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.

Two days after he arrived, Romer got the summons he was waiting for. Late in the evening, on the night before Christmas Eve, he was ushered into the president’s personal residence, a recently refurbished but relatively modest home high in the hills. Ravalomanana had a few guests over to celebrate the holidays, and the mood was relaxed. He invited Romer out onto his balcony to see the view of the city, and then the two men moved into a study. The only symbols of authority were a large desk and a flag. The president was in shirtsleeves.

In public, Ravalomanana cut quite a figure. Handsome, youthful in appearance, and wealthy, he had started out selling homemade yogurt off the back of a bicycle and ended up holding a national monopoly on all dairy and oil products. But in private, Romer found the president quite approachable. Romer made his pitch for a charter city, and Ravalomanana responded that he wasn’t sure one was enough; if Romer could identify two rich countries willing to play the role of government trustee, it might be better to launch two parallel experiments. The president and the professor agreed that the new hubs should be open to migrants from nearby countries as well as to locals. They rose to examine a map of Madagascar on the study wall. Ravalomanana suggested building the first city on the island’s southwestern coast, which was largely uninhabited because of its dry heat. To Romer, the site sounded very much like the coastal locations that appeal most to the world’s affluent as vacation spots.

Romer has a quick smile and a knack for saying big things with small words, but he is not much for emotion. Recalling his trips to Madagascar, he sounds typically cool about them. But a more excitable person would be whooping out the punch lines at this point in the story; the fact that the charter-cities movement had progressed so far so fast is little short of astonishing. Barely a year after launching his venture, Romer was on the brink of a rare coup: a nation of 20 million people was about to embrace a neo-medieval, neo-colonial scheme untested in the modern history of development. But then a different sort of coup occurred—the kind of coup, unfortunately, that underscores the obstacles to Romer’s project.

Even as Romer was meeting with Ravalomanana, the president’s main political opponent was sniping at the proposed lease of farmland to Daewoo, and the idea of giving up vast swaths of territory to foreigners was growing increasingly unpopular. The arrangement was denounced as treason, and public protests gathered momentum, eventually turning violent. In late January 2009, protesters tossed homemade grenades at radio and TV stations that Ravalomanana owned; looters ransacked his chain of supermarkets. In February, guards opened fire on marchers in front of the presidential palace, killing 28 civilians. At this, units of the army mutinied. Soon, Ravalomanana was forced out of office.

The first action of the new government was to cancel the Daewoo project, and Romer’s plans in Madagascar were put on hold indefinitely. But the larger question was what, if anything, this disappointment signified for Romer’s whole approach. The riots appeared to demonstrate the explosive sensitivities surrounding sovereignty and land—sensitivities that are not confined to Madagascar. Indeed, versions of the Daewoo story have played out elsewhere. In the late 1990s, for example, Fiji’s government decided to bring in a British nonprofit to manage its mahogany forests, and an indigenous leader launched a revolt under the slogan “Fiji for the Fijians.” The rebellion was hypocritical: as the Oxford economist Paul Collier recounts in his book The Bottom Billion, the indigenous leader had himself backed a rival foreign bid to manage the mahogany. But the venality of the rebels’ motivation didn’t change the fact that a demagogue could easily attract support by railing against territorial concessions to foreigners.

Ever since the setback in Madagascar, Romer has been coy, for obvious reasons, about which governments are interested in his plan. But he remains optimistic. “I revived growth theory. I made technology work in higher ed. I am two for two, and I think the impossible can be done,” he told me cheerfully. He added that the Daewoo deal might not have been the main impetus for the coup in Madagascar; the real reasons for Ravalomanana’s downfall lay in idiosyncratic local rivalries, even if the opposition exploited sensitivities over land to incite antigovernment protests. I suggested that the fact that land concessions could trigger such emotions was still not a good sign. Romer stopped, considered, and chose his words carefully.

“Anything that involves land can be manipulated by people who want to rise up against a leader,” he began. “You have to find a place where there’s a strong enough leader with enough legitimacy to do this knowing that he’s going to get attacked. It narrows the options quite a bit. But we shouldn’t give up without trying a few more places.” In short, a disappointment with one client is no excuse for failing to pitch other ones. Any entrepreneur knows that.

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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