This is ‘governance outsourcing’ - benchmarking it to global best practices, and giving opportunity to thousands of citizens, and later millions, to improve their lives quickly – instead of leading miserable lives under local political leaders who are criminal and/or incompetent and local institutions that are dysfunctional. An experiment, if succceful, others will want to copy. In India, getting land for SEZs has been a nightmare in many states – but then again taking away prime agricultural land in a non-transparent way from farmers, instead of marginal land, to build industry is a dumb idea.
Politicians and NGOs that make their living from the handout/aid model being perpetuated won’t approve. Fish don’t vote for sushi bars.
In the 1990s, Paul Romer revolutionized economics. Now he’s trying to help the poorest countries grow rich—by convincing them to establish foreign-run “charter cities” within their borders. Romer’s idea is unconventional, even neo-colonial—the best analogy is Britain’s historic lease of Hong Kong.
When Romer explains charter cities, he likes to invoke Hong Kong. For much of the 20th century, Hong Kong’s economy left mainland China’s in the dust, proving that enlightened rules can make a world of difference. By an accident of history, Hong Kong essentially had its own charter—a set of laws and institutions imposed by its British colonial overseers—and the charter served as a magnet for go-getters. At a time when much of East Asia was ruled by nationalist or Communist strongmen, Hong Kong’s colonial authorities put in place low taxes, minimal regulation, and legal protections for property rights and contracts; between 1913 and 1980, the city’s inflation-adjusted output per person jumped more than eightfold, making the average Hong Kong resident 10 times as rich as the average mainland Chinese, and about four-fifths as rich as the average Briton.
Then, beginning around 1980, Hong Kong’s example inspired the mainland’s rulers to create copycat enclaves. Starting in Shenzhen City, adjacent to Hong Kong, and then curling west and north around the Pacific shore, China created a series of special economic zones that followed Hong Kong’s model. Pretty soon, one of history’s greatest export booms was under way, and between 1987 and 1998, an estimated 100 million Chinese rose above the $1-a-day income that defines abject poverty. The success of the special economic zones eventually drove China’s rulers to embrace the export-driven, pro-business model for the whole country. “In a sense, Britain inadvertently, through its actions in Hong Kong, did more to reduce world poverty than all the aid programs that we’ve undertaken in the last century,” Romer observes drily.
As politically freighted as Romer’s ideas are, they also carry a continuing attraction to the people in charge of many poor countries, particularly those with rapidly growing populations. By some estimates, 3 billion people will move to cities in the next few decades, abandoning miserable and environmentally destructive work as subsistence farmers in the hope of better lives in manufacturing and services. In the absence of a Romer-type solution, these migrants will move into urban slums with no running water, high crime rates, few steady jobs, and sewage in the streets; charter cities seem a better option. And Romer’s idea has the great merit of paying for itself. Land in successful cities appreciates in value, creating wealth that can be unlocked to finance new buildings, businesses, and infrastructure.