A GANGSTER HAS MANY FACES

January 20, 2009

Corruption and violence keep certain countries mired in poverty, according to authors Edward Miguel and Raymond Fisman. They used rainfall data to show that violence in Africa increases reliably during periods of drought and scarcity.

For example:

  • When farmers can't raise crops, they are more likely to turn to pillaging.
  • An increase in pillaging can provide further disincentive for others to be productive (why build a farm if it's going to be looted?), thus triggering a cycle of brutality.

Miguel and Fisman argue that economic conditions can be as important as (if not more important than) cultural factors in stoking Africa's bloody conflicts:

  • Somalia, for example, is one of the least ethnically and religiously diverse countries on the planet, but it has been wracked by persistent outbursts of violence, many of which can be linked to droughts.
  • A similar phenomenon occurs in Tanzania during times of drought, which are highly correlated with spikes in "witch killings," the murder of elderly women who are frail and unable to pull their own economic weight.
  • Under conditions of extreme resource scarcity these women become attractive targets for violence, making them victims of economic deprivation as much as bizarre religious fanaticism.

So if economic scarcity can spark intense violence, and if we know which events are likely to create scarcity, we should be able to target development assistance in ways that please both sides of the foreign aid debate.  But just sending a stream of money into corrupt and unstable countries is a bad idea, say the authors.

Source: Anthony Dick, "A Gangster Has Many Faces," The American, November/December 2008; based upon: Edward Miguel and Raymond Fisman, "Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations," Princeton University Press, September 2008.

For text:

http://www.american.com/archive/2008/november-december-magazine/a-gangster-has-many-faces 

 

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