Despite many changes in today’s modern global economy developmental states are needed more than ever


In the fall of 2017, SPERI’s Matthew Bishop and Anthony Payne gathered essays from a group of nine development economists who produced essays on ‘Revisiting the developmental state’ (SPERI Paper No. 43). They drew upon a body of work published on the SPERI Comment blog and in other publications about the state’s appropriate role in development and the nature of a modern industrial strategy. The essays examined the current status of the notion of a ‘developmental state’ in today’s contemporary context of globalization. This article reviews the series, highlights some key takeaways, and considers some other elements that were not addressed by the essays.Read More »

Neoliberalism or Neocolonialism? Evaluating Neoliberalism as a Policy Prescription for Convergence

Melton_Prior_-_Illustrated_London_News_-_The_Transvaal_War_-_General_Sir_George_Colley_at_the_Battle_of_Majuba_Mountain_Just_Before_He_Was_Killed.jpgBradford deLong has recently argued that neoliberalism provides a way for former colonies to close the gaps with their erstwhile colonial masters. But this argument ignores the fact that several economic policies of colonial times were explicitly laissez-faire in nature.

The recognition of the dangers of allowing finance a free hand in the economy has led to a rethink of the soundness of neoliberalism as an economic and policy doctrine, from no less an organisation such as the IMF. Dani Rodrik has attacked the theoretical foundations of neoliberalism itself, judging that its insistence on allowing for unhindered market activity is bad economics itself, for economic models that make a theoretical case for markets cannot be easily transplanted into the real world in the way that advocates of neoliberalism believe.

Yet this is not to say that the concept is dead and buried. As Harvey (2007) points out, neoliberalism is a political economic process that ostensibly seeks to organise society and economies around the principle of free market activity, while primarily attempting to shift the balance of power towards dominant economic classes that control capital. Seen in this light, neoliberalism is still a powerful force shaping political and economic changes in much of the world today.

Bradford deLong’s blog post, first published in 1998 and re-published now shows that the term “neoliberalism” still carries intellectual currency. His is a curious argument; neoliberalism provides the only suitable path for countries of the developing world to close the gap with their former colonial powers. Access to the latest goods and technology allows developing economies – with low levels of productivity – to boost productivity and output growth, and consequently incomes. The reason the State should stay away from the economic sphere in the developing world is because democratic institutions have not been established yet, and hence the political sphere is vulnerable to capture by elites.Read More »

Revisiting the Battles and Cycles of Development

Cycles.jpegWalt Rostow (1959) infamously put forth a five-stage theory of economic development, extrapolating from the experiences of the great industrialized nations. However, as dependency theories strongly pointed out, the conditions under which those countries industrialized is significantly different from those that prevailed after decolonization. In addition to this, democratic capitalism experiences turbulence, which I argue makes development under this global system a struggle against powers and against what I call “Burawoyan Cycles”.Read More »

Historicising the Aid Debate: South Korea as a Successful Aid Recipient


‘The principal enemy is orthodoxy: to use the same recipe, administer the same therapy, to resolve the most various types of problems; never to admit complexity and try to reduce it as much as possible, while ignoring that things are always more complicated in reality.
Albert O. Hirschman (1998:110)

It’s clear from last week’s blog posts by Duncan Green that he is tired of academic critique against aid which have not been translated into concrete solutions (see here and here). However, the problem with his ‘marmite’ approach to addressing very complex problems is that it leads to reductive debates which are more symptomatic of the problem than constructive ways of finding solutions. Following Pablo Yanguas’ synthesis of research approaches I thought of taking a step back and analyzing the case of a successful aid recipient, South Korea.  I do this in hope of moving away from the ‘literature’ – which Duncan finds overbearing – as well as getting away from the linearity of the contemporary monitoring and evaluation approach used by the aid sector. Read More »

Increasing and Diminishing Returns – Africa’s Opportunity to Develop

A drone shot of colorful shipping containers in a shipping terminal

‘This tendency to Diminishing Returns was the cause of Abraham’s parting from Lot, and of most of the migrations of which history tells’ wrote the founder of neo-classical economics, Alfred Marshall, in the first edition of his textbook Principles of Economics (1890). In a footnote he refers to the Bible’s Genesis xiii : 6: ‘And the land was not able to bear them that they might dwell together; for their substance was great so they could not dwell together’. (Marshall 1890: 201)

Marshall’s observation also applies to today’s migration patterns: from countries where most activities are subject to constant or diminishing returns to countries whose key economic activities are subject to increasing returns to scale. Diminishing returns occur when one factor of production is limited by nature, which means that it occurs in agriculture, mining, and fisheries. Normally the best land, the best ore, and the richest fishing grounds are exploited first, and – after a point – the more a country specialises in these activities, the poorer it gets. OECD (2018) shows how this occurs in Chilean copper mining: every ton of copper is produced with a higher cost than the previous ton.

In Alfred Marshall’s theory, the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’ is juxtaposed with ‘The Law of Increasing Returns’, also called economies of scale. Here we find the opposite phenomenon; the larger the volume of production, the cheaper the next unit of production becomes. Traditionally economies of scale were mainly found in manufacturing industry, and increasing returns combined with technological change has for centuries been the main driving force of economic growth. Increasing returns creates imperfect competition, market power and large barriers to entry for challengers – companies or nations – making it difficult for them to enter these industries. In contrast to the rents produced under conditions of increasing returns, raw materials – commodities – on the other hand, are subject to perfect markets, and productivity improvements spread as lowered prices. This is the essence of the theory which explains why former World Bank Chief Economist Justin Yifu Lin was correct hen he asserted that ‘Except for a few oil-exporting countries, no countries have ever gotten rich without industrialization first’ (Lin 2012 : 350).Read More »

A Critical Review on the documentary “Poverty, Inc.”


The documentary “Poverty, Inc.” has become so influential that it is now part of many courses at the university level. The good news is that at universities we apply critical thinking to the information we receive (or we are supposed to). As a development economist, I share here my views on this famous documentary.

On the positive side, the documentary does a good job in making some points for an audience unfamiliar with economic theory, such as the idea that dependency does not end poverty, or that current foreign aid (money flows between governments) has “unintended consequences that do more harm than good.” However, both ideas are not new in development studies. The much quoted “teach a human to fish” is an idea associated with many philosophers, including Maimonides (about 850 years ago). This criticism of the structure of current foreign aid is a relatively old idea in the development literature. Perhaps the best point made by the documentary is the argument that Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) can do a better job if they base their strategies on effective communications with local entities, although this idea is not new either.

What are, then, the problems with this documentary? Many. Firstly, the development literature has two main perspectives; namely, the conservative and the progressive. A documentary that omits a whole branch of argumentation is not responsible and carries “unintended consequences,” such as misinforming that unfamiliar audience. Besides mentioning supranational entities, the documentary did not expose crucial structural problems: there is no serious analysis on geopolitics, global power relations, or class issues, among others. A class analysis would not, for instance, focus on stressing that “NGOs need the poor to exist” but that “the rich need the poor to exist”.Read More »

Premature Deindustrialization and its Consequences for Human Welfare

Seagate_Wuxi_China_Factory_Tour.jpegRecent research suggests that late industrializers have not been following previously observed patterns in terms of sectoral change and employment, but the effect of these changing structural patterns on well-being and the distribution of gains from growth has not yet been systematically examined. There is a global shift towards both lower employment in industry at all levels of income per capita and de-industrialization, the shift from manufacturing to service employment, taking place at significantly lower levels of income (See work by Timmer, de Vries, and de Vries; Subramanian; and Rodrik here, here, here and here).

Deindustrialization, Employment Generation, and the “Precarization” of Global Labor
There are many reasons why these new patterns may have negative effects on inclusive development; some recent research emphasizes the important role that periods of high levels of manufacturing employment have played in now wealthy countries, and the dearth of wealthy countries that have skipped such a phase; there are concerns about the effects of lower levels of manufacturing output on both growth and employment generation ( See again Timmer, de Vries, and de Vries and Rodrik).Read More »