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Towards an End to Labor Coercion

Sad as Nepalese history is (as we discussed here and here), things have been getting better over the last 50 years. Extractive economic institutions, such as slavery, coerced and bonded labor, have been gradually dismantled. So how did this come about? Did the Nepalese monarchy and elite change its mind and decide that after all developing the country was not so threatening? Or maybe some clever economist explained to them how costly these institutions were for the economy?

Actually, the reason why economic institutions in Nepal finally started changing had nothing to do with these and everything to do with the changes in the distribution of political power: Nepalese economic institutions became less extractive because its political institutions started becoming less extractive.

The first step was the popular overthrow of the Rana regime in 1950-51. Corvée and many other forms of forced labor were first banned in 1952, immediately following the 1950 revolt and the brief experiment with multi-party democracy. This was the first successful attempt to undermine the power of the elite and broaden the nature of political participation. It also led to the first road being constructed from Kathmandu to India. Another non-coincidence.

Alas the young democracy was overthrown quickly by King Mahendra and the monarchy ruled with the only channel of popular representation being a national Panchayat which was indirectly elected and had little power to influence the decisions of the king.

This regime was brought to an end in 1990 by another popular revolt which finally brought a national legislature based on universal suffrage. Forced labor and ultimately, in 2000 Kamaiya, was abolished because the political equilibrium in Nepal changed in a direction which empowered those who were hurt by the institutions. Once Kamaiya workers could vote and once political parties had to compete for their support, it was impossible to sustain the institution. The distribution of political power had changed and as a consequence what economic institutions could be sustained in equilibrium.

The monarchy did not take this lying down. In 2005 the ruling king, Gyanendra, mounted a coup suspending Parliament and declaring martial law. Most democratic politicians were forced into exile in India, where they entered into a coalition with Maoists insurgents to orchestrate a massive campaign of popular opposition to the king. In 2006 he was forced from power and in 2008 the monarchy was abolished.


                                King Gyanendra

The Nepalese experience illustrates a general pattern. Just as extractive economic institutions are kept in place by extractive political institutions, economic change most often results from political change.


The Best Publicity We Could Ask For

Olivia Hazell and her daughter Elizabeth, outside the Ulster Bank, O’Connell Street, Dublin, this afternoon.


How to get rid of Konys

Okay there has already been too much written on Invisible Children and on Joseph Kony (in case you have been stranded in a cave for the last few weeks, you can start here and see the video here; see also the latest article by Nicholas Kristof here). Though it also has its detractors, Invisible Children’s campaign to bring Joseph Kony to justice has raised awareness of terrible atrocities and has a lot of supporters. Last year President Obama committed 100 more US troops to help hunt Kony down, and even its critics generally admit that Invisible Children’s actions might help to capture Kony. 

                   War Criminal

But is that the right thing to focus on? There is absolutely no doubt that Kony kidnaps, kills, and murders, and has an army made up mostly of child soldiers. The world would be a far better place without him. But focusing just on Kony, without understanding the grievances of the civil war in northern Uganda that has raged for 30 years on, misses the big picture. Kony is portrayed as a homicidal maniac, which he is. But he is not raging his campaign in the complete absence of any support. At one point on encountering children hiding in the Ugandan town of Gulu from Kony’s army the film’s commentary says: 

This has been going on for years? If that happened in one night in America it would be on the cover of Newsweek.

Angelina Jolie, Goodwill ambassador to the UN, says ‘Joseph Kony is an extraordinarily horrible human being’

Alas, the main reason for the war in Uganda is not the absence of Newsweek or a suitable Ugandan alternative. It is no coincidence that there is a civil war in northern Uganda nor that Kony is still on the loose. There are good reasons for the conflict and once you recognize that, then an implication is that just killing Kony will not solve the problem, there will be many other potential Konys.

Consider the Colombian civil war, which we’ll write about in greater detail next week. This war has been going on for even longer than the Ugandan one. The main rebel group fighting the government is the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). A similar “bad guy” explanation for the civil war is just as possible in Colombia and the US government has leant the Colombians special forces and high tech machinery to track the leaders down. The long standing leader Tirofijo died of natural causes in May 2008 before he could be eliminated and just two months earlier FARC’s spokesman and Secretariat member Raúl Reyes was killed by the government in Ecuador. Yet the deaths of Tirofijo and Reyes led not to peace but another bad guy leader Alfonso Cano who was killed by the government and their high tech equipment in November 2011. But now there is just another bad guy leading the FARC by the name of Timochenko. Maybe the problem in Colombia is not just bad guys, and the solution to the civil war is not simply the elimination of bad guys but a resolution of the political and economic problems that create the war.

The first thing to note about the Ugandan civil war is that it was initiated by the invasion and military takeover of Yoweri Museveni in 1985, still Uganda’s president. Museveni is from Ankole, the southwest of the country as are most of the high ranking military officers in the army. The president he overthrew, Tito Okello, who also came to power by force, was Acholi, from the north. The roots of the war in Uganda are in this clash between Museveni, whose regime has massively favored the south, and the north of the country, which he has attempted to pacify and control, particularly during the first 15 years when he consolidated his rule. In the first decade of his rule Museveni ruled as a dictator and herded the population of the north into camps depopulating the countryside. The first presidential elections were held in 1996 and then 2001, though political parties were banned and people had to stand as individuals. Though these elections were stage-managed, Museveni still only managed to poll just over 10% of the vote in the north, compared to 70% nationally. The pain and suffering of the war was concentrated amongst those who don’t support him. Indeed, even those who lament the horrors of the war, such as Peter Eichstaedt (see First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army, here) recognize two things: first, the root cause of the war is the political exclusion of the north and second the war has persisted because it suits the regime governing the country. Simply put the chaos and bloodletting has been part of the political exclusion of the north.

There are also deeper reasons for the conflict (as there are for most civil wars that have raged in Africa as we discussed here). Like many sub-Saharan African countries Uganda was arbitrarily constructed from a whole gamut of African polities, like Ankole, but also Buganda, Bunyoro and Toro, all with long histories of warfare and animosities. As the historian Richard Reid has shown for this part of the world (see his Frontiers of Violence in North-East Africa: Genealogies of Conflict since c.1800, here) current conflict often mirrors past ones which also feature things apparently created by Kony, such as child soldiers.

To stop the killing and kidnapping in Uganda it is not enough to bring Kony to justice – though that itself would be a worthy goal if it could be achieved. What is required is further change in the way Uganda is governed to make the political system more inclusive, rather than a dictatorship of part of the country over the rest. This has been happening to some extent, but slowly and partially. International pressure forced Museveni to allow political parties before the 2006 elections. Greater political competition and more constraints on fraud forced Museveni to change his strategy, encouraging him to start wooing northern voters — Kony being driven of Uganda into Congo and Sudan likely was a result of this. In the 2011 presidential election, Museveni even got 37% of the vote in Acholiland. So it is this gradual change in the political system which probably accounts for Kony’s retreat. To finally get rid of Kony himself and the spectre of future Konys, the Ugandan political system needs to become more inclusive — and understanding African history would also help.


Time for Talks in Syria Has Passed

Kofi Annan’s mission is unlikely to lead to a meaningful resolution to the crisis in Syria (see here). This is not only because the conflict has in all likelihood reached the point of no return, but also because the Syrian regime would have probably never acquiesced to a peaceful transition in the first place. It is useful to understand why Bashar al-Assad’s regime decided to fight it out, with only the flimsiest attempt to reform and placate opponents.

                                          Syria burning

In the past year protest movements have rocked the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes. There have been three types of outcomes. In Tunisia and Egypt they have succeeded in deposing the autocrats without great loss of life. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were pushed from power without a civil war. This was greatly facilitated in Egypt with the defection of the military, a bulwark of the repressive edifice that Mubarak had built. In consequence, the future path of democracy is still uncertain in Egypt as many key parts of the coalition that Mubarak had built are still wielding power openly, and this is at the root of the frequent flare-ups of protests and clashes between the security forces and the protesters.

In another sub-set of these countries, typified by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the existing regimes managed to buy off the protestors via massive pay rise, expansions of government services and small political reforms. The situation has been very diffident in Libya and Syria. In both cases, the regimes decided to fight the protests with overwhelming force. In Libya the outside assistance enabled the rebels to conclusively defeat and depose Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria the outcome of the conflict, which began in March 2011, is still uncertain and the death toll is rising constantly.

This path has been mostly shaped, and the possibility of reform shut out, by the underlying logic of the regime Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, created in 1970. On the face of it this was a one party state under the control of the Ba’ath Party which came to power in Syria via a military coup in 1963. Though the Ba’ath Party, which also brought us Saddam Hussian in Iraq, espoused a nationalist Pan-Arab ideology with heavy tinges of socialism, the reality in Syria is that it became a vehicle for a particular Syrian community, the Alawis. The Alawis, who comprise around 10% of the Syrian population concentrated in the northwest, adhere to a particular interpretation of Islam. On assuming power in 1963 the Ba’athists, already dominated by Alawis, inherited a state molded by centuries of imperialism under the Ottoman Empire and a rather shorter span of French colonialism between 1920 and 1946. This state sat atop a set of extractive economic institutions, designed to enable the extraction of resources by a small minority from the rest of society. During the Ottoman and French times, this minority comprised the colonial powers as well as its allies in Syria. Under the Ba’athist rule, it comprised mainly the Alawis.

These extractive economic institutions have several consequences. One of the most important is poverty. No society which organizes the economy to benefit just 10% of the population will generate prosperity. To grow and become prosperous the most critical thing a society must do is to harness its talent and human potential which is widely disbursed in the population. Though post-independence Syrian regimes have invested in education, heavily laced with propaganda, only those with the rights connections stand to benefit from a government appointment or having the chance to open a business.

A second set of implications is political. Extractive economic institutions do not exist in a vacuum. They need to be supported by extractive political institutions, concentrating power in the hands of the same narrow elite controlling the economy, and stripping away any constraints on the use of this political power. The logic is simple: how else would the elite convince the rest of society to go alone with this extraction? It is thus no coincidences that Syria ended up with a repressive dictatorship in which the same elites controlled all levers of power. Despite all that repression, extractive political institutions are not fully stable. An obvious source of instability is that when institutions are extractive those at the top do very well from the extraction. This means that other people would like to replace them and benefit from the extraction themselves. This is one way to think about the transition from Ottoman to French, and then to Ba’athist and Alawi rule. Any of these groups could have changed the organization of society away from extraction, but they saw it in their interests not to. All that extraction creates deep-rooted grievances and resentment in society as people wish to change the institutions which block their chances and aspirations.

The regime in Syria has faced discontent before March 2011 and it has always reacted in the same way, by using repression to preserve its extractive institutions. In 1982 the Sunni Muslim community in Hama revolted against Hafez al-Assad who sent in the army to crush it. Possibly 40,000 people died. Other revolts were staged by the Muslim Brothers in the 1970s and early 1980s, by the Druze in 2000 and the Kurds in 2004.

Why haven’t any of these challenges led to meaningful reform? Why didn’t the elites in Syria attempt a managed transition like the one initiated by the Egyptian military? Part of the answer is that the regime in Syria, like that in Libya, was even more extractive and more repressive than the ones in Egypt and Tunisia, thus those controlling power had more to lose from reform. Given their existing repressive operatives, they also deemed it feasible to use force to ride out the protests. But perhaps more important is what those extractive institutions have done to Syrian society. Though the politicians around Mubarak, the businessmen closely connected to him and his sons, and the military were all part of the ruling elite in Egypt, this was no monolithic group, and had not suppressed all of the Egyptian civil society. So when the protests arrived there were organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, that could play a leading role; and parts of the elite, most notably the military, could see a way out in a managed transition that would shed Mubarak and some of the old guard, but largely protect their interests. Because the ruling elite in Syria is more monolithic and more likely to be swept aside when its tight grip is loosened, there was always less room for such a managed transition. And once the choice was made for using overwhelming force, any small possibility of a negotiated settlement that existed disappeared, and the cleavages in Syrian society became even deeper.

This perspective thus suggests that a peaceful solution is not on the cards. The Assad regime is very unlikely to go voluntarily. If so, then the pretense that international negotiations can achieve such a voluntary departure is just that — a pretense.

But the genie is out of the bottle. The regime cannot survive given the mobilization of society. There is no clear timetable when it will be toppled. Next year this time, it may still be in power, but if so, its ability to control many areas will have been much diminished; we are now probably in the final act of the Assad regime.

The real challenge facing Syria lies in the next act: the Syrian people — not the international community — will be the ones to build and safeguard the new institutions. And they have to watch out that the transition away from this noxious regime doesn’t repeat the vicious circle that replaced the French extractive rule by the even more extractive Ba’athist and Alawi regime. A tall order!


Caste and Coercion

Slavery in Nepal was abolished only in 1921. Corvée, forced labor, was made illegal in 1952, but survived. It was only in 2000 that various sorts of coerced and bonded labor finally disappeared.

As late as the early 1990s in the Western parts of Terai, the lowland forest area of Nepal which borders India, many rural people were forced to work 30 to 35 days a year in unpaid labor services. The most important institution in this region was that of Kamaiya labor. Kamaiya was a particular type of servile labor relation where superficially workers and landlords freely entered into contractual relations during the festival of Maghesakranti (first day of the Magha month of the Nepali calendar), which starts on January 14. In practice, the majority of the workers were in debt to various masters, and debts are passed between generations with landlords buying and selling Kamaiya, a situation akin to chattel slavery. In 1992 a government report estimated that there were still about 20,000 Kamaiya households, possibly 116,000 adults and children. The report found that on the average, a Kamaiya worked about 13 hours a day and a male adult worker might receive a daily income of only around 11 Rupees, about 14 US cents. Using the legal minimum wage of 60 rupees for eight-hour work per day, such a worker ought to be getting 102 Rupees for the 13-hour work, about US$1.29, not exactly a fortune but better than 14 cents. Other research by the International Labour Organization using data from Banke district suggests much longer work hours, with a working day for men of as much as 17 hours a day during the heyday of the Kamaiya system.


                                    Time Use for Bonded Male Laborer

Source: Bhadra, Chandra (2006) “Gender Dynamics in Bonded Labour in Nepal,” International Labour Organization.


All these bonded laborers had something else in common, they were all either Dalits (‘untouchables’) or Janajatis which is a collective term for people speaking Tibetan-Burmese languages such as Magars, Gurungs, Tamangs and Sherpas.  Right up to the present day Nepal has been dominated by high caste elites, known as the Parbatiyas, made up of the Brahmin and Chettri castes. Brahmins and Chettris comprise only 28% of the population according to the 2001 census, but they are massively overrepresented in politics (e.g., as ministers, members of parliament and leaders of political parties), the legal profession, the civil service, and professional fields. Dalits and Janajatis, though they make up 45% of the population, have historically had more or less no representation in any of the areas. The caste system is a rigid form of occupational segregation, handed down from parents to children and severely blocks the opportunities and life chances of those at the bottom of the hierarchy. A society with a caste system wastes a vast amount of its economic potential.Right up to the present day much of the economy of Nepal has been based on labor coercion, repression and exclusion – that is, on highly extractive economic institutions.


And you guessed it: Nepal is a very very poor country, with per capita income only about 40th of the US.