The Poverty of Dictatorship

CAMBRIDGE – Perhaps the most striking finding in the United Nations’ recent 20th anniversary Human Development Report is the outstanding performance of the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Here was Tunisia, ranked sixth among 135 countries in terms of improvement in its Human Development Index (HDI) over the previous four decades, ahead of Malaysia, Hong Kong, Mexico, and India. Not far behind was Egypt, ranked 14th.

The HDI is a measure of development that captures achievements in health and education alongside economic growth. Egypt and (especially) Tunisia did well enough on the growth front, but where they really shone was on these broader indicators. At 74, Tunisia’s life expectancy edges out Hungary’s and Estonia’s, countries that are more than twice as wealthy. Some 69% of Egypt’s children are in school, a ratio that matches much richer Malaysia’s. Clearly, these were states that did not fail in providing social services or distributing the benefits of economic growth widely.

Yet in the end it did not matter. The Tunisian and Egyptian people were, to paraphrase Howard Beale, mad as hell at their governments, and they were not going to take it anymore. If Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were hoping for political popularity as a reward for economic gains, they must have been sorely disappointed.

One lesson of the Arab annus mirabilis, then, is that good economics need not always mean good politics; the two can part ways for quite some time. It is true that the world’s wealthy countries are almost all democracies. But democratic politics is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for economic development over a period of several decades.