November 16, 2020

Harris Professor James Robinson Speaks on Global Economic Inequality, the Legacy of Colonialism


Courtesy of Harris School of Public Policy

Harris School of Public Policy Professor and leading political economist James Robinson spoke with the UChicago International Development Society about how social institutions affect patterns of global income inequality and the lingering power of the colonial legacy over modern economics. During the discussion, Robinson spoke about his experience with developmental economics and how it has shaped his views on the developing world.

Robinson is an economist, political scientist, and co-author of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. The UChicago International Development Society is a recently founded club that discusses topics centered around global and national development through various disciplinary lenses, including economics and public policy. In their virtual Q&A on October 16, Robinson discussed his research on the relationship between poverty and social institutions and how poverty emerges out of political conflict. 

He recalled that his involvement in political science began in 1979, an exciting political moment just before the start of the Reagan Administration and the election of Margaret Thatcher. Yet, as he pursued political science, he realized that “political science seemed to be all about economics.” This prompted him to pursue the two disciplines jointly. When asked about why it was important he studied both fields, he added, “Developmental economics wasn’t asking questions about why the world was the way it was… And, how does that explain different outcomes that we’re interested in in social sciences.”

Robinson received his Bachelor of Science degree (BSc) from the London School of Economics and Political Science, his M.A. from the University of Warwick, and continued to pursue his interest in political science in parallel to his economics Ph.D. from Yale University, in search of answers to the big, comparative questions which interested him. In his career, however, he created the intersection between economics and political science that he lacked in graduate school. “My whole career is kind of merging those two things and trying to apply the technical stuff…to all the other stuff that’s more interesting,” Robinson said.

To give the audience a better sense of Robinson’s work, the moderator asked his opinion on the relationship between poverty, institutions, and political conflict. Robinson claimed there are three things that people lack which cause poverty: investment, education, and human capital. “People are poor because they don't have access, because they don’t have opportunities…that’s where institutions come in.” 

He explained that institutions differ widely across societies, causing global disparities in welfare. According to Robinson, politics is at the root of poor institutional design. “What causes poverty? Institutions that exclude people and don’t create incentives and opportunities for them. Why is the world organized that way? Politics.”

Yet, Robinson acknowledged one global pattern found in the colonial legacy. Robinson explained how many of colonialism’s institutions remain part of many nations’ fabric to this day. Robinson argued that even “developed economics is an extension of colonialism. We come in with our policies and our programs…we don’t ask the Africans what they want or need.”

Furthermore, Robinson was skeptical of international organizations that try to aid countries’ economic institutions. “I’ve always been overwhelmed at the irrelevance of the World Bank and all these international institutions. Countries that have been successful have done it because they did it themselves,” he said.