Sunday, 7 February 2010

The improving lot of Somalia

Like many I assumed the situation in Somalia is appalling, with no government, abject poverty, and the frequent mention of Somali pirates in the news reflective of the anarchy thru-out the rest of the country. So I read with some interest Peter Leeson's 2007 article published in the Journal of Comparative Economics, "Better Off Stateless: Somalia Before and After Government Collapse" (doi:10.1016/j.jce.2007.10.001). Now Somalia is no utopia, but Leeson makes the point that it is better than it was, and not as bad as it could be.
While it is important to avoid romanticizing Somalia, the results suggest that statelessness has substantially improved Somali development. I find that on nearly all indicators Somalia is doing significantly better under anarchy than it was under government.
Somalia was ruled by General Barre from 1969 until 1991 after he overthrew the previous government that had obtained independence from Britain and Italy less than a decade earlier. Civil war from 1988 to led to loss of government in 1991 which has continued since then with various groups claiming sovereignty over parts of the country.

Leeson establishes his thesis by comparing the status of several indicators of societal health in the years prior to 1991 and the years prior to 2005 after more than a decade without official government. The markers are limited in scope because of the difficulty obtaining reliable data.

Key development indicators before and after statelessness


1985–1990 2000–2005Welfare change
GDP per capita (PPP constant $)836600?
Life expectancy (years)46.048.47Improved
One year olds fully immunized against measles (%)3040Improved
One year olds fully immunized against TB (%)3150Improved
Physicians (per 100,000)3.44Improved
Infants with low birth weight (%)160.3Improved
Infant mortality rate (per 1000)152114.89Improved
Maternal mortality rate (per 100,000)16001100Improved
Pop. with access to water (%)2929Same
Pop. with access to sanitation (%)1826Improved
Pop. with access to at least one health facility (%)2854.8Improved
Extreme poverty (< $1 per day)6043.2Improved
Radios (per 1000)4.098.5Improved
Telephones (per 1000)1.9214.9Improved
TVs (per 1000)1.23.7Improved
Fatality due to measles80005598Improved
Adult literacy rate (%)2419.2Worse
Combined school enrollment (%)12.97.5Worse

So of these 18 indicators, 14 show improvement, 1 is stable, and 3 are worse. And Leeson argues that the GDP prior to 1991 is over stated for 3 reasons including that foreign aid contributed to half of that figure.

The article is well worth a read. Leeson discusses the history of Somalia, mentions some examples of recent progress, and addresses potential alternative claims. He acknowledges there is a way for the country to go, and that Somalia may well do better under good, small government; but he makes the point that people may do better without government, than with bad government.
there is a tendency upon observing problems in distressed regions of the world to see only on the “failure” of the current situation, ignoring the quite possibly even worse state of affairs that preceded it.

...Although a properly constrained government may be superior to statelessness, it is not true that any government is superior to no government all.
His conclusion,
A comprehensive view of the data that allow pre- and post-anarchy welfare
comparisons suggest that anarchy has improved overall development. Contrary to the typical case, in Somalia social welfare has improved because of, rather than despite, the absence of a central state. Somalia’s government was oppressive, exploitative, and brutal. The extent of this predation created a situation in which social welfare was depressed below the level it could achieve without any government at all. The emergence of anarchy in 1991 opened up opportunities for advancement not possible before government’s collapse. In particular, economic progress and improved public goods provision in critical areas flourished in the absence of a monopolistic and corrupt state.

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