Saturday, March 04, 2006

Leapfrogging: A New Model For Development

Leapfrogging. It's a game. One person stands in front of the other. Then, the person behind springs forward, leaping over the person in front. All of a sudden the person behind is now ahead. The hierarchy has shifted.

As a game, this concept is only of moderate interest. In fact, you probably lost interest in the game of leapfrog when you were about ten years old.

However, as a model for economic and political development it is quite intriguing.

The current model for development is rather depressing. Poor countries are told that their goal is to attain the economic, cultural, and political standards of rich countries. Rich countries took centuries to raise the majority of their citizens out of poverty, to create stable political systems, and to secure human rights for their citizens (actually, it was the citizens, not the government, that did that last part). Poor countries are expected to achieve this same feat in a few decades.

It's as if poor countries are driving 15 mph on a highway and are asked to move along side a faster car that is not only moving at 60 mph, but is also already a few miles ahead! How discouraging! It's as if poor countries have lost even before they've begun.

There's another flaw in the reasoning behind the current development model. It assumes that rich countries have created a model worth immitating. This isn't necessarily the case. Rich countries have many problems - crime, income inequality, racism, environmental degradation. Who says that reaching the level of rich countries is even something poor countries should aspire to? Why not aspire to something different? Why not aspire to something better?

Why try to reach the same level when you can surpass it? Why play catch-up when you can play leapfrog?

Poor countries are still in the process of creating their societies: forming just political systems, debating gender relations, searching for new paths to economic development. They have an amazing opportunity that rich and stable countries don't: they can build news societies from the ground up.

And, since they are creating something new, why not create something better? Why not look at rich nations not as models to emulate but simply as case studies. What are rich nations doing well? What are they failing at? Adopt some elements and reject others. Maintain the native culture but evolve it. Create not a society equal to the societies of rich nations, create something better than rich nations. Leapfrog over them.

Of course, leapfrogging requires great ingenuity and creativity. It requires looking at problems in news ways. For example, in Morocco (where I live), there used to be a serious telecommunication gap. Very few people had land-lines in their homes. A traditional way to look at this problem would be to say: "We have a land-line problem. We need to borrow from the World Bank so we can afford to build land-lines all over the country and connect our people." But that's not what happened. Instead, the problem was solved by individuals, people who saw the problem not as one of land-lines but of as a problem of communication. The solution was cell-phones. Now many people have cell-phones, even very poor people, even people in small villages. In the realm of telecommunication, Morocco leapfrogged over the telecommunication systems of rich nations, which have doubtless spend billions of dollars laying land-lines. Morocco jumped straight from nothing to wide-spread cell-phone use. Although they doubtless still lag behind rich nations in terms of access to telecommunication tools, they made great progress simply by looking at their problem in a different way. And, significantly, this didn't come about through a structural adjustment plan or a four-year plan or a ten-year plan. It was a result of individuals making choices that made sense to them.

But why stop at telecommunication? You can leapfrog in any field. The political field presents great opportunities. Rich nations are mostly stable democracies, but they aren't perfect. The western model of democracy can be improved. And who better to improve it than poor countries, countries that are still in the creative stages of their political systems.

I expect to see new systems of government in my lifetime, systems than are more accountably, more just, and more efficient than current western democracies. Where will these governments be formed? In the poor world, in the developing world. Don't rise to the political level of the rich west. Surpass them. Leapfrog over them.

categories: leapfrogging_

"Why not look at rich nations not as models to emulate but simply as case studies?"

So very true.

Superpower Talk, Infrastructure Talk

Wireless broadband in poor countries. Better democracies.

I see it in terms of infrastructure as it impacts the individual. It is not about doing "better" even. It is just about doing the best possible.
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