Why Nations Fail

date May 6, 2016
authors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinsonn
reading time 35 mins

Colonization and gold

It was Smith who was the first to realize that the model of colonization that had worked so well for Cortés and Pizarro simply would not work in North America. The underlying circumstances were just too different. Smith noted that, unlike the Aztecs and Incas, the peoples of Virginia did not have gold.

People » Treasures

There was no possibility of a get-rich-quick exploitation of Virginia along the lines of Mexico and Peru. There were no gold or precious metals, and the indigenous people could not be forced to work or provide food. Smith realized that if there were going to be a viable colony, it was the colonists who would have to work. He therefore pleaded with the directors to send the right sort of people: “When you send againe I entreat you rather to send some thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided, then a thousand of such as we have.”

Create institutions

It took the Virginia Company twelve years to learn its first lesson that what had worked for the Spanish in Mexico and in Central and South America would not work in the north. The rest of the seventeenth century saw a long series of struggles over the second lesson: that the only option for an economically viable colony was to create institutions that gave the colonists incentives to invest and to work hard.

History has an impact on the current

It should now be apparent that it is not a coincidence that the United States, and not Mexico, adopted and enforced a constitution that espoused democratic principles, created limitations on the use of political power, and distributed that power broadly in society.

Sign of progress - when people of all background succeed

The striking thing about the evidence on patenting in the United States is that people who were granted patents came from all sorts of backgrounds and all walks of life, not just the rich and the elite. Many made fortunes based on their patents. Take Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonogram and the lightbulb and the founder of General Electric, still one of the world’s largest companies.

Colonization to post-colonization holds the same principles

Díaz violated people’s property rights, facilitating the expropriation of vast amounts of land, and he granted monopolies and favors to his supporters in all lines of business, including banking. There was nothing new about this behavior. This is exactly what Spanish conquistadors had done, and what Santa Ana did in their footsteps.

Public accountability

Politicians tried to set up state banking monopolies, which they could give to their friends and partners in exchange for part of the monopoly profits. The banks also quickly got into the business of lending money to the politicians who regulated them, just as in Mexico. But this situation was not sustainable in the United States, because the politicians who attempted to create these banking monopolies, unlike their Mexican counterparts, were subject to election and reelection.


Revolutions, expropriations, and political instability came along with military governments and various types of dictatorships. Though there was also a gradual drift toward greater political rights, it was only in the 1990s that most Latin American countries became democracies, and even then they remain mired in instability.

Political institutions –> economic institutions –> economic incentives

Economic institutions shape economic incentives: the incentives to become educated, to save and invest, to innovate and adopt new technologies, and so on. It is the political process that determines what economic institutions people live under, and it is the political institutions that determine how this process works.

Talent + incentives (removing barriers)

Bill Gates, like other legendary figures in the information technology industry (such as Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Jeff Bezos), had immense talent and ambition. But he ultimately responded to incentives. The schooling system in the United States enabled Gates and others like him to acquire a unique set of skills to complement their talents. The economic institutions in the United States enabled these men to start companies with ease, without facing insurmountable barriers.

What are the obstacles?

For one thing, they made sure that there was no risk of a dictator taking power and changing the rules of the game, expropriating their wealth, imprisoning them, or threatening their lives and livelihoods. They also made sure that no particular interest in society could warp the government in an economically disastrous direction,

Not people, but policies!

Though it is not politically correct to articulate in public, many people still maintain that Africans are poor because they lack a good work ethic, still believe in witchcraft and magic, or resist new Western technologies. Many also believe that Latin America will never be rich because its people are intrinsically profligate and impecunious, and because they suffer from some “Iberian” or “mañana” culture. Of course, many once believed that the Chinese culture and Confucian values were inimical to economic growth, though now the importance of the Chinese work ethic as the engine of growth in China, Hong Kong, and Singapore is trumpeted.

Why people’s cultural beliefs does not matter? Korea as an example!

Before the Korean War and the division at the 38th parallel, it had an unprecedented homogeneity in terms of language, ethnicity, and culture. Just as in Nogales, what matters is the border. To the north is a different regime, imposing different institutions, creating different incentives.

No incentives to work hard and improve

The real reason that the Kongolese did not adopt superior technology was because they lacked any incentives to do so. They faced a high risk of all their output being expropriated and taxed by the all-powerful king, whether or not he had converted to Catholicism. In fact, it wasn’t only their property that was insecure. Their continued existence was held by a thread. Many of them were captured and sold as slaves—hardly the environment to encourage investment to increase long-term productivity.

History and the culture of trust

It might be true today that Africans trust each other less than people in other parts of the world. But this is an outcome of a long history of institutions which have undermined human and property rights in Africa. The potential to be captured and sold as a slave no doubt influenced the extent to which Africans trusted others

Politics / policies » Advice!

Their economic reforms, which created market incentives in agriculture and then subsequently in industry, followed from this political revolution. It was politics that determined the switch from communism and toward market incentives in China, not better advice or a better understanding of how the economy worked.

Incentives that motivate people are different because of institutions

Countries differ in their economic success because of their different institutions, the rules influencing how the economy works, and the incentives that motivate people.

What are inclusive economic policies?

Inclusive economic institutions, such as those in South Korea or in the United States, are those that allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish. To be inclusive, economic institutions must feature secure private property, an unbiased system of law, and a provision of public services that provides a level playing field in which people can exchange and contract; it also must permit the entry of new businesses and allow people to choose their careers.

Secure private property

Secure private property rights are central, since only those with such rights will be willing to invest and increase productivity. A businessman who expects his output to be stolen, expropriated, or entirely taxed away will have little incentive to work, let alone any incentive to undertake investments and innovations.

What is inclusive economic institutions?

Inclusive economic institutions require secure property rights and economic opportunities not just for the elite but for a broad cross-section of society. Secure property rights, the law, public services, and the freedom to contract and exchange all rely on the state, the institution with the coercive capacity to impose order, prevent theft and fraud, and enforce contracts between private parties.

What happens when there’s no equal private property?

Private property is nonexistent in North Korea. In colonial Latin America there was private property for Spaniards, but the property of the indigenous peoples was highly insecure. In neither type of society was the vast mass of people able to make the economic decisions they wanted to; they were subject to mass coercion.

political power distributed

In contrast, political institutions that distribute power broadly in society and subject it to constraints are pluralistic. Instead of being vested in a single individual or a narrow group, political power rests with a broad coalition or a plurality of groups.

Suppression also means exclusion of the very same people

the plantation system based on the exploitation of slaves could not have survived without political institutions that suppressed and completely excluded the slaves from the political process.

Why are technological changes met with obstacles?

Even though mechanization led to enormous increases in total incomes and ultimately became the foundation of modern industrial society, it was bitterly opposed by many. Not because of ignorance or shortsightedness; quite the opposite. Rather, such opposition to economic growth has its own, unfortunately coherent, logic. Economic growth and technological change are accompanied by what the great economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction. They replace the old with the new.

Before Industrial Revolution

On the eve of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, the governments of most European countries were controlled by aristocracies and traditional elites

aristocracy and artisans

With their economic and political power under threat, these elites often formed a formidable opposition against industrialization. The aristocracy was not the only loser from industrialization. Artisans whose manual skills were being replaced by mechanization likewise opposed the spread of industry.

Power and progress

The success and failure of specific groups notwithstanding, one lesson is clear: powerful groups often stand against economic progress and against the engines of prosperity.

Political centralisation might have growth

It is worth noting that political centralization is key to both ways in which growth under extractive political institutions can occur.

Extractive institutions and temporary growth

Even though extractive institutions can generate some growth, they will usually not generate sustained economic growth, and certainly not the type of growth that is accompanied by creative destruction. When both political and economic institutions are extractive, the incentives will not be there for creative destruction and technological change.

Revolution and the change after

This changed after the Glorious Revolution. The government adopted a set of economic institutions that provided incentives for investment, trade, and innovation. It steadfastly enforced property rights, including patents granting property rights for ideas, thereby providing a major stimulus to innovation. It protected law and order.

Paving the way for Industrial Revolution

Arbitrary taxation ceased, and monopolies were abolished almost completely. The English state aggressively promoted mercantile activities and worked to promote domestic industry, not only by removing barriers to the expansion of industrial activity but also by lending the full power of the English navy to defend mercantile interests. By rationalizing property rights, it facilitated the construction of infrastructure, particularly roads, canals, and later railways, that would prove to be crucial for industrial growth. These foundations decisively changed incentives for people and impelled the engines of prosperity, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution.

James Watt and his motivation

This letter reveals two things. First, Watt was motivated by the market opportunities he anticipated, by the “considerable demand” in Great Britain and its plantations, the English overseas colonies. Second, it shows how he was able to influence Parliament to get what he wanted since it was responsive to the appeals of individuals and innovators.

English trading vs Spain / France

Elizabeth I and her successors could not monopolize the trade with the Americas. Other European monarchs could. So while in England, Atlantic trade and colonization started creating a large group of wealthy traders with few links to the Crown, this was not the case in Spain or France. The English traders resented royal control and demanded changes in political institutions and the restriction of royal prerogatives. They played a critical role in the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution.

Why no sustained technological changes?

The most important lesson is that extractive institutions cannot generate sustained technological change for two reasons: the lack of economic incentives and resistance by the elites. In addition, once all the very inefficiently used resources had been reallocated to industry, there were few economic gains to be had by fiat.

Coercion cannot create new ideas

Though you can move someone to a factory, you cannot force people to think and have good ideas by threatening to shoot them. Coercion like this might have generated a high output of sugar in Barbados or Jamaica, but it could not compensate for the lack of incentives in a modern industrial economy.

Farming + settings down led to many other social innovations

After societies became sedentary and started farming, they began to develop political hierarchy, religion, and significantly more complex institutions.


By the late second century BC, the situation had reached a dangerous boiling point, both because the gap between rich and poor had widened to unprecedented levels and because there were hordes of discontented citizens in Rome ready to rebel in response to these injustices and turn against the Roman aristocracy. But political power rested with the rich landowners of the senatorial class, who were the beneficiaries of the changes that had gone on over the last two centuries. Most had no intention of changing the system that had served them so well.

More barriers of protection means more instability

The rising instability was evident from the layout and location of towns and cities in the empire. By the third century AD every sizeable city in the empire had a defensive wall. In many cases monuments were plundered for stone, which was used in fortifications.

Slavery and incentives

It is perhaps telling that both of these examples came soon after the collapse of the Republic. The Roman emperors had far more power to block change than the Roman rulers during the Republic. Another important reason for the lack of technological innovation was the prevalence of slavery. As the territories Romans controlled expanded, vast numbers were enslaved, often being brought back to Italy to work on large estates. Many citizens in Rome did not need to work: they lived off the handouts from the government.

Critical junctures

The fall of the Roman Empire was a crucial part of these common critical junctures. This European path contrasts with paths in other parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Americas, which developed differently partly because they did not face the same critical junctures.

obsessed with the idea for mechanisation textile prodiction

I watched my mother and my sisters sitting in the evening twilight plying their needles. If garments were made by two needles and one line of thread, why not several needles to take up the thread.” This momentous thought was the beginning of the mechanization of textile production. Lee became obsessed with making a machine that would free people from endless hand-knitting. He recalled, “My duties to Church and family I began to neglect. The idea of my machine and the creating of it ate into my heart and brain.”

Fear of loosing jobs

Carey arranged for Queen Elizabeth to come see the machine, but her reaction was devastating. She refused to grant Lee a patent, instead observing, “Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.” Crushed, Lee moved to France to try his luck there; when he failed there, too, he returned to England, where he asked James I (1603–1625), Elizabeth’s successor, for a patent.

Replacement of old with new

The fear of creative destruction is the main reason why there was no sustained increase in living standards between the Neolithic and Industrial revolutions. Technological innovation makes human societies prosperous, but also involves the replacement of the old with the new, and the destruction of the economic privileges and political power of certain people.

Seperation of Church and state

The removal of the power of the Church was part of making the state more centralized. This centralization of state institutions meant that for the first time, inclusive political institutions became possible. This process initiated by Henry VII and Henry VIII not only centralized state institutions but also increased the demand for broader-based political representation.

Access of Parliament for the common people

Even more important than the interest of parliamentarians was the emerging pluralistic nature of political institutions. The English people now had access to Parliament, and the policy and economic institutions made in Parliament, in a way they never had when policy was driven by the king.

Anybody could petition

Anybody could petition Parliament, and petition they did. Significantly, when people petitioned, Parliament listened. It is this more than anything that reflects the defeat of absolutism, the empowerment of a fairly broad segment of society, and the rise of pluralism in England after 1688.

Banks as a source for loans for new businesses

Another priority of Parliament was reforming finance. Though there had been an expansion of banking and finance in the period leading up to the Glorious Revolution, this process was further cemented by the creation of the Bank of England in 1694, as a source of funds for industry.

Much of the loans were not for the elite!

The records of a relatively small bank, C. Hoare’s & Co. in London, which have survived intact from the period 1702–1724, illustrate this point. Though the bank did lend money to aristocrats and lords, fully two-thirds of the biggest borrowers from Hoare’s over this period were not from the privileged social classes.

Property Rights and level playing field

Property rights were much more secure after 1688, partly because securing them was consistent with the interests of Parliament and partly because pluralistic institutions could be influenced by petitioning. We see here that after 1688 the political system became significantly more pluralistic and created a relatively level playing field within England.

Technology + Organization innovation

It was the growth in this sector that pulled ahead the whole economy. The combination of technological and organizational innovation provides the model for economic progress that transformed the economies of the world that became rich.

New technology might not be from veterans

Just as the great canal engineers had no previous connection to transportation, neither did the great road and railway engineers. John McAdam, who invented tarmac around 1816, was the second son of a minor aristocrat. The first steam train was built by Richard Trevithick in 1804. Trevithick’s father was involved in mining in Cornwall, and Richard entered the same business at an early age, becoming fascinated by steam engines used for pumping out the mines.

Factories - organisational innovation

Only about one-fifth of the leading industrialists at this time had previously been involved in anything like manufacturing activities. This is not surprising. For one, the cotton industry developed in new towns in the north of England. Factories were a completely new way of organizing production.

Rising people will also want to block others

These inclusive economic institutions gave men of talent and vision such as James Watt the opportunity and incentive to develop their skills and ideas and influence the system in ways that benefited them and the nation. Naturally these men, once they had become successful, had the same urges as any other person. They wanted to block others from entering their businesses and competing against them and feared the process of creative destruction that might put them out of business, as they had previously bankrupted others.

Printing press and literacy

After Gutenberg’s invention, things began to change. Books were printed and became more readily available. Without this innovation, mass literacy and education would have been impossible. In Western Europe, the importance of the printing press was quickly recognized. In 1460 there was already a printing press across the border, in Strasbourg, France. By the late 1460s the technology had spread throughout Italy, with presses in Rome and Venice, soon followed by Florence, Milan, and Turin.

opposition to technology == mass illiteracy

Until well into the second half of the nineteenth century, book production in the Ottoman Empire was still primarily undertaken by scribes hand-copying existing books. In the early eighteenth century, there were reputed to be eighty thousand such scribes active in Istanbul. This opposition to the printing press had the obvious consequences for literacy, education, and economic success. In 1800 probably only 2 to 3 percent of the citizens of the Ottoman Empire were literate, compared with 60 percent of adult males and 40 percent of adult females in England.

Knowledge = rising social status

Given the highly absolutist and extractive Ottoman institutions, the sultan’s hostility to the printing press is easy to understand. Books spread ideas and make the population much harder to control. Some of these ideas may be valuable new ways to increase economic growth, but others may be subversive and challenge the existing political and social status quo.

Some rose, some opposed

THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION created a critical juncture that affected almost every country. Some nations, such as England, not only allowed, but actively encouraged, commerce, industrialization, and entrepreneurship, and grew rapidly. Many, such as the Ottoman Empire, China, and other absolutist regimes, lagged behind as they blocked or at the very least did nothing to encourage the spread of industry.

How to rule over educated masses? Fear…

When the English philanthropist Robert Owen tried to convince the Austrian government to adopt some social reforms in order to ameliorate the conditions of poor people, one of Metternich’s assistants, Friedrich von Gentz, replied, “We do not desire at all that the great masses shall become well off and independent … How could we otherwise rule over them?”

Stability vs creative destruction

The opposition to industry and steam railways stemmed from Francis’s concern about the creative destruction that accompanied the development of a modern economy. His main priorities were ensuring the stability of the extractive institutions over which he ruled and protecting the advantages of the traditional elites who supported him.

Technological advancement only due to dire needs

The policy against railways was only reversed after Russia’s conclusive defeat by British, French, and Ottoman forces in the Crimean War, 1853–1856, when the backwardness of its transportation network was understood to be a serious liability for Russian security. There was also little railway development in Austria-Hungary outside of Austria and the western parts of the empire, though the 1848 Revolutions had brought change to these territories, particularly the abolition of serfdom.

Fear of international trade

The reasoning of the Ming and Qing states for opposing international trade is by now familiar: the fear of creative destruction. The leaders’ primary aim was political stability. International trade was potentially destabilizing as merchants were enriched and emboldened, as they were in England during the era of Atlantic expansion.

Effects of slavery seen years into the century

Though it took some time for these measures to be truly effective, and it was not until 1834 that slavery itself was abolished in the British Empire, the days of the Atlantic slave trade, by far the largest part of the trade, were numbered. Though the end of the slave trade after 1807 did reduce the external demand for slaves from Africa, this did not mean that slavery’s impact on African societies and institutions would magically melt away.

World inequality today == Industrial revolution

World inequality today exists because during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some nations were able to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution and the technologies and methods of organization that it brought while others were unable to do so.

Rights for the convicts!

The guards thus embarked on a path that would ultimately lead to institutions that were even more inclusive than those back in Britain. Convicts were given a set of tasks to do, and if they had extra time, they could work for themselves and sell what they produced. The guards also benefited from the convicts’ new economic freedoms. Production increased, and the guards set up monopolies to sell goods to the convicts.

New Australia! Rights for the convicts

There were no serfs as in Austria-Hungary and Russia, and no large indigenous populations to exploit as in Mexico and Peru. Instead, New South Wales was like Jamestown, Virginia, in many ways: the elite ultimately found it in their interest to create economic institutions that were significantly more inclusive than those in Austria-Hungary, Russia, Mexico, and Peru. Convicts were the only labor force, and the only way to incentivize them was to pay them wages for the work they were doing.

Convicts in Australia

Convicts were soon allowed to become entrepreneurs and hire other convicts. More notably, they were even given land after completing their sentences, and they had all their rights restored. Some of them started to get rich, even the illiterate Henry Cable.

Different taxes and laws for different groups…

For the three centuries prior to 1789, France was ruled by an absolutist monarchy. French society was divided into three segments, the so-called estates. The aristocrats (the nobility) made up the First Estate, the clergy the Second Estate, and everybody else the Third Estate. Different estates were subject to different laws, and the first two estates had rights that the rest of the population did not. The nobility and the clergy did not pay taxes, while the citizens had to pay several different taxes, as we would expect from a regime that was largely extractive.

Revolution and change there after…

The forces unleashed by the revolution of 1789 ended French absolutism and would inevitably, even if slowly, lead to the emergence of inclusive institutions. France, and those parts of Europe where the revolutionary reforms had been exported, would thus take part in the industrialization process already under way in the nineteenth century.

Japan and progress…

In 1869 the equality of all social classes before the law was introduced, and restrictions on internal migration and trade were abolished. The samurai class was abolished, though not without having to put down some rebellions. Individual property rights on land were introduced, and people were allowed freedom to enter and practice any trade. The state became heavily involved in the construction of infrastructure.

Meji Restoration in Japan

If China reacted to the Industrial Revolution as Eastern Europe did, Japan reacted in the same way as Western Europe. Just as in France, it took a revolution to change the system, this time one led by the renegade lords of the Satsuma, Chōshū, Tosa, and Aki domains. These lords overthrew the shogun, created the Meiji Restoration, and moved Japan onto the path of institutional reforms and economic growth.

Divergence and inequality

The institutional dynamics we have described ultimately determined which countries took advantage of the major opportunities present in the nineteenth century onward and which ones failed to do so. The roots of the world inequality we observe today can be found in this divergence. With a few exceptions, the rich countries of today are those that embarked on the process of industrialization and technological change starting in the nineteenth century, and the poor ones are those that did not.

What does progress mean?

This then leads to a more equal distribution of income, empowering a broad segment of society and making the political playing field even more level. This limits what one can achieve by usurping political power and reduces the incentives to re-create extractive political institutions.

Virtue in gradual change

There is great virtue in this sort of gradual change. It is less threatening to the elite than the wholesale overthrow of the system. Each step is small, and it makes sense to give in to a small demand rather than create a major showdown.

Gradual change pros and cons

Gradual change also prevented ventures into uncharted territories. A violent overthrow of the system means that something entirely new has to be built in place of what has been removed. This was the case with the French Revolution, when the first experiment with democracy led to the Terror and then back to a monarchy twice before finally leading to the French Third Republic in 1870.

Free market can become non-inclusive! Capitalism?

Markets, left to their own devices, can cease to be inclusive, becoming increasingly dominated by the economically and politically powerful. Inclusive economic institutions require not just markets, but inclusive markets that create a level playing field and economic opportunities for the majority of the people.

Inclusive systems are more persistent

The outcome of political conflict is never certain, and even if in hindsight we see many historical events as inevitable, the path of history is contingent. Nevertheless, once in place, inclusive economic and political institutions tend to create a virtuous circle, a process of positive feedback, making it more likely that these institutions will persist and even expand.

geography or policy?

The political scientist Robert Bates set out in the 1980s to understand why agriculture was so unproductive in Africa even though according to textbook economics this ought to have been the most dynamic economic sector. He realized that this had nothing to do with geography or the sorts of factors discussed in chapter 2 that have been claimed to make agricultural productivity intrinsically low. Rather, it was simply because the pricing policies of the marketing boards removed any incentives for the farmers to invest, use fertilizers, or preserve the soil.

De Beers and Diamond monopoly!

Happily ignoring the intrinsically democratic nature of panning for diamonds, the British government set up a monopoly for the entire protectorate, called it the Sierra Leone Selection Trust, and granted it to De Beers, the giant South African diamond mining company. In 1936 De Beers was also given the right to create the Diamond Protection Force, a private army that would become larger than that of the colonial government in Sierra Leone.

postindependence leaders are similar to the colonial leaders - not better!

It is not only that many of the postindependence leaders of Africa moved into the same residences, made use of the same patronage networks, and employed the same ways of manipulating markets and extracting resources as had the colonial regimes and the emperors they replaced; but they also made things worse. It was indeed a farce that the staunchly anticolonial Stevens would be concerned with controlling the same people, the Mende, whom the British had sought to control; that he would rely on the same chiefs whom the British had empowered and then used to control the hinterland; that he would run the economy in the same way, expropriating the farmers with the same marketing boards and controlling the diamonds under a similar monopoly.

Extractive institutions == more civil wars

When extractive institutions create huge inequalities in society and great wealth and unchecked power for those in control, there will be many wishing to fight to take control of the state and institutions. Extractive institutions then not only pave the way for the next regime, which will be even more extractive, but they also engender continuous infighting and civil wars.

Why nations fail?

NATIONS FAIL TODAY because their extractive economic institutions do not create the incentives needed for people to save, invest, and innovate. Extractive political institutions support these economic institutions by cementing the power of those who benefit from the extraction.

The Cuban leadership history…

kidnapped a dairy farmer, Jesus Castaño, who lived in a small town called Amalfi in the hot country in the northeastern part of the department of Antioquia. The FARC demanded a ransom amounting to $7,500, a small fortune in rural Colombia. The family raised it by mortgaging the farm, but their father’s corpse was found anyway, chained to a tree. Enough was enough for three of Castaño’s sons, Carlos, Fidel, and Vicente. They founded a paramilitary group, Los Tangueros, to hunt down members of the FARC and avenge this act. The brothers were good at organizing, and soon their group grew and began to find a common interest with other similar paramilitary groups that had developed from similar causes.

Communism and poverty

It is impossible to understand many of the poorest regions of the world at the end of the twentieth century without understanding the new absolutism of the twentieth century: communism. Marx’s vision was a system that would generate prosperity under more humane conditions and without inequality. Lenin and his Communist Party were inspired by Marx, but the practice could not have been more different from the theory.

Rebirth of China

The rebirth of China came with a significant move away from one of the most extractive set of economic institutions and toward more inclusive ones. Market incentives in agriculture and industry, then followed by foreign investment and technology, would set China on a path to rapid economic growth.

Challenges in China’s progress?

Despite the recent emphasis in China on innovation and technology, Chinese growth is based on the adoption of existing technologies and rapid investment, not creative destruction. An important aspect of this is that property rights are not entirely secure in China.

inclusive economic policies but extractive political policies

Such growth was feasible partly because there was a lot of catching up to be done. Growth under extractive institutions is easier when creative destruction is not a necessity. Chinese economic institutions are certainly more inclusive than those in the Soviet Union, but China’s political institutions are still extractive.

Incentives and constraints

the main obstacle to the adoption of policies that would reduce market failures and encourage economic growth is not the ignorance of politicians, but the incentives and constraints they face from the political and economic institutions in their societies.

implementing change is difficult - not always corrupt politicians

What this episode illustrates is a micro version of the difficulty of implementing meaningful changes when institutions are the cause of the problems in the first place. In this case, it was not corrupt politicians or powerful businesses undermining institutional reform, but rather, the local health administration and nurses who were able to sabotage Seva Mandir’s and the development economists’ incentive scheme. This suggests that many of the micro-market failures that are apparently easy to fix may be illusory: the institutional structure that creates market failures will also prevent implementation of interventions to improve incentives at the micro level. Attempting to engineer prosperity without confronting the root cause of the problems—extractive institutions and the politics that keeps them in place—is unlikely to bear fruit.

Where are the funds?

Things were looking up for Afghanistan. A majority of the Afghan people were longing to leave the Taliban behind. The international community thought that all that Afghanistan needed now was a large infusion of foreign aid. Representatives from the United Nations and several leading NGOs soon descended on the capital, Kabul. What ensued should not have been a surprise, especially given the failure of foreign aid to poor countries and failed states over the past five decades. Surprise or not, the usual ritual was repeated. Scores of aid workers and their entourages arrived in town with their own private jets, NGOs of all sorts poured in to pursue their own agendas, and high-level talks began between governments and delegations from the international community. Billions of dollars were now coming to Afghanistan. But little of it was used for building infrastructure, schools, or other public services essential for the development of inclusive institutions or even for restoring law and order. While much of the infrastructure remained in tatters, the first tranche of the money was used to commission an airline to shuttle around UN and other international officials.

How was the foreign aid spent?

So what had happened to the millions of dollars promised to the villagers? Of the promised money, 20 percent of it was taken as UN head office costs in Geneva. The remainder was subcontracted to an NGO, which took another 20 percent for its own head office costs in Brussels, and so on, for another three layers, with each party taking approximately another 20 percent of what was remaining.

Wasted in overhead and corruption

The Afghan experience with aid was in fact probably a qualified success compared to others. Throughout the last five decades, hundreds of billions of dollars have been paid to governments around the world as “development” aid. Much of it has been wasted in overhead and corruption, just as in Afghanistan.