Ethnicity and Development Nexus

The literature on the ethnicity and development nexus suggests that ethnic diversities in a nation state can prevent the existence of favorable development outcomes (Easterly and Levine, 1997; Montalvoa and Reynal-Querolb, 2005).The rationale is that ethnic heterogeneity is likely to create political instability, marginalize the importance of public goods and services, distort markets, create insufficient infrastructure, and increase rent-seeking behaviour and corruption. Many findings and research strengthen the assumption that ethnic heterogeneity has a negative impact on development.While Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, being three of the four Asian Tigers, are among the most ethnically homogeneous; fourteen out of the fifteen most ethnically heterogeneous societies in the world are in Africa might improve the rationale that ethnic diversities might hamper development. (Easterly and Levine, 1997).

This week’s session encouraged me to go beyond the literature and find odd examples highlighted that multi-ethnicity does not cause undevelopment of a country if differences are well-managed.

Although the literature seems to be sound to explain the ethnicity and development nexus, counter-factual examples are not difficult to find. Singapore and Yugoslavia are obvious examples where ethnic heterogeneity and development went together. Singapore having a Chinese ethnic majority (about 80 percent) welcomes Malay and Indian minorities, each makes about 10 percent of the whole population. Singapore is considered as one of the Asian Tigers which achieved the transformation “from third world to first” (The Economist, 2015). Yugoslavia before the separation had 22 ethnically spoken languages ( Hammel et al., 2010). Among these according to the 1991 census Serbians (36,3 percent), Croats (19,7 percent), Muslims (8,9 percent) made about half of the ethnicity of the country.  Although Yugoslavia had no ethnic homogeneity, it was one of the powerful countries of the Cold War economically, politically and socially. Thanks to Tito, the creator of modern Yugoslavia, the country was united in a stable federation against the existence of antagonistic national groups (Djilas,1995).

First look to the ethnicity-development nexus can lead the observer to a quick generalization that ethnic homogeneity is a prerequisite for development, counter-examples creates skepticism to ethnicity-development correlation.

Then the important question is not how heterogeneous societies render development but how ethnic differences , which might be harmful to nation’s unity and development commitment, can be lessened. Being “a politically charged phenomenon” (Premdas, 1996, p.3), ethnicity can be ‘’constructed and reconstructed over time’’ (Scarritt, 2014, p.104). According to this discourse, ethnicity can be controlled and managed. Ethnic differences that are likely to prevent development in a specific country can be diminished through sound institutions, strong national leader, or developmentalist party. The examples are plenty. In the US, ethnic differences does not pose any problem since state institutions are working. Yugoslavia was strong under the Tito’s leadership and ‘brotherhood and unity’ motto. People’s Action Party of Singapore led economic and social development of the country.

In the case of Africa, ethnic variations are seemed a big threat against development of the region. This is a legacy of ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the colonial powers. Persistent discomfort and conflicts in the region can only be managed through not focusing on the ethnic differences but common ideals. Economic commitment to development as in the Singapore example, effective use of external threat for development as in the Soviet Union example (the US considered as a threat), or balance policy and creation of peaceful relations with the external superpowers as in the Yugoslavian example can be taken into account for the future African development cases.

Although the literature on ethnicity and development nexus is leaned towards the impossibility side, the counter-examples highlight that ethnic heterogeneity is not an obstacle to development. On the contrary, ethnic differences can be controlled and managed in a way that it does not hamper but accelerate the development process.


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