There could not have been a better time to read this book. For the past 30 months, India has been trying to overcome issues such as black money, corruption, lack of infrastructure and energy security, among others. The challenges are huge, and hence call for bold and unprecedented solutions.
There are very little cues from across the globe where all these challenges were tackled together effectively. But there are enough inspirations from across the world on how economies were fixed. The stories, which talk of persisting on the path of correction with conviction, are insightful for developing countries like India. The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline brings 10 such stories to the fore. It also brings out the implications of globalisation - especially in the past 25 years - in these 'success' stories. In the times of Brexit, Donald Trump, Shinzo Abe, Narendra Modi, and Marine Le Pen, the book definitely makes for a an interesting discussion. The book is timely as the world is going through a moment of trepidation, beset by economic, political, and social problems that are perceived as insurmountable.
The Fix presents a compelling narrative of politics of the Bolsa Famlia program in Brazil, aimed at poverty reduction. This is probably among a few positives of the otherwise scandal-prone Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's 'Lulaism' to challenge poverty and inequality in his country by providing cash assistance to its recipients. This has been implemented by several countries after the necessary alterations and localisation. However, it failed in some places, succeeded in others. In India, initiatives such as MGNREGA and the right to food has been met with criticism that the capital or tax payers' money is spent without creation of tangible assets, and hence wasted, in a way.
In these 25 years of globalisation, the income levels and living conditions have changed dramatically, but the gap between the better-off and the worse-off societies has remained. During this time, the world has seen the convergence of China with the global world, and is waiting patiently for a success story to come out of India. But poorer regions are continuing to converge on the income levels of richer countries. This is the reason, the book states, for the discontentment with globalisation.
The book's narrative need not to be taken in a literal sense to seek solutions, but to imbibe the political will, intent, and zeal to execute some radical changes. It is peppered with stories of change and determination - of how South Korea was rebuilt post the Korean war, how Lee Kuan Yew eliminated corruption from Singapore, how the US made the shale revolution happen when most other countries continue to battle with it, of the way Indonesia defeated the movement of radicalisation of the country and saved its national identity, of Canada continuing to remain open to immigrants even while other countries consider slamming their doors.
Years before the Arab Spring, Indonesia saw the ouster of Dictator Muhammad Suharto out of his office. The country had seen secular governance and strong focus on economic development (7 per cent growth in GDP for more than 30 years) under him. His ouster implied the threat of radicalisation and free fall of the economy. The modern world feared that Indonesia might burn or turn into a modern-day Iran. The book narrates how democratic Indonesia gave Islamic radicals their space, waited for them to make mistakes, and subsequently letting their popularity dwindle. The Indian dispensation is also trying the same for the past seven decades. But they have not been as successful as Indonesia, especially in protecting Islam from the radicals, instead developing a blend of faiths that many called syncretism. Despite the surge in radical pro-Islamic parties, post Suharto's exit, Indonesia is a success story for not going back on the time graph, especially when Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and even its neighbour charting the implementation of the Sharia law.
These stories help the author structure his argument that the problems that the world faces today are insurmountable, but can be challenged. His refreshing and thought-provoking take challenges the status quo. While it is true that most of the examples shared are impossible to be replicated anywhere else in the world, inspiration could be drawn from the intent. For instance: nobody would want any country to blindly follow South Korea in encouraging and subsidising the formation of few powerful family conglomerates. These ideas may have worked there, but in a country like India, it would lead to an era of crony capitalism. But in post-war Korea, the intent was to build infrastructure, generate wealth, create employment opportunities, ensure nutrition, and put together a new country from scratch. It was a good solution for a country which lost one-tenth of its population in war - its capital Seoul was left with only two lakh inhabitants.
Many would disagree with Tepperman's conclusion that world leaders can only solve the biggest problems by putting alliance's and party's ideology aside. But he needs to be lauded for making an attempt to provide solutions that are practical and tested. ~ The reviewer is Director, Centre for Economic Policy Research