Many thanks for sharing your very insightful thoughts. In fact, I am familiar with your work, especially at UN-WIDER where I spent sometime as a visiting fellow when I was teaching in Australia. I also was at UN-DESA (2008-2012) working with Jomo when you attended one or two EGMs.
Also thanks to our common friend Isabel for setting up this on-line platform.
Certainly the elections of centre-left governments in LA helped reduce inequality. But the inequality reducing impact of democracy perhaps cannot be generalised. This is reflected in the aberrations that you mentioned. In the early phase of their development, the Republic of Korea and Taiwan achieved remarkable rapid growth along with low inequality that defied so-called Kuznets' hypothesis. This, in fact characterised "East Asian miracle" and led to the debate on the choice between "two Ds" - discipline vs democracy, famously known as "Lee hypothesis" after the PM of Singapore.
Japan, too, achieved high growth with relatively low inequality (Gini); but Japan was not a totalitarian regime. Singapore achieved high growth, but had illiberal democracy. So, one can assemble cases of diverse experiences that associate with different political regimes.
However, one thing perhaps is common, as pointed out repeatedly in ESCAP's annual Economic and Social Surveys. That is the equalising impact of pro-peasant land reform and universalisation of education, health and housing. Korea, Taiwan and Japan - all implemented radical pro-peasant land reforms and universalised education and health; Singapore, too universalised education and health and perhaps its universalisation of housing achieved to some extent what land reforms did in Korea, Taiwan and Japan - Singapore does not have much land to redistribute.
In the case of many Asia-Pacific countries, these reforms were “largely thwarted by an array of vested interests” (Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific, 1978 p. 11). Unfortunately what we are seeing across the world is the power of money and wealth, especially in influencing the electoral process, described so eloquently by Chrystia Freeland in her 2012 book, "Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else".
What the LA experiences perhaps reveal is the equalising impact of social transfers even in the presence of pro-peasant land reforms. But sustaining these programs can be at risk without pro-peasant land reforms - we have recently seen how close were the elections in Brazil and Venezuela. In both cases, the opposition campaigned on an agenda of reversing social transfers.
Finally, pro-peasant land reforms are just the beginning. There has to be a constant vigil against concentration of other forms of wealth and assets.
In the absence of such vigils, inequality is likely to re-emerge as we see in Korea, China and even in Viet Nam.
Anisuzzaman Chowdhury, PhD
United Nations ESCAP
Rajdamnern Nok Avenue
Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Tel: (662) 288-1486;