Ideas as drivers of continuity and change: Big lessons from two small countries

Nothing matters more for a country’s long-run development than how it navigates cycles of hope, crisis and renewal. This piece explores these cycles, using the examples of  two small countries, Georgia and Benin.

The longstanding focus of my governance work has been on incremental with-the-grain approaches – and I continue to believe that they are useful for sustaining forward momentum in times of stability, when inclusive growth is rapid. However, over the longer-run, the crucial difference between countries which become affluent and those which remain poor is in the proportion of time they spend growing rather than mired in crisis.  Ideas turn out to be a crucial influence on how a country cycles from growth to crisis and back again.

The centrality of ideas has been highlighted by a variety of eminent economists, including John Maynard Keynes, Dani Rodrik, Douglass North and Albert Hirschman. [See this link for an overview.] Hirschman’s notion of an ideationally-driven cycle – which he framed in  a 1974 article in terms of  a changing tolerance for inequality in the course of economic development  – has proven to be especially helpful as  a framing device in my research and teaching.  Hirschman  introduced the cycle via an analogy with being stuck in intermittently moving traffic: 

“Suppose I run into a serious traffic jam in a two-lane tunnel. After a while the cars in the other lane begin to move. Naturally, my spirits lift considerably…. Even though I […may not gain…]…. I feel much better off than before because of the expectation that I shall soon be on the move….. 

“But this tolerance…. is like a credit that falls due….Advances of others supply information about a more benign external environment…. [which]  suspends envy…. [But]  non-realization of the expectation that my turn will soon come will at some point result in my ‘becoming furious’ that is, in my turning into an enemy of the established order.  No particular outward event sets off this dramatic turnaround.”

In recent years, I have encouraged  students in my masters-level Development Strategies course at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies  to write their term papers on how this  cycle has played out in specific countries.  This blog highlights two papers – Brittin Alfred’s paper on the central Caucasus country of Georgia and Luke Tyburski’s on the West African state of Benin. Both offer potent – but radically contrasting  – insights as to the role of ideas in the Hirschman cycle.

Georgia is an extraordinary example of the power of ideas in catalyzing institutional turnaround.  In 1991, it (re-) emerged as an independent country by seceding from the disintegrating Soviet Union. Following an initial period of political and economic turmoil, the country stabilized. Since the mid-1990s, economic growth has mostly been positive, averaging in the range of 5% per annum. In the latter 1990s, the country seemingly settled into an equilibrium of steady growth plus high corruption. But the early 2000s witnessed a transformation of governance  – a transformation which, from a comparative global perspective is unprecedentedly rapid and far-reaching.  In 2002 the Worldwide Governance Indicators scored the country as among the worst-performing 5 percent of countries in its control of corruption; by 2005, it was in the top half of performers; by 2012 it was in the top one-third.

Brittin’s paper explores how an orchestrated shift in social norms helps account for this renewal.  Drawing on the extensive literature on how social norms are shaped and changed (and, especially, the contributions of Elinor Ostrom), she argues that:  

peoples’ own preferences are constantly interacting with the preferences of others; given the opportunity to communicate and co-ordinate, people will often work together to find the most beneficial outcome – and these practices, once observed to be beneficial, will be ‘adopted’ more widely’ throughout a society.”

 What made the difference in the Georgian case was leadership, specifically the leadership provided by Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili, who become the country’s president in 2003 in the wake of the country’s Rose Revolution was, Brittin writes, “a passionate, charismatic and outrageously bold politician…. audacious enough to believe that [discontinuous] change was possible, charismatic enough to convince people of this belief, and tenacious enough to doggedly pursue converting this belief into reality”. The reform of Georgia’s traffic police illustrates how norm-shifting was achieved:

“Police would stop any motorist or pedestrian, and would shamelessly extort bribes….. Georgians would pay bribes to these police because they anticipated their fellow citizens would, and vice versa. Saakashvili launched a total assault on corruption within the police forces. Overnight, the entire 16,000 person-strong police force of Georgia was fired, and new police were brought on board. The new police were told there would be a zero-tolerance policy on corruption, and when the new force failed to adhere to this new, non-corrupt norm, they were fired again. After two rounds of firing and re-hiring, as well as drastically reducing the bloated rank numbers, police officers eventually began to get the message, and fall into line.” 

Things didn’t end well in Georgia for Saakashvili. His party lost parliamentary elections in 2012; he was forced to leave the country (and subsequently was charged with a variety of criminal offenses). But Georgia continues to be a beacon of the possibility of radical reversal of corruption. [More examples of how Saakashvili achieved this, plus a useful introduction to the  literature on norm shifts, can be found in Brittin’s paper.]

The role of ideas has been starkly different the West African country of Benin than in Georgia. The Georgian case illustrates how discontinuous changes in ideas and institutions can be mutually reinforcing. In Benin by contrast, as Luke Tyburski’s paper details,   ideas have been a source of continuity. The country has remained stable throughout the three decades since its 1990 transition to democracy  – notwithstanding moderate growth (about 4% per annum), mediocre institutions, and stubbornly persistent poverty for the bottom 70-80% of the population. To explore why this has been so, Luke reframes Hirschman’s tunnel effect in terms of three lanes:

  • a privileged lane for the upper elite, comprising maybe one percent of the population;
  • a lane for the salaried urban middle class, making up less than 20 percent of the population;
  • the vast majority of the population is left in a third lane, which has been static for too long to remember.

Luke suggests two ideationally-rooted explanations for the seeming passivity of people in the third lane.  The first of these is deeply rooted in Benin’s  legacy as a central locale for the slave trade. The Beninese port of Ouidah was West Africa’s largest slave port, a point of exit for over one million slaves. Slavery was abolished only in 1905; forced labor remained legal until 1946. As Luke details (and consistent with Paolo Freire’s classic book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed) internalized privilege and internalized oppression continue to shape the country’s polity and society.

“No consequential dismantling of the tribes and power structures involved has taken place. The Fon in the south are largely descendants of residents of Dahomey, while the widely enslaved Gando remain in the north…. Former identities, symbolism, and relations have proven incredibly resilient….Development has also proceeded unequally, with literacy rates in the northernmost district of 25 percent, compared to 87 percent in the coastal capital.”

Luke’s second explanation for Benin’s stability distinguishes among ‘tunnel effect’ interactions between the first and second lanes, and the second and third. As he puts it:   

“Benin’s tunnel effect is more [accurately] described as a pair of elite-middle class and middle class-masses relationships. Benin’s non-elites have their eye more on the ‘second lane’ than on the elites.”

He argues that Benin’s 1990 democratization was set in motion  by first-second lane interactions –  a turn from hope to anger on the part of the urban middle class vis-à-vis the upper elites. In addition, the democratization  moment sparked a benign tunnel effect for the third lane. Gains for this lane included some stirrings of political engagement in rural areas – new village associations, and some increased participation of historically-marginalized groups in producer organizations and local elections.  But expectations remained modest. As of 2019,  structural continuities appeared to continue to outweigh democratic gains among the non-elite – although it is noteworthy that, even though 73% of the population continued to prefer democracy, satisfaction with democracy declined from 69% in 2008 to 51% in 2017.


How to reconcile the seemingly opposite roles played by ideas in Georgia (as a force for change)  and  in Benin (as a buttress for the status quo)? One option is recourse to a Marxian dismissal of ideas as ‘superstructure’, concealing the deeper (class) forces at work. This is not my view. Focusing on ideas has helped me to see some hidden fault lines in development discourse.  Development concerns complex systems, and how they change. There can be long periods of stability, periods when (as I explored in depth in earlier work)  change is cumulative,  incremental. But sometimes complex systems  recalibrate discontinuously.  Tectonic plates shift; evolution makes a rapid leap. Complex social systems can have similar moments of discontinuity – and at such moments  the direction of change is shaped by contestation over ideas. We currently are in the throes of one of these discontinuous moments. It is at the level of ideas that the path ahead will be shaped, for good or ill.

One response

  1. Pingback: The centrality of ideas – some important contributions « WORKING WITH THE GRAIN: Integrating governance and growth

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