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The limits of political exports

November 17, 2010

I am sharing some immediate thoughts on a seminar I am attending these days: it is called “Transfers of political models and state building”.

Here is the main question speakers are trying to address: shall we export democracy? And –more aptly- can we?

Well, apparently the short answer is NO.

Here below are 3 reasons why we shouldn’t (in case you need to be convinced by mean of deductive reasoning and you still think that Afghanistan and Iraq were accidental).

Reason number one: transfers of political models (democracy, constitutionalism, multi-party state) do seldom work. Furthermore, it is really difficult to define what constitute success. Rational choice political scholars have rarely understood why people usually resist these transfers, forgetting that rational choices are probably not at all involved in the process, while ideologies and political culture are.

Number two: I am definitively not a lawyer, but it seems to me that transplants of laws have historically not really worked either: it is not enough opening administrative courts in Thailand, for example, if they are just something called administrative courts which does in practice something else.

Number three: as many historical examples show, especially drawn from African colonial history, the most common effects of institutional transplanting is the “contamination” of the western style institution with the local customs, culture and tradition. This so called some “hybridization in reverse”  will generally not produce the intendend effects.

Still, do you want to build a State from scratch?

Kai Eide has proven in Afghanistan, and here is what he suggests:

1-      Get economic development on track. For the majority of the least developed economies this would mean supporting the agricultural sector (indeed in many developing countries, this can employ up to 80% of the total workforce).

2-      Build roads (always, always build roads. (before schools, hospitals and all the other nice  and quick and ribbon cutting initiatives). Ancient Romans did and they ruled the world.

3-      Try to get yourself some functioning institutions (ministry of finance, anyone?)  This won’t work without economic incentives, which usually means getting sure that bureaucrats got higher salaries (or at least higher than expats’ housemaids). Give them an office, electricity and a car. And then train them, ideally developing a national curriculum.

All this won’t give you a modern, westernized democracy, but will help nevertheless a country to build its own institutions. Whether you like them or not, then it is your own problem.

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