate degree and 12 percent more likely to have a leader with at least a college education. Interestingly, leaders in democracies are also 12 percent more likely to have studied abroad. And when countries transition from autocracy to democracy, the educational level of their leaders tends to jump. The authors suggest that the higher educational attainment of democratic leaders produces higher-quality government, but they acknowledge that this needs further study. Perhaps some future leaders can pursue their Ph.D. research on this question.

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