Wealth of Nations July/August 2010

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty

In the 1990s, Paul Romer revolutionized economics. In the aughts, he became rich as a software entrepreneur. Now he’s trying to help the poorest countries grow rich—by convincing them to establish foreign-run “charter cities” within their borders. Romer’s idea is unconventional, even neo-colonial—the best analogy is Britain’s historic lease of Hong Kong. And against all odds, he just might make it happen.

Of course, versions of China’s special economic zones have existed elsewhere, especially in Asia. But Romer is not just arguing for enclaves; he is arguing for enclaves that are run by foreign governments. To Romer, the fact that Hong Kong was a colonial experiment, imposed upon a humiliated China by means of a treaty signed aboard a British warship, is not just an embarrassing detail. On the contrary, British rule was central to the city’s success in persuading capitalists of all stripes to flock to it. Romer sometimes illustrates this point by citing another Communist country: modern-day Cuba. Cuba’s rulers have tried to induce foreign corporations to set up shop in special export zones, and have been greeted with understandable caution. But if Raúl Castro convinced a foreign government—ideally a rich democracy such as Canada—to assume sovereignty over a start-up city in Cuba, the prospect of a mini Canada in the sun might attract a flood of investment.

It must have occurred to Castro, Romer says, that his island could do with its own version of Hong Kong; and perhaps that the Guantánamo Bay zone, over which Cuba has already ceded sovereignty to the United States, would be a good place to build one. “Castro goes to the prime minister of Canada and says, ‘Look, the Yankees have a terrible PR problem. They want to get out. Why don’t you, Canada, take over? Run a special administrative zone. Allow a new city to be built up there,’” Romer muses, channeling a statesmanlike version of Raúl Castro that Cuba-watchers might not recognize. “Some of my citizens will move into that city,” Romer-as-Castro continues. “Others will hold back. But this will be the gateway that will connect the modern economy and the modern world to my country.”

When I put this scenario to Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, she described the whole notion as “wacky.” But not everyone has dismissed Romer’s vision so quickly. Romer maintains that when he started to discuss his thinking with governments in developing countries, he found many of them receptive. One nation in particular seemed eager to sign on: the island-state of Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa, where 90 percent of the people subsist on less than $2 a day.

In July 2008, Romer made his first trip to Madagascar’s bustling capital, Antananarivo. Madagascar’s government was anxious to attract foreign investment, and it understood that a credibility deficit held it back. In an earlier bout of openness, the island had lured in foreign garment firms, but then the political climate turned hostile and the firms fled; now the government was having trouble enticing them to come back. Faced with this obstacle, the Malagasy authorities were open to unconventional arrangements. To boost investment in agriculture, they were ready to lease a Connecticut-size tract of land to Daewoo, a South Korean corporation, for 99 years. To boost investment in export industries, they were thinking about inviting a tiny Indian Ocean neighbor, Mauritius, to administer an export-processing zone on Malagasy territory. Romer’s proposal fit in with these adventurous ideas. He returned to Antananarivo in November 2008 and held another round of promising meetings with government officials. The final hurdle, he was told, would be to secure an audience with the president, a former businessman named Marc Ravalomanana. Nothing could happen without his say-so.

Romer returned to Stanford and waited to hear when the president might be available. Periodically, he would receive an e-mail: Ravalomanana’s schedulers were battling to fit him in, but dozens of competing issues demanded the boss’s attention, and they were reluctant to commit to a firm time for the meeting. As the end of the year approached, without any appointment, Romer decided it was time for a gamble: he made the 30-hour trip from San Francisco once again, arriving in Antananarivo on the Sunday before Christmas, figuring that the president’s schedule might open up over the holidays. He checked himself into the Hotel du Louvre, close to the presidential palace, and called his government contacts to announce his arrival; then he set about waiting. He found that a patisserie nearby served finer French pastries than he had tasted in any American city. Sitting in the café with an espresso and a mille-feuille, Romer could see young men, stunted from malnutrition, watching over the cars parked in front of the hotel, hoping for a few tips. A portly European of a certain age walked by with an attractive young Malagasy woman on his arm, and the men outside the hotel stared. The look on their faces expressed all that needed to be said about global inequality.

Presented by

Sebastian Mallaby is the Paul A. Volcker Senior Fellow for International Economics at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite.

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