Prof. James Robinson: “I don’t think that Bulgaria is a failed State”


“I think that Bulgaria has been very successful. It is just that Bulgaria and the Bulgarians are the biggest pessimists. I understand there is a heavy institutional inheritance and how difficult it is to change that. That is why it is important for you to have a collective vision of how society should look like”. Those were some of the accents of the lecture “Why nations succeed or fail? Implications for Bulgaria”. Prof. James Robinson was in Bulgaria for the first time by in an invitation of the Bulgarian School of Politics “Dimitry Panitza” with the support of “America for Bulgaria Foundation.

The author of the bestseller “Why Nations Fail” presented his view, that the most important thing for the success or failure of one nation is its institutions and how they have evolved. According to him, there are two types of institutions: inclusive and extractive, where the first stimulate development and the others hinder society to achieve the prosperity which it aims for.

Prof. James Robinson made a historical review of Bulgaria’s institutional development. He pointed out that in a historical plan Bulgaria has been poor and this was due to the draining Ottoman Empire, part of which our country was until the end of 19th century, and because Bulgaria was also a patriarchal state. After its independence Bulgaria was very much focused on where its borders were. In 1989 there were many patriarchal models present in the state, where according to the professor from Harvard, market economy and democracy could not solve the problem. Another main issue is, that at the beginning of the transition period the civil society in the state was very weak.

“Bulgaria doesn’t have the shipyards of Gdansk, neither the Prague Spring. This is the reason for democracy not to be achieving what people are hoping for”, said Prof. Robinson. He stressed that the participation of young people in politics is important, as well as a strong civil society and a wide coalition – a common vision for the state development. Even if the politicians have good intentions, they do not always succeed and people lose their illusions. The economy doesn’t work as good, as everyone would like to. There are drawing elements in the economy because they are also present in politics. The problem is that in Bulgaria the state should develop further. The state has inherited many of the old practices which are based on deals, not on rules. And this is not official, that is why it is difficult to change. It is a mistake to think, that the institutions are only what is written in the laws and in the constitution. Different civil norms are also very important”, said Prof. James Robinson.

He further developed the main thesis in the book, that behind the inclusive economic institutions we have inclusive political institutions – that is a wide distribution of the political power and a strong state. Within the extractive institutions is the draining political power. Prof. Robinson stressed that if a nation wants to be successful, it needs to find a way to settle down to work the whole talent and entrepreneur spirit of its people. In 19th century in the States for example, the richest country in the world, achieved that through innovations. People who apply for innovations are from all different social backgrounds. In this way, the patent system becomes an example for an inclusive, open and stimulating institution. There are also extractive institutions, which restrict people. In countries with great monopolies, for example, a person who has an idea cannot develop its business. The systematic compulsory labour and the extractive institutions are also associated with poverty. Prof. Robinson gave Uzbekistan as an example, where about 3 million children do not attend school as they have to gather cotton instead.

James Robinson is the David Florence Professor of Government at Harvard University where he has taught in the departments of Government, Economics and History since 2004.

He studied economics at the London School of Economics, and completed a Ph.D. at Yale.

He is world-recognized expert on Latin America and Africa and has done research in Botswana, Mauritius, Sierra Leone and South Africa. His main research interests are in comparative economic and political development with a focus on the long-run with a particular interest in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. He is currently conducting research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Haiti and in Colombia where he has taught for many years during the summer at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. Prof. Robinson became very famous through the book that he wrote together with Daron Acemoglu – “Why Nations Fail”. In order to find out the sources of economic progress, the authors of the book look at a number of examples from world history and divide the institutions in two kinds: inclusive and extractive. Based on 15 years of research, Robinson and Acemoglu present data since the Roman Empire, the Mayan city-states, medieval Venice, Soviet Union, Latin America, England, Europe, USA and Africa and built on top of that a new political and economic theory that deals with the big questions of our times.

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