CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – The question that still underlies much thinking about economic development is this: What can we do to kick-start economic growth and reduce poverty around the world?
The “we” is sometimes the World Bank, sometimes the United States and other rich countries, and sometimes professors of development economics and their students huddled in a seminar room. It is on this question that the entire development-aid complex is based.
But what has transformed Tunisia, Egypt and Libya over the past two years has not been efforts by the outside world to improve these societies or their economies, but grassroots social movements intent on changing their countries’ political systems.
It started in Tunisia, where the revolution swept President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s repressive regime out of power. It then spread to Egypt and Libya, ending Hosni Mubarak’s and Moammar Gadhafi’s even more repressive and corrupt regimes.
The people who poured into the streets and risked their lives were fed up with the repression and the poverty that these regimes caused.
The average Egyptian’s income level, for example, is just 12 percent of the average American’s, and Egyptians can expect to die 10 years sooner. Fully 20 percent of the population lives in dire poverty.
The protesters in Tahrir Square perceived the cause of Egypt’s poverty in its nonresponsive, repressive political system, its corrupt government, and the general lack of equality of opportunity in every sphere of their lives.
They saw their current leaders as part of the problem, not part of the solution. By contrast, most outsiders, asking “What can we do?,” emphasized geographic or cultural factors, or some purely economic “poverty trap,” whose effects should be countered by foreign aid and advice.
There should be no illusion that the transformation that the protesters started will be smooth. Many previous revolutions have deposed one set of corrupt rulers only to bring in a new bunch who are equally corrupt, vicious, and repressive.
Nor is there any guarantee that the previous elites will not be able to re-constitute similar regimes.
Indeed, the military, the bulwark of Mubarak’s regime, is now in charge in Egypt, and has been repressing, jailing, and killing protesters who dare to stand up. Most recently, it has unveiled plans to write a new constitution before the presidential election, and its electoral commission has disqualified 10 of 23 presidential candidates on flimsy grounds. If the military loosens the reins, the Muslim Brotherhood could take over and form its own authoritarian, nonrepresentative regime.
But there are also grounds to be optimistic. The genie is out of the bottle, and people know that they have the power to topple governments, and, more generally, that their political activism has consequences. That is why people have continued to fill Tahrir Square whenever the military has tried to consolidate its power and suppress dissent.
Though it is ultimately the Egyptian people who will decide the country’s fate, and whether it can finally take decisive steps toward more inclusive political institutions, this does not mean that outsiders can do nothing.
In fact, there is much that “we” can do — even if none of it will be central to the outcome.
For example, the U.S. will again give more than $1.5 billion of aid to Egypt this year. But who is receiving that aid?
Unfortunately, it is not the people who are trying to change their country’s future, but the Egyptian military and the same politicians who ruled Egypt under the previous regime.
The least we owe to the Egyptian people is to stop supporting their repression. That does not mean cutting foreign aid. On the contrary, though foreign aid will not by itself transform Egypt’s society or economy, and though some of it will inevitably be wasted and fall into the wrong hands, it can still do some good.
More important, the U.S. and the international community can work to ensure that the bulk of the funds go not to the military and the usual politicians but to grassroots causes and groups.
Foreign aid can also be used as a small inducement for national dialogue in Egypt. For example, foreign aid could be placed under the stewardship of a committee of representatives from different social factions, including the civil-society groups at the center of the uprising and the Muslim Brotherhood, with the clear understanding that if the committee fails to agree, the aid will not be disbursed.
This would force the military and the elites to work together with opposition groups that they often attempt to sideline.
Beyond bringing important but politically marginalized groups to the table, such a committee might also produce a demonstration effect, with successful power-sharing in a small setting possibly encouraging power-sharing writ large.
That may not be the sort of outside intervention that could cure the ills of centuries of repression and underdevelopment overnight, but “we” need to stop searching for a nonexistent panacea, and instead do something better than feeding the Egyptian military.
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson are the coauthors of “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.” © 2012 Project Syndicate