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Poor People Unite! Poor People Unite!

Poor People Unite!

by Reihan Salam, Naz Sahin
June 6, 2008

In theory, there are almost 200 sovereign countries in the world. In practice, however, only a small handful of countries-the United States, the rich nations of Europe and East Asia, and possibly China-truly have the power to determine their own fate. Almost all of the rest are at the mercy of these economic superpowers, which set the rules of the game and rig them in their own favor. What the world needs is an economic superpower that represents the interests of the world's poor: Call it Pooristan. Stretching from sub-Saharan Africa to central and south Asia to the islands of the Pacific to the Americas, this mega-state would include all those people the economist Paul Collier calls "the Bottom Billion." But rather than see this vast population as a burden, Pooristan would recognize it as the world's greatest untapped resource.
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What the world needs is an economic superpower that represents the interests of the world's poor: Call it Pooristan.
Whereas so much of today's divided developing world is plagued by war, whether between states or within them, Pooristan would establish a Pax Pooristana, enforced by a civilian-led multinational volunteer army. Like the Roman and British Empires before it, Pooristan would constitute a vast zone of free trade and migration that would eventually give rise to a polyglot culture. Just as London gathers the world's most impressive financial minds and Silicon Valley attracts extraordinary tech talent, sprawling cities like Lagos, Nigeria, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, would be transformed by the influx of talented "foreigners"-fellow Pooristanis-searching for opportunity. Yes, there would be ethnic conflict, particularly early on. But competition between groups would take the form of friendly economic competition, not bloodshed. To be sure, any state of this size would have to be extremely decentralized. Different regions and provinces and cities would pursue radically different policies. Yet no Pooristani would be prevented from settling anywhere within the borders of Pooristan.Clearly, Pooristan won't emerge in our lifetime. But as long as poor-country citizens are barred from the rich world, they need to think seriously about joining forces. The great advantage the big emerging markets have over small submerging markets is their bigness. China doesn't have as high a proportion of Ph.D.s as South Korea or the United States. But it has a huge absolute number. That makes an enormous difference. A large absolute number of skilled professionals means you can create economic agglomerations (like London and Silicon Valley) that can serve as engines of economic growth. More often than not, immigrants and foreign capital fuel these engines-the key reason open economies beat closed economies every time.So why do we need Pooristan? A few microstates like Singapore and Mauritius have flourished as free-trading entrepots at the crossroads of major trading routes. Resource-rich Dubai is trying to beat the world's financial centers at their own game. But for every Singapore or Dubai there is a Central African Republic or a Laos-tiny, poor, often landlocked countries racked by disease. For these countries, their only real resource is their people. As Lant Pritchett argues in his brilliant book Let Their People Come, we could free all trade in goods and services and the economic benefits to the developing world would be pretty modest. That's because, to their credit, key rich countries have already lowered their trade barriers dramatically since the Second World War.What would make a huge difference for poor countries would be slightly more labor mobility. Every year, rich countries send roughly $70 billion in development aid to poor countries. But if the number of immigrants from poor countries in rich-country workforces increased by just 3 percent, those workers would send $300 billion in benefits to poor-country citizens and their families back home. And yet rich countries are growing ever less inclined to reduce immigration restrictions, often for good reasons. To understand the end result, think about what would happen if residents of riot-scarred inner cities were banned from finding jobs anywhere else. Pritchett calls the world's least fortunate countries "zombies." Because their people are trapped by the lack of economic prospects, they are the equivalent of the living dead.Pooristan would change all that. It would allow the poor to break out of the little prisons that masquerade as nation-states. And eventually the world's rich would clamor to get in.
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