NEW YORK — NEW YORK--Here's a nice fantasy for you. The world's economists and scientists will get together and figure out the ways to maximize development while protecting the environment. That just requires the proper mix of money and technology, doesn't it. If developing countries only had the means, they could match the industrial success and environmental protection policies of the West.' right?
Wrong. Tell it to the Poles or the former East Germans or the Russians. Their literacy, even when true statistics are known, is probably higher than the Americans'. The Soviets had the ability to launch space satellites and deploy nuclear weapons. But when the Soviet empire collapsed, we saw that it failed because its economy was based on outmoded, unprofitable industries that often poisoned the air and water of its cities.
How could that happen in countries with high educational and technical levels, countries which many in the developing world wanted to emulate? The lesson of the collapse of communism is that dictatorship breeds corruption, nepotism, favoritism, incompetence--and failure. This is true not only in the former communist world, but in most developing countries which have restricted political freedoms.
Dictatorship destroys major bases for development: business rules that are fair and apply to everyone, environments where payoffs and privileges don't unfairly skew competition, maintain inefficiency, raise costs, and ravage a nation's resources.
In Indonesia, for example, companies chafe under practices that give advantages to firms associated with the friends and relatives of the ruler, General Suharto. In Jakarta, an official of the Chamber of Commece told me that Indonesian products had become uncompetitive on the world market because firms were forced to buy high-priced materials sold only by favored importers or by government monopolies.
An editor told me, 'The chief difficulty is that the people in power have sons and daughters who go into business.' A foreign technical expert working on World Bank-financed road building told me that construction costs were doubled by official rake-offs.
Sometimes dictators simply approporiate what they want. Mobutu Sese Seko wrecked the economy of Zaire when, for a spell in the 1970s, he 'nationalized' all businesses and turned them over to his cronies to loot. The military rulers of Burma are in the habit of appropriating any private business that appears to do 'too well.'
As dictators have little interest beyond keeping themselves in power, they don't care whether their policies cause destruction of the environment. Haiti's Duvaliers presided over a deforestation so severe that forest-covered land in that country went from 23 percent in 1920 to 7 percent in 1976 and 2 percent today. I saw hugh bare spots where the soil from the mountains had been carried with floodwater to the sea. A third of the country is now completely eroded, and new mud covers coral reefs where fish used to reproduce. Some of the trees were on state land rented at low prices to the dictators' friends; others were taken to sell as charcoal by the poor whom the dictators' practices denied a fair share of the country's wealth.
Sometimes, the West has been complicitous in promoting anti-environmental policies in dictatorships which they could not easily get away with in their own countries. In the Philippines, for example, the Westinghouse Corporation sold dictator Ferdinand Marcos a $2-billion nuclear plant that was built on an earthquake fault! Marcos normally demanded kickbacks on such deals. Later, a government commission reported that the model had an obsolete design and countless defects.
There appear to be a few exceptions to the rule that democracy is required for development. Notable cases are Taiwan, which opened its political space only recently; South Korea, till a few years ago under military dictatorship; and Singapore, which uses government power to intimidate political oppositions, but has a strong reputation for governmental honesty. Still, even some of these countries' leaders have seen it necessary in recent years to modernize politically as well as industrially.
It is not just a coincidence that in most cases 'developed world' is coterminus with 'democracies' and that 'developing countries,' or more bluntly, 'underdeveloped,' describes places that are 'dictatorships.' If you still wonder why, ask any citizen of the former Soviet empire.
Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist who writes about foreign affairs.