Count Ethnic Divisions, Not Bombs, to Tell if a Nation Will Recover From War

Count Ethnic Divisions, Not Bombs, to Tell if a Nation Will Recover From War – New York Times

The good news is that history suggests that the destruction of war has no lasting impact on economic prospects. The bad news is that most of these countries, especially Iraq, are filled with ethnic divisions and civil discord. The evidence shows that these problems, unlike bombs, cause lasting damage to the prospects for a nation’s economy, even if they do not boil over into civil war.
Boundaries between many countries of the Middle East, like those in Africa, were haphazardly put together in negotiations by European colonizers who had little regard for ethnic realities. Indeed, they sometimes even lumped enemies together on purpose, hoping that ethnic hatreds might reduce anticolonial feelings. In a new study, three economists — Alberto F. Alesina and Janina Matuszeski of Harvard University and William Easterly of New York University — document how important internal cohesion is for the health of a society.

Their study, “Artificial States,” (, creates two measures of how “artificial” a nation’s boundaries are. The first measures whether the country’s political borders partition ethnic groups into separate countries. A country that combines a few Hutus and neighbors another country with lots of Hutus is in greater danger of ethnic fragmentation than a country made up of similar peoples.

The second measures how squiggly the borders of a country are. Straight lines are usually the sign of an arbitrary colonial mapmaker. Natural barriers like rivers and mountains seldom look tidy. Taking the measures of partitioning and neat borders, their study compares the performance of countries with natural borders to those with artificial ones and finds, overwhelmingly, that artificial nations suffer terribly — lower income, horribly ineffective and corrupt governments, less respect for the law, low literacy, limited access to clean water, poor health care, you name it.

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