Editorial Good Book

Book Review: Review of Acemoglu and Robinson’s “Why Nations Fail”

By Alagi Yorro Jallow (Published November 8, 2023)

“Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” authored by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, is a compendium of historical facts and figures synthesized with developmental economic analysis that crossed centuries to answer the question: Why Nations fail boldly?

The seminal book, published in 2012 by Crown Business, United States of America, is a product of 15 years of rigorous research that examined geography, culture, ignorance, and institution as hypothetical causes of poverty or prosperity, as the case may be.

Daron and James unapologetically dismissed geography, culture, and ignorance as absolute explainers of poverty and prosperity. In the 529-page book, economic and political institutions –inclusive and extractive– are posited as the absolute causes. The inclusive institutions ensure equitable economic and political rights for citizens, engender creative destruction, and, subsequently, engineer prosperity. On the other hand, extractive institutions concentrate the commonwealth and public treasury in the hands of a few political elites and their business allies.

European Colonization Factor for African Extractive Institutions.

Sweeping through history, “Why Nations Fail” chronicles events and the critical junctures that shaped most African nations’ extractive economic and political institutions. Successive African leaders subsequently maintain these poverty-generating institutions because they serve their corrupt and greedy whims.

Daron and Robinson referenced the 1885 Berlin Conference, themed “Scramble for Africa,” as the strategic front that hatched the European desire to disintegrate Africa politically and install an absolutist order to extract economic gains at the detriment of the citizenry. To achieve this, facilitating sales of guns and arms, dictatorship, and dual economy (as propounded by Lewis Arthur, is a theory that supports disparate and opposite economic and political configurations for the privileged and less-privileged within the same geographical space. This is the experience in South Africa of different economic experiences by the White and the Black) are adopted instrumentalities, according to Daron and Robinson.

This unfortunate epoch –colonialism– was responsible for Africa’s miss of the industrial revolution phase –the phase that first and fundamentally pushed the world toward prosperity.

Though unintentionally, Daron and Robinson reawaken the Pan-African revolutionary spirit of Walter Rodney, immortalized on the pages of “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” through their graphic account of the European invasion of Africa.

The Critical Junctures.

Unlike most African nations, hitherto absolutist countries with extractive economic and political institutions later experienced critical junctures that redirected their economic paths, “Why Nations Fail” recalls. It cited the French Army and Napoleon in France, the fall of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, the Black Death Revolution in England, and the 1830 Okubo Toshinmichi of Japanese Samurai, amongst others, as typical radical junctures that birthed a new and modern respective societies of economic prosperity.

Daron and Robinson acknowledged that, even though the majority was bloody revolutions, there were records of not-too-violent political system changes like the overthrowing of Maoism in China and the economic rise of Singapore and South Korea through subtle political leadership change.

Labels Do Not Matter.

Historical accounts of sociopolitical and economic epochs of nations narrated by Daron and Robinson in “Why Nations Fail” revealed that ideological labels of economic persuasion –capitalist and socialists –do not matter. As the book showed, there is an equal tendency for both capitalist and socialist economies to become extractive, and thus result in economic retrogression.

“Why Nations Fail” buttresses this with experiences from “the rise of Robber Barons and their monopoly trusts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries” and submitted that “Markets, left to their own devices, can be ceased to be inclusive, becoming increasingly dominated by economically and politically powerful.”

In the same light, the much-taunted Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution, the Laurent Kabila and Mobutu of Congo, the Derg Marxists of Ethiopia, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Karimov of Uzbekistan, according to “Why Nations Fail,” are examples of supposed equality-assured economic architectures –based on the popular Marxian rhetoric that was used for their power grabs –that became brutally reprehensive, and supported elites’ control of the public treasury. This, as it finally showed, caused the unsustainability of the few recorded economic growth and eventual degeneration into a financial abyss.

Nevertheless, Daron and Robinson’s preference for a market economy is unmistakable, as instructive: “Inclusive economic institutions require not just markets, but inclusive markets that create a level playing field and economic opportunities for most people. Widespread monopoly, backed by the political power of the elite contradicts this.”

Daron and Robinson believe a market economy with no cartel, cabal, and crony gang that subverts state apparatus and institution for the advantage of a few business elites and political collaborators is the only path to sustainable economic growth and human development.

In the end.

Without mincing words, “Why Nations Fail” brilliantly cut a space for itself through the sheer hard work of the duo of Daron and Robinson. The book can be safely placed side-by-side, though with different themes and research objectives, with Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion” and Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid” in the collection of seminal books on developmental economics.

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