Why nations succeed or fail?
A view on Bulgaria


Prof. James Robinson: “I do not think that Bulgaria is a failed State”

“I think that Bulgaria has been very successful. It is just that Bulgaria and the Bulgarians are among the biggest pessimists in the world. 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 Prof. James Robinson’s lecture “Why nations fail or succeed?  A view on Bulgaria”. Prof. Robinson was in Bulgaria for the first time. He was invited by the Bulgarian School of Politics “Dimitry Panitza” and the visit was made possible with the support of the 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 a nation is its institutions and how they have evolved. According to him, there are two types of institutions: inclusive and extractive, where the first encourage development and the latter 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 extractive institutions in the Ottoman Empire, part of which our country was until the end of 19th century, and because the Empire was also a strong patriarchal state. After its independence Bulgaria was very much focused on where its borders were. According to the professor from Harvard, in 1989 there were many patriarchal models in the state, and market economy and democracy could not solve the problem. Another main concern was that at the beginning of the transition period the civil society in the country was very weak. “Bulgaria does not have the shipyard of Gdansk, neither the Prague Spring. This is the reason why democracy is not achieving what people are hoping for”, said Prof. Robinson. He highlighted that the participation of young people in politics is important, as well as a strong civil society and a wide coalition between all stakeholders, so as to achieve a shared vision for state development. Even if the politicians have good intentions, they do not always succeed and people lose their illusions. The economy does not work as well as everyone would like to. There are extractive elements in the economy because there are such in politics as well. The problem is that in Bulgaria the state should develop further, as it has inherited many of the old practices which are based on deals, not on rules. And as this is not official, that is why it is difficult to be changed. 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 political power and a strong state.  Behind the extractive institutions there is the extractive 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. 

For example, in 19th century the USA - the richest country in the world - achieved that through innovations. People who applied for innovations were from different social backgrounds. In this way, the patent system became 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 their business. Systematic compulsory labour and 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.