Why Are the Poorest Countries Poor?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Not enough education, not enough access to credit, not enough foreign aid, not enough access to contraception. Nope. According to a paper written by political scientists Gary Cox, Douglass North, and Barry Weingast, the root cause of poverty is violence.

Cox, North, and Weingast write:

Indeed, we show that violence is surprisingly common throughout the developing world, including the richest developing countries. The median number of years between violent regime changes in the poorest half of the world’s countries is seven years; at twelve and a half years, it is not much higher in the richest developing countries. In contrast, the median number of years between violent regime change in the richest decile of countries is sixty years.

If you take the poorest half of countries in the world, their governments are violently overthrown every 7 years! The richest 10% of countries in the world only experience violent government overthrow every 60 years.

The authors continue:

Many scholars and practitioners of development associate the problem of violence mainly with failed states, such as Somalia or the Congo. Unfortunately, the problem is far more widespread; violence and violence potential are endemic to all developing countries.

The authors argue that stable governments are able to coordinate and mobilize large amounts of capital and coordinate large numbers of people to establish economic conditions that can enable a nation to prosper, but if government leaders are always under threat of violence, then they will never work to create these conditions. Basically, the threat of violent regime change paralyzes them.

In thinking about this conclusion, that violent regime change is what holds back economic prosperity in developing countries,  I can’t help but recall the words of Paul in Romans 13:1-5:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

God has decreed that human governments are a tool to keep peace and to bring justice. Stable governments, as a component of God’s common grace, help ensure that violence is minimized, that people aren’t constantly fearing for their lives.

For those of us who are blessed to live in the upper 10% of countries who have experienced only peaceful regime changes over several decades, we must thank God. Even though we may not particularly support the policies of those in leadership, they are there to keep the peace. Remember that God is using them.

  • sean

    If the people in power were put there by God, and they get overthrown, you seem to be saying that these over-throwers are violating what God wants. But given the 7-year average from the paper, how can one differentiate between a revolt that defies God’s choice, and one that’s reinstating someone God wants and gets rid of the previous guy, who God didn’t want?

  • Ari Goldberg

    Correlation is not causation. Violence is a contributing cause of poverty to the extent that is interferes with the main bulwarks of prosperity: private property rights, the rule of law, especially with regard to enforcement of contracts, a free enterprise economic system, real money (gold and silver backed currency), and a republican form of government, where the powers of government are enumerated and limited to the principles in Romans 13: protecting those who do right, and punishing those who do wrong. Merely prescribing obedience to government in all things is not the answer to poverty. The USSR was stable from 1917 until 1989 but the people never rose out of poverty. North Korea is also stable, as is Cuba.

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