Democracy Lab

It's Not Just You, America

Economic inequality is today’s hot-button issue -- whether you live in a wealthy country or a poor one.

We love to ruminate about globalization and how we've all become citizens of a worldwide community, but it's not always clear what these grand abstractions have to do with our everyday lives. So perhaps it's worth noting that right now there happens to be one particular issue that is prompting passionate debate in all countries, regardless of their living standards. Well-off Westerners are just as exercised about it as Pakistanis and Egyptians.

The topic I have in mind is the apparently widening gap between rich and poor. We used to worry obsessively about the divide between wealthy countries and less-developed ones, but the spread between them is arguably diminishing as once-poor giants like China and India grow, edging towards living standards in the developed world and adding billions to the global middle class. At the same time, though, political debates about inequality are heating up inside many countries, and this seems to be true regardless of where each nation stands in the GDP tables.

Americans, of course, are agonizing over astronomical CEO compensation, institutions that give disproportionate political influence to the wealthy, and the fate of the 99 percent. Europeans are fixated on skyrocketing youth unemployment and the challenge of sustaining bankrupt welfare systems. Japanese and Koreans, proud of their past success at lifting all boats, now fret about a growing gulf between haves and have-nots.

But these privileged populations are not the only ones who are worried. "If you look at most of the countries that have grown rapidly, absolute annual growth rates have been quite robust," says Glenn Firebaugh, a sociology professor at Penn State University who has studied the issue for years. "But it hasn't been distributed proportionately. The rich people have been getting rich faster. That's been the case in most countries."

Last week saw the appearance of two reports on completely separate parts of the world that advance strikingly similar themes. The Asian Development bank's latest annual study of economic development in that region, Outlook 2012, bears the subtitle "Confronting Rising Inequality in Asia" - a phenomenon the ADB attributes to "technological change, globalization, and market-oriented reform." As the report notes, these are precisely the factors that have contributed to the rapid growth in Asia over the past few decades. According to the report's findings, inequality widened in 11 of the 25 countries covered in the survey -- including China, India, and Indonesia, the three giants that have shown some of the strongest growth.

A similar finding emerges from another paper, The State of East Africa 2012, published last week by the Society for International Development. The local newspapers who wrote about it zeroed in on a particularly revealing factoid: the rise in the number of the region's poor, from 44 million to 53 million, over the six-year period covered in the study. Yet, just as in Asia, this comes against a background of otherwise encouraging figures on growth. The report observes, for example, that the number of mobile phone subscriptions in the region rose from 3 million in 2002 to 64 million in 2010 - which means that those subscribers now have easy access to a whole range of services (such as mobile banking) that they may not have enjoyed before.

Take Uganda. According to yet another recent study (this one by the World Bank), it's a country that can look back on a recent record of rising GDP, averaging between four and five percent over the past two decades. And yet, as the experts point out, 94 percent of that growth has come from urban areas, which are home to only 13 percent of the population lives. The difference is easy to see with the naked eye. If you live in Kampala, the capital, you'll have no problem finding a private school for your kids, good internet access, or a perfectly fine hospital (assuming you can afford them, of course). None of these things would have been a given a decade or two ago. Even today, though, you only have to travel a few miles into the countryside to find situations that haven't really changed in years: minimal electricity, no running water, limited opportunities for economic advancement.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the sense of widening inequity has become a sensitive political issue in Uganda -- and not just because many of those who are enjoying the fruits of relative prosperity belong to the political elite as well. (In Uganda, they often turn out to be members of the ruling party of President Yoweri Museveni.) One area where this tension manifests itself is in the debate over public education, which is viewed by many Ugandans (quite rightly, say economists) as the great leveler. If the local public school is failing to give your child the means to compete, you're probably going to be upset about it. Many Americans can undoubtedly identify.

Some might object that such problems are more or less inevitable in a developing country like Uganda. But that's just not true. East Asia's experience over the past fifty years has shown that rapid growth and social equality don't have to be mutually exclusive. So it's all the more disturbing when you hear that people in precisely those countries are complaining about the same problems as Ugandans.

Case in point: Singapore. Over the years the little city-state in Southeast Asia has turned business success into something like a national mission, and its living standards are among the highest in the world. Perhaps even more importantly, no one got left behind. Like so many other East Asian tigers, Singapore managed to spread the wealth even as it created it, maintaining a remarkable societal consensus about the equitable distribution of growth.

So it's all the more surprising that voters in Singapore chose to deliver a startling rebuke to the ruling party last year. While there were undoubtedly many reasons for the result, perhaps the most important, according to this remarkable paper from Singapore National University, was popular discontent fueled by rising economic inequality. Regardless of which measure you take, the authors of the study note, "Singapore has become more unequal in the last ten years or so." Stagnating wages and decreasing social mobility, they say, potentially threaten the remarkable social compact -- implicitly based on the principle of "growth with equity" -- that has characterized Singapore's development for so long.

So what does all this mean? First, there are some reasons for hope. Firebaugh argues that the world as a whole is probably becoming less unequal -- mostly thanks to the gravitational pull of those upwardly mobile Asian giants. And even while globalization has been fueling rising competitive pressures, countries around the world have also been busily devising and sharing effective policies for countering social stratification. Smart spending on education is one of the most obvious. Cash transfer programs that target the poor are another. Even improving infrastructure, access to finance, or health care can help. (Who knows, maybe that's why President Obama picked Jim Yong Kim, who wrote a book about the relationship between health and inequality, as his choice to run the World Bank.) Latin America has actually improved its record on inequality over the past decade, for example. Those countries must be doing something right.

What these examples suggest, though, is that the ultimate solutions are likely to be political rather than economic. Those cronies from Uganda's ruling party and America's politically influential gazillionaires aren't as dissimilar as they might seem at first sight. There are a lot of obvious ways to level out the playing field, but most of them are contingent on politicians being persuaded to make the right decisions. Until they start doing that, don't expect matters to improve any time soon.

MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Lesson from Mali: Do No Harm

An African success story is in trouble. Is the West's intervention in Libya to blame?

I realize that most Americans or Europeans wouldn't be able to pick out Mali on a map. But it's still a shame that recent events in that West African country have been getting so little attention. Until recently, Mali was one of Africa's big success stories. Now it's foundering.

This is especially ironic when you consider that it may be the policies of the West -- well-intentioned policies that were aimed at ridding the world of a specific evil -- that have contributed to Mali's troubles.

In a continent that doesn't have much of a reputation for liberal governance, Mali stood out. For the past twenty years this country of 12 million people has stuck doggedly to democratic principles. In 1991, Malians overthrew a military dictatorship and convened a national assembly that drew up a constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press, far-reaching decentralization, and presidential elections every five years. In the years since then, the people of this Muslim-majority country have consistently managed to stick to those principles. The next presidential vote was scheduled for the end of this month.

Now that election has been postponed, and the fate of Mali's democracy is up for grabs. In some ways this latest crisis is not entirely new. For decades the government of Mali has been contending with flickers of rebellion in the country's arid north, which is inhabited by Tuaregs, a desert people scattered across the Sahara and Sahel. The Tuaregs have little in common with southern Malians, who tend to be much closer, in culture and mentality, to the coastal Africans who dominate the countries to the south. But for all their discontent, the Tuareg separatists never quite succeeded in making much headway. Even Mali's underequipped military managed to contain the insurgency.

All that changed dramatically in January of this year, when a Tuareg separatist army, suddenly emerging from obscurity, achieved a stunning series of victories across the north. The Malian army was forced into a humiliating retreat. Disgruntled officers then staged a coup in the capital of Bamako, accusing President Amadou Toumani Touré of failing to offer proper support for the war effort. Earlier this week, after a long period of uncertainty over his whereabouts, Touré emerged to tender his resignation as part of a compromise deal reached with the coup leaders, who have now handed over executive power to the leader of the national assembly. (The deal, rather remarkably, was brokered by the Economic Community of West African States, a regional grouping.)

Touré's resignation is supposed to pave the way toward a new presidential election, but it remains to be seen whether Mali's democratic institutions can recover from the damage that has been done to them. On April 6, the rebels declared that the territory under their control -- an area a bit bigger than France -- is now an independent state, which they call Azawad. Taking it back may well prove beyond the capacity of Mali's armed forces, and a failure to do so will undoubtedly strike a blow to the credibility of the government during what is sure to be a delicate transition.

But how did the rebels - who staged earlier rebellions in the 1990s and then again between 2007 and 2009 - suddenly manage to pull off such a breathtaking victory? While the reasons are undoubtedly complex, there's one factor that immediately jumps out: the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime in Libya, Mali's neighbor to the north.

The uprising against Qaddafi began in February 2011. A few weeks later NATO decided to intervene, and started providing air cover to the armed opposition. Few experts would dispute, I think, that that help from the West was crucial to the ultimate success of the resistance. Qaddafi, after all, had at his disposal enormous arsenals of artillery and armor, resources denied to his foes. Without NATO's leveling of the playing field it's hard to imagine how the rebels could have won.

Qaddafi was finally captured and killed on October 20. Three days later the National Transitional Council, Libya's interim government, declared the "liberation" of the country -- even though the NTC was incapable of asserting centralized control over a country awash in weapons. And it was just a few weeks after Qaddafi's demise that the Tuaregs launched their campaign in northern Mali.

Precisely how this Tuareg force materialized is still a bit of a mystery, but what's beyond dispute is that most of its fighters came from Libya. Deeply distrustful of the Libyan military, Qaddafi was known to hire mercenaries from other African countries to provide security to himself and his government. Tuaregs were certainly among them. Qaddafi also sponsored a variety of insurgent movements around Africa as a way of ensuring influence. But the experts agree that he also kept those groups on a tight leash. Alex Thurston, author of Sahel Blog, points out that it was actually Qaddafi, of all people, who mediated a ceasefire in the Tuareg rebellion in 2009.

With their sponsor and protector gone, the Libya-based separatists no longer had any reason to stay where they were. And they must have seen the sudden availability of heavy weapons in now unguarded arsenals as a chance too good to pass up.

So it seems clear enough that the civil war in Libya was a proximate cause for the success of the Tuareg rebellion. But to what extent are the West's actions specifically to blame? Did the well-meaning intervention against Qaddafi unleash the forces that have now led to the downfall of democracy in Mali?

The answers may not be entirely clear -- especially considering the difficulties of getting reliable information from one of the most remote regions on earth. But the timing is certainly suspicious. Libya was in turmoil for eight months until Qaddafi's death, but the Tuaregs launched their attack only a few weeks after that. "Come January the balance of power does shift," says Naunihal Singh, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. "And one of the reasons is the influx of men and weapons [from Libya]."

And that raises the issue of whether Washington and its European allies did enough to anticipate and predict the possible regional knock-on effects of intervention. Policymakers should have been aware of the risks, says Singh -- not least because of fears that a power vacuum in the north might create a safe haven for militants from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. (For the record, FP was already writing about the dangers of Tuareg mercenaries returning to Mali in March 2011.) But NATO planners were clearly focused on their primary tasks of preventing Qaddafi from killing more Libyan civilians and supporting the resistance.

Could they have done more to contain possible blowback? Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says that his organization repeatedly urged NATO to take measures to prevent the outflow of weapons from Qaddafi's arsenals: "Our view is that more could have been done as government territory fell to rebel forces in Libya to secure supplies of arms." But he is quick to acknowledge that this was no easy task.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to argue here that we should have left the Libyan dictator in place. As Malinowski points out, it would be a mistake to portray Qaddafi as a source of regional stability, given his obsessive meddling in the affairs of his neighbors. "In the long run it was in nobody's interest to have a brutal dictator in Tripoli who used rebel groups around the region to serve his purposes and whenever it suited his whims," he says. "But in the short run, the collapse of his regime may have contributed to what we're seeing now in Mali."

To be sure, we shouldn't oversimplify the case. Mali's leaders certainly bear considerable responsibility for the predicament in which the country now finds itself. For all its achievements, Malian democracy has been undermined for years by corruption, poverty, and complacency.

Nonetheless, recent events in this part of the world offer an important cautionary tale. The lesson: Even in situations where there is ample justification for using force against dictators or war criminals, policymakers would be well-advised to take a good look at the possible negative side effects of their actions. Perhaps it's time for humanitarian interventionists to come up with their own version of the Hippocratic Oath?

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images