I wish to spend a moment drawing attention to what I’m beginning to call the phenomena of Middle Income Banana Republics, or MIBR (Mee-Bers?). The term is meant as one of contrast, that these are Middle Income countries, but their governance often looks similar to what one would expect from a state with a much lower level of economic development. This is to say, explicitly, that expectations for governance should rise in proportion to the overall level of ‘development’ in the country.
Those who read this website regularly know that I hate this term, but it does describe something and there is fairly strong correlation at play. We expect more from governance out of Norway than, say, Uganda. Our expectations should rise and fall depending on where countries sit in-between of that socio-economic spectrum. We should be expecting more of the Philippines government in 2013 then we did in 1980 because it is a much richer, more educated country today (for instance, $1334 GDP/pc [PPP] then, $4660 today). Yet there is little evidence that is has changed much in those years.
Yet two recent situations call into question how much this sort of ‘development’ is happening. The first was the Philippine government’s response to Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan. Everyone paying attention was appalled, such that even NGOs on the ground compared the response unfavorably to even Haiti. The government in Manila seemed to have had no plans or capacity to deal with a typhoon of that side, was not overly concerned with issuing evacuation notices, and did not take control of the situation after the typhoon. If they did have plans and resources, they failed spectacularly at deploying them.
As one clear example, there were reports that it was several days after the typhoon before somebody delivered a ramp that would have allowed larger Boeing and Airbus-style jets to offload at the Tacloban Airport, meaning only helicopters and small aircraft could deliver desperately needed supplies in this first few days. This level of disorganization and (non)accountability seems far below the general level of society itself. Though the Philippines is relatively poor, but it is not that poor; there is money for a competent disaster response. It is a Middle Income country whose government is performing as poorly as a ‘banana republic’ like Haiti.
And now we are seeing the same thing in Malaysia with Malaysian Air Flight 370. It took them two and half hours to issue a red alert after contact was lost, and almost four until an international alert was issued. Out latest account has the plane flying directly over the country, but none of the people responsible for monitoring radars seemed to have seen it or deemed it worthy to report to superiors. Expensive F-15s, apparently on standby for just such an incident, stood on the runway. They were rendered dumb and inoperable by the same sort of bureaucratic failures that plagued the Philippines before and after Haiyan.
If we wanted to be more specific, the issue is that these governments are prone to fail at responding to a crises of any appreciable scale. My only explanation is that one of those social factors necessary for governance to work is a culture of accountability. Politicians and bureaucrats in these countries often aren’t expected to do a very good job, and when they fail to deliver, they are met mostly with shrugs. The buck stops nowhere, if indeed there even is a ‘buck.’