Karl Muth, a PhD graduate from the Department of International Development, gets cynical as to whether foreign advisors such as himself can spur development.

Karl Muth

I struggle with the concept of developed countries “fertilizing” or “accelerating” emerging markets or developing countries.

Don’t get me wrong, development is clearly something that happens. But it bothers me that developed countries have, for too long, thought that development for other countries would mean following a path very similar to their own histories. Instead, I think countries will inevitably develop differently: many countries developing today will never have land-line telephones, favouring instead mobile handsets from the start, for instance. I’ve spent most of the last six years as a visa resident of the UK and Uganda; the post-colonial history embedded in their relationship raises questions about what the future of development looks like.

I struggle, too, with the concept that developed countries – or institutions within developed countries – will be good at choosing leaders in development. In fact, developed countries have done a terrible job of this historically. The Cold War was a great (and awful) experiment in sham elections, chosen despots, and crowned gangsters; the leaders chosen by the Cold War powers tended to be disloyal (both to their benefactors and to their own people), incompetent (even by generous metrics), and ineffective as “developers.” And this is not peculiar to the Twentieth Century: Roman Senators picked poorly-prepared puppet leaders for Roman Britannia, arguably a factor that contributed greatly to its failure as a semi-autonomous colonial territory.

This is why I hesitated to apply to the Emerging Leaders programme at Harvard (where I was accepted and which I will attend this autumn).

Though colleagues had encouraged me to apply, I was doubtful that any institution, including Harvard, would be very good at this task. The task, as stated, is to choose those who are likely to have leadership roles in determining how development will move forward. These are people who will, supposedly, have an influence over how the next half dozen to dozen countries develop, either directly (as cabinet ministers, diplomats, etc.) or indirectly (as consultants to government, advisors to industries active in developing countries, etc.). Not only is this influence difficult to obtain, but it is difficult to maintain.

And, while I’m honoured to be part of the cohort, I question how much influence is really to be had.

The fact is that many countries where I’ve had the privilege of being in key meetings or having frank conversations with those in charge are countries that are already cornered by the powerful economies of the world – their policies are not fundamentally reactive as a matter of philosophy, they are reactive as a matter of pragmatism. As an economist, I am particularly sensitive to this – innovation is harder in emerging markets not just because financial capital is more costly or because human capital is less well-trained, but also because there is enormous pressure to be a specialised producer for more developed countries rather than a polymathematic, ambitious innovator.

In the end, it is – somewhat perversely – this cynicism that convinced me that I should attend the programme. I’m interested to meet others who may enjoy some degree of influence over what the next phase of emerging market economies may look like. And, most of all, I’m interested to hear how others believe we can shift the perspective of economic ministers, country-level corporate directors, and others to ensure the innovations that emerging markets can contribute make it to market rather than being abandoned in favour of short-term cash in extractive industries or low-skill manufacturing work.

Perhaps Harvard will pick winners. Perhaps not. But gathering people from around the world to talk honestly about these challenges is not something many have put resources toward over the past twenty years (the discussion of these matters at the World Economic Forum, for instance, is often both too timid and too structured).

Economic development is not an inevitability and it is not an agricultural process that simply “sprouts” under the right conditions; it takes hard work and real leadership, and a plan that stretches beyond the visible horizon (postwar Japan and late-Twentieth-Century Taiwan are excellent examples of cases where all three were in place). And I’m excited that I’ll be there with bright people with experience on the ground. Perhaps we can cure each other’s cynicism.

What I do know is that today’s emerging markets don’t need a new set of Chicago Boys or a transplantation of ideas from already-developed markets. Instead, they need a thorough and rigorous interrogation of what is going on, what has been learnt, and what (realistic) next steps might look like.

There is already plenty of momentum. There is more foreign direct investment flowing around the world now in one month than there was in one year during the Clinton Administration – a time less than twenty years ago. Industrial productivity is massive, capital is available at persistently low interest rates, technological innovation is progressing at a pace unimaginable even one lifetime ago, understanding of governance mechanisms (corporate and not) has advanced enormously; if the secret is to strike when the iron is hot, it has never been hotter.

I look forward to meeting people in the programme, all of whom are working on these issues of emerging market dynamics and development economics. I will write a follow-up blog from Harvard in the wintertime summing up the programme, my experiences, and whether I feel programmes like this one are a good “boot camp” for those of us interested in taking action on development issues.

(This article was originally published in the Global Policy Journal.)

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