At graduate school, admittedly a few decades ago, conventional wisdom had it that economics was about offering policymakers welfare-improving options – the political process and political regimes were a given. However, as time went by, it became increasingly apparent that politics shape policies; hence development outcomes and their distribution. Economic power matters, but by now it is evident that the development process is as much—if not more—about politics as about economics.
If you do not believe me ask Jim Robinson.
Accordingly, when potential themes for this year’s annual conference were being mulled over a year ago, “Politics and Economic Development” kept emerging a clear winner. At that time, we believed that the political landscape in our region would change eventually, but little did any ne realize that an avalanche of change would come so soon, and as dramatically as it did.
After decades of political apathy, revolution after revolution is breaking out, unrestrained by age-old institutions or by borders. Among the many myths shattered by the revolutions was the one that held that people would sacrifice political freedom for economic gain. The wave of change is reaching countries like Libya and Bahrain who can afford to extend generous economic benefits. Apparently, the combination of a youth bulge, an increasingly educated population, the virtual proximity provided by technology, along with unequal distribution of opportunity and the demand for human dignity is very powerful indeed.
While the transformation process is still unfolding, once the fervor has died down and the people of the region have started to come to terms with what is a new—and for many, hard-won—freedom, the question will be; ‘What now?” Countries will move, as some already have, from the rejection of old regimes and policies to searching for ways to rebuild and replace them with policies that create prosperity and equality of opportunity for all. Among the critical questions that they have to deal with are: what does it take to bring about a democratic society? Does democracy automatically guarantee better development outcomes? Are democratic and economic liberalization necessarily linked? And what are the mechanisms that will meet the legitimate aspirations of the people?
The ERF 17th Annual Conference, scheduled to take place in Antalya, Turkey, March 20-22, 2011, is intended to address these varied and vital questions. It will convene over 200 economists from the region and abroad, including some of the sharpest minds in economics and politics. Moreover, the plenary sessions will include actual players in the revolutionary dramas in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
In conclusion, the ERF region will never be where it was at the beginning of this year. The changes that have occurred might have been on the horizon but the speed and intensity at which they unfolded has taken everyone by surprise. In many ways, it’s a new world, full of both challenges and promise, and we will need to see how to best to rebuild and move on. The ERF community will increasingly have to be part of this process. The annual conference is just the beginning.
by Ahmed Galal, ERF Managing Director