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Asia’s Development and the Leadership Issue
Thursday, 01 March 2012 01:35

Asia’s economic development has been so successful that it has been labelled a 'miracle'. However, if this is true for economic growth, the picture looks far less impressive if you look at other dimensions of development. A return of leadership is needed, argues this week's invited contributor, Emanuele Schibotto* from our knowledge partner www.Equilibri.net.


Looking at Asia’s phenomenal economic growth figures since the second half of the 20th century, it is easy to understand why international observers have used the word 'miracle'. From 1975 to 2000 East Asia grew faster than any other region in the world, with average per capita growth rates of 6 percent. One example gives the picture of the so-called miracle: South Korea, only as rich as Ghana in 1960, is now a OECD member posting GDP per capita in purchasing power parity terms higher than Italy.

Which factors contributed to the Asian miracle? Of course, there were many drivers behind it, such as higher level of education, huge saving rates and the crucial role played by the USA as regional security provider and huge market for exporting goods. Nonetheless, what really distinguished Asian economic path from the rest of developing countries was leadership. Bright-minded entrepreneurs and forward-looking politicians worked not only to seek personal profit.  They were also committed to create an economic renaissance for their nations. From Sony’s Akio Morita to Wipro’s Azim Premji, from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew to Korea’s Park Chung Hee, inspiring leaders were the backbone of the early stages of each Asian economy, as Michael Schuman writes in The Miracle (Harper, 2009).

Think about it. Why did Indonesian PhD scholars educated in the US, the so-called 'Berkeley Mafia', who understood and got to know Western democratic values, decide to work under Suharto and accepted his authoritarian stance? Why did Albert Winsemius, a Dutch economist and UN official, join Lee Kuan Yew despite having such different background and understanding of personal freedom and democracy?  They were attracted by the genuine, contagious dynamism born out of a common vision: increasing the nation's general level of prosperity.

Now, Asia is at a crossroad because it has achieved a 'miracle of riches', but not yet a 'miracle of life', as Charles Kenny described it in his book Getting Better (Basic Books, 2011). Overall Asia’s development experience has been one of success and example for other parts of the world. Nevertheless there are aspects of development other than economic growth,  from income inequality to social inclusion to rapid urbanization, where it has not achieved comparable results.

In terms of improving the quality of life, even the Middle East and North Africa did relatively much better then East Asia in the last 50 years. Publications by the Asia Development Bank have shown that inequality has been on the rise throughout the region during the past two decades.  Even Japan, a country where a relatively equal income distribution was its trademark of postwar economic development, has seen rising income inequality among working age people.

As Justin Lin puts it, economic development is a “dynamic process” that “requires industrial upgrading and corresponding improvements in 'hard' and 'soft' infrastructure at each level”. Along this process - Lin argues - the governments should put in place policies aimed at “facilitating industrial upgrading and infrastructure improvements”, which means matching ongoing economic growth with the other dimensions of development.

At the beginning of the miracle, leaders across the region well understood the paramount importance of rapid growth to eliminate extreme poverty conditions and climb the technology ladder. At present, Asian political and economic actors should equally realize that for sound economic growth to be maintained in the long run, the other dimensions of economic development must be taken into consideration and addressed. Leadership is needed again.

*The author is PhD candidate in Geoeconomics at the Guglielmo Marconi University in Rome. He also is Coordinator of www.Equilibri.net , an Italian think tank and online magazine on Geopolitics and International Relations

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