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Advice for South Sudan, but is it right?

May 14, 2011

While interviewing Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, David Leonhardt asks them what they would say to the new leaders of South Sudan if asked how they could best improve the lives of their citizens.

Duflo’s answer:

First of all, I would try to convince them that a key priority would be to invest enough money and talent in running good quality social services for the poor, including free access to good schools, preventive medical care, and hospitals…

Second, I think I would try to convince them to run anti-poverty policy in a more intelligent way than what we see in most countries.

Banerjee’s answer:

…A small universal cash grant to everyone over 12, based on biometric identification. This guarantees that no one has to face the humiliation of being totally indigent, and from our evidence, makes people more productive as well. Making it universal is important, so that they do not attempt to identify the poor (which is very difficult to do effectively in poor countries).

Second, a free universal health insurance policy that covers catastrophic health events, which allows people to go to private or public hospitals.

I can understand these answers if they were asked how to alleviate the poverty of their citizens, but they weren’t. They were asked how to best improve the lives of their citizens and that I believe starts with security. In one of my master’s classes our professor brought up again and again the idea that governments have three basic functions: to secure their borders, to secure order within their borders, and create an atmosphere where contracts can be enjoined (business). You cannot institute social services and poverty alleviation measures for your citizens if your citizens are not safe enough to go about their normal everyday activities. South Sudan is a new country and is currently going through a number of growing pains, including fighting and violence, that is disrupting safety and security making it difficult for people to carry on as they normally would.

And apparently, Chris Blattman had some of the same thoughts. He says, “Today, South Sudan is a state in name only. The long term welfare of its citizens means sustained stability and security and order. Without it, all the anti-poverty impacts, no matter how great, will evaporate in months.” And then he gives his own set of suggestions, which I think are pretty good:

  1. Build compacts, possibly unequal and unsavory ones, with warlords and other big men, giving them a stake in continued peace, even if it means they control crucial ministries or development organs.
  2. But for goodness sake try not to give up the ministries or development organs. There are non-pecuniary ways to buy people off. And spread it out so you get petty barons rather than oligarchs. They’ll be easier to deal with in 20 years when you have the strength.
  3. Next, give every incentive for elites, especially the ones apt to war, to invest in fixed assets whose value depends on stability and growth. Make them entrepreneurs. Oil rigs don’t count. Property in Juba does. So do plantations and small factories, even if they need subsidies to operate at first. This is hard, and will require attention and dedication.
  4. Aim for minimal corruption in twenty years, not two.
  5. Create a minimally competent police force, one that is less criminal than the criminals. And a court system, with particular attention to the places where ethnic groups repeatedly clash over land or rights or respect. Target programs to these hotspots to buy some measure of content.
  6. Train and educate the military like the bejeezus, and at all costs do not let it slip into factions.
  7. Roads, roads, roads. Not only are they good for growth, they are good for exerting state control and building a sense of nation.

The next day Chris posted a response from Esther and Abhijit, and more of his thoughts.

I still think security is more important in the short-term than redistributive policies.

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