The Arab transition countries, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, are grappling with complex issues relating to personal values, the extent of freedom of speech, individual rights, family matters, that all orbit around deep issues of identity and the respective roles of the individual, the state and society. These social conversations are constructive in that they reflect a rich pluralism of views in societies where conformity was the rule under dictatorship. But unfortunately, these dialogues are polarizing society, leading to violence and threatening chaos and a possible return to authoritarianism. In fact, the current social polarization to a large extent reflects attempts by political entrepreneurs to use existing social fault lines, and even exacerbate them, in ways that mobilize passions among possible supporters, driven to over-reach by the political vacuum created by the departure of the historical autocrats. The dynamics in Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, and Lebanon are slightly different, but here too, the intense and exclusive focus on identity is crowding out more important and immediate social and economic challenges.
Middle East and North Africa
Absentee teachers, negligent doctors, high transport costs, missing fertilizers, and elite-captured industrial policy all stand in the way of poor people’s escaping poverty. While the proximate reason for these obstacles may be a lack of resources or an erroneous policy, the underlying reason is politics.- In many developing countries, teachers run the political campaigns of local politicians, in return for which they are given jobs from which they can be absent. The situation can be described as an equilibrium, where the candidate gets elected and re-elected, and teachers continue to be absent. The losers are the poor children who aren’t getting an education. The equilibrium has no intrinsic force for change, especially if, as in Uttar Pradesh, India, 17 percent of the legislature are teachers.
- High transport costs in Africa are due not to poor-quality roads (vehicle operating costs are comparable to those in France) but to high prices charged by trucking companies, who enjoy monopoly power thanks to regulations that prohibit entry into the trucking industry. High transport prices and monopoly trucking profits are an equilibrium. In one country, the President’s brother owns the trucking company, so prospects for deregulation there are grim.
- Several countries subsidize fertilizer, sometimes to the tune of several percentage points of GDP, only to find that it fails to reach poor farmers. Thinking that the problem is the public distribution system, some governments have tried to use the market to allocate fertilizer, by giving farmers vouchers that they can redeem with private sellers. A scheme in Tanzania found that 60 percent of the vouchers went to households of elected officials. When subsidies are captured to this extent by political elites, their reform will be resisted—another equilibrium.