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A widening schism: Dambisa Moyo at TEDGlobal 2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“Give me liberty or give me death,” says global economist Dambisa Moyo, quoting Patrick Henry from 1775. In Western ideology, freedom is the most cherished value of all, and its government and economic systems have freedom deeply embedded in them. Over the past century, these systems have delivered prosperity and innovation: US incomes have increased 30 times, hundreds of thousands have been lifted from poverty, and US ingenuity has helped spur global industrialization. So there’s an understandably deep-seated presumption among Westerners that the whole world wants to embrace an ideology that holds sacred private capitalism, liberal democracy and prioritizing political rights over economic rights.

But there’s an ideological schism emerging between developed and developing countries, and it is widening. Ninety percent of the world’s population lives in emerging markets, and to them, the obsession with political rights is beside the point, taking a backseat to food, shelter, education and healthcare. When you’re earning less than $1 a day, says Moyo, you’re far too busy trying to feed your family to worry about defending democracy.

It’s not that these people wouldn’t ideally like to pick their own presidents and leaders, says Moyo, but on balance, they worry more about where life improvements will come from, and how quickly — not whether the governments that will deliver what they need got put there by democracy. What would you choose if you had to choose between the right to a roof over your head and the right to vote?

Now, for the first time in a long time, a real challenge to Western ideals is emerging — the system embodied by China, which values state capitalism, deemphasizes democracy and prioritizes economic rights. China’s system is gathering momentum as the system to follow because it promises the fastest improvements in living standards in the shortest period of time. Moyo cites China’s astonishing record of poverty alleviation and improvement in living standards. While the US and China have vastly different political and economic systems, they have an identical Gini coefficient — the measure of income inequality. In fact, China’s income inequality is improving while the US’s is getting worse.

And then there’s China’s legendary infrastructure — 85,000 kilometers of roadwork, surpassing the United States. And it extends beyond their own borders; for instance, China has tarred the 9,000 miles between Cape Town and Cairo. China has also used state-owned enterprises to deliver healthcare to previously unreachable areas. No surprise, then, that in a 2007 Pew survey, Africans in 10 countries said China was doing amazing things to improve livelihoods. “People are pointing at China and saying ‘I like that, I want that. That’s a system that seems to work.'”


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Moyo points to another shift in perception: people are starting to doubt that democracy is a prerequisite to growth. She argues a different angle, that economic growth is a prerequisite for democracy, citing a study that suggests that only after a country achieves $6,000 per capita income can you expect your democracy to last forever “come hell or high water.” This suggests that the key for a solid democracy is a solid middle class — and raises doubt about rushing around shoehorning democracy into countries that are not ready for it. This runs the risk of ending up with illiberal democracies, those with restricted freedom of speech and movement — worse than the governments they seek to replace.

There’s evidence that this schism in ideology will likely widen, espeically as China becomes the largest economy in the world, which it’s set to do in 2016. Moyo gives us a glimpse of what kind of world we’ll be living in: one with a bigger state role, more state capitalism, increasing protectionism, and fewer political rights and individual freedoms.

How should the West respond? Moyo says it can choose to compete with the Chinese model or cooperate. If the West chooses to compete, it would have to convince many countries in the emerging world to take its side, which is likely to widen the schism. Cooperation would mean allowing emerging countries to make their own choices for what works for them. Could this be considered ceding to China? Moyo suggests cooperation is the best way for the US and Europe to maintain their influence in a changing world, and compete in the long term.

So what should the West be doing? It should be expanding trade and investment around the world, demonstrating how western liberal democracy and free markets are a good choice, and allowing other countries to decide which political and economic systems work best for them. In short, it needs to take a page from its own history and practice patience — after all, it took the US almost 170 years from signing the Constitution to achieving universal suffrage.

Moyo argues that people naturally pivot towards economics and politics in a rational way, seeking better living standards in a short amount of time. As individuals, it’s up to us to be open-minded, she says. To illustrate, she tells the story of her birth in 1968, in Zambia, where, at the time, black people were not issued birth certificates. In 40 years, if Moyo could go from being unrecognized as a human being to standing here delivering her ideas to the world, it’s possible to tear up preconceived structures and strictures, and instead look at options and seek the truth. “It’s about transforming the world and making it a better place.”

Dambisa Moyo’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on »