Shining Path, the Arab Spring, the poor and data


This blog article has been produced for Eye on Earth Summit 2011 by SciDev.Net Conference Service, which maintains all editorial independence.

A Peruvian economist, whose ideas inspired the poor in the 1980s and helped rid his country of the Shining Path (a local Maoist guerrilla movement), used the Arab Spring as his motif when he talked to delegates at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi — just four days after the first anniversary of the start of the social revolution that has convulsed the region.

Hernando De Soto, founder and president of the influential Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD) think tank and once named in Forbes’ list of the world’s 100 most influential people, used the example of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian fruit merchant who immolated himself after police confiscated his merchandise  — valued at $225.

But the police took away more than just goods: they took way his capital, the possibility of feeding his family and paying back his debts, the dream of building a bigger business and also the right to keep the street pitch on which his livelihood depended.

This story illustrates a crucial aspect of De Soto’s thesis — that giving property rights to the poor is a key way of alleviating poverty and generating information that will help governments know, for example, where to provide basic services or build roads.

Without an information framework, he argues, that includes property ownership records and other economic information, small entrepreneurs cannot obtain credit and expand because they cannot prove legal ownership rights.

De Soto said he spoke to Bouazizi’s family after the suicide to try to understand the despair of marginalised people, or as he calls them, the extra-legals. He also recalled how Mohamed’s brother told him that Bouazizi wanted his death “to help the poor to have the right to buy and sell”.

He also said that Mohamed, like many extra-legals, wanted to be part of what economists call the formal sector and to be legally recognised. But, in the Middle East, as in other countries in North Africa and Latin America, it was impossible for the poor to obtain the money and knowledge to fulfil what the law asked them to do.

“The law was there, but it was not there for the poor, for a poor small capitalist,” De Soto told SciDev.Net.

“It is obvious that there are business laws in some countries that conspire against the poor. I don’t think that is the intention, but it is something that it should be looked at.”

Daniela Hirschfeld

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