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In a recent episode of The Colombia Cast podcast, the eminent economist and political scientist James Robinson, co-author of the influential Why Nations Fail, restated his view that geography plays no part in the economic development of countries.
Looking at it from an Americas perspective from the time Europeans arrived on these shores, that Canada and the US are more ‘advanced’ than their counterparts further south has a lot to do with pure chance initially, later followed by the systems of governance introduced.
Basically, the Spanish found fairly advanced civilisations settled in areas rich in natural resources that could be relatively easily exploited for the homeland. The British, in contrast, had to deal with largely nomadic tribes inhabiting rather harsh conditions. One, oversimplified way to put it is that the Spanish found streets paved with gold to loot while the concept of a street didn’t even exist where the British settlers landed.
‘Climate certainly played a part.’
Had the roles been reversed would the state of what we now call Latin America be much better today? Would the US be the power it is? The answer to the latter question is probably not, based on how the Spanish Empire ran its affairs. As for the Brits in Latin America, well their own record in lands where a quick buck could be made is far from exemplary. Jamaica’s not exactly a powerhouse now, is it?
In this regard, while geography per se wasn’t the factor, one could say climate played an important part. In terms of Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, it was their ability to produce an abundance of cheap sugar for the European market that made them ripe (pun intended) for exploitation. Thus, their location in the tropics was critical.
We must also consider the idea that the need to plan and prepare according to the seasons in regions where a harsh winter would see off those found wanting played some role in engraining a more ‘organised’ disposition in those living further north.
Speaking of those northern reaches, had Ireland not been located next to the greatest old-school empire the world has ever known (today’s big boys, the US and China, are perhaps best measured in different terms) there’s little doubt it would look much different today.
Nothing without EU
Of course, there are many interconnected factors that shape countries and regions. In Ireland’s case, had it converted to Protestantism — or had Britain remained Catholic — the last few centuries would surely have been far less troublesome than they were.
‘Ireland was a pedagogical powerhouse.’
While British interference in Irish affairs was a fact before the religious divide, it became fundamental for security for the emerging empire to control, at pretty much whatever cost, the untrustworthy neighbour to the west. (Do note that in the early days of Christianity in Europe, Ireland was known as the island of saints and scholars, a sort of godly, pedagogical powerhouse we could say. Subjugation by the British changed all that.)
Fast forward a few hundred years and, as I’ve written about before, a partially independent Ireland’s proximity to mainland Europe, not to mention membership of the European Union, has been crucial in its economic development.
Imagine if Ireland, everything else being equal, had been an island just off Africa. How would it look economically and politically today? One just needs to take a glance at the countries in the Dark Continent post-colonisation to get an idea.
Weighing all this up, while there are many reasons why nations ‘fail’, your neighbours can play a significant part. Location does matter, at least in those vital formative years.
Listen to The Colombia Cast podcast here.
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