When I first visited Beijing in 1980 did not have the feel of a city, rather a big town. A few large and empty avenues led to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, the city’s political hub. Now and then, bicycles –that ubiquitous means of transporting people, moving, and distributing all kinds of goods- would whizz by. Around these ceremonial centers rose an endless collection of tenements in varying degrees of disrepair. When I returned in 1999, the sight left me speechless: a modern city, with skyscrapers, expressways, luxury stores, and traffic like any international megacity. While in Mexico we debated ourselves about what economic model to follow, the debt crisis and the role of government in development, China transformed itself. Here’s to an effective government.
In Mexico, politics has been confused with governing. While it is clear that politics determines each country’s priorities, executing them is a different matter. In serious countries, government is an element of continuity and stability. Public officials are permanent, mostly career civil servants, and abide by codes of conduct and transparency. Politicians for their part, who are elected b the people, determine which projects go ahead and which don’t. They establish the criteria that will guide decision-making during their terms. Cities in serious countries have a professional manager who reports to the mayor as departments or ministries do. Only Third World countries reinvent government every time a new administration moves in.
This is the subject of an exceptional new book, The Wake-Up Call, which seeks explain the differences between the countries that successfully dealt with the Covid-19 crisis and those that still to this day can’t grasp what is happening. The book’s premise is that Western countries have very effective systems of government that know how to function under normal circumstances and how to respond to critical situations. However, it argues that these systems of government became timeworn, became too big, and ended up beholden to countless private interests, both internal (like political groups and unions), and external (construction firms, service operators, environmentalists).
In contrast, Singapore become the prime example of an efficient, technically proficient, and effective government which has attained the highest level of per capita income in the world. Many countries, particularly in Asia, have opted to follow this governing model and have successfully built meritocratic bureaucracies. Singapur and other Asian countries have exceptionally well-trained personnel that is duly compensated. Hence the indisputable successes of South Korea, Taiwan and, of course China. To be sure, there are effective and competent governments in other regions as well like Germany and some Scandinavian nations. This group of countries is notable for the seriousness, competence, and technical expertise of its bureaucracies, which are never distracted by politics.
Most of these countries are full, working democracies. Some are hybrids, and others are autocracies.One thing makes them similar is the quality of their government staff. Nothing like Covid-19 to separate those countries that know what they’re doing from the rest. This virus is an unbeatable opportunity to understand the difference among countries because it affects all exactly in the same way. Each nation, however, responds in keeping with its socio-political characteristics.
Infrastructure is another similar example. Countries with competent governments have ultra-modern highways, high-speed trains and airports. Frankfurt, Beijing, Singapore, and Incheon are obvious examples. None of these states gets bogged down with the issue of education, like Mexico. In this group countries, bureaucracies continually learn and do not sallow themselves to be manipulated by incompetent politicians, although they strictly adhere to the priorities they set. The key point is that the effectiveness of a Mexican administration isn’t about its quality of democracy or autocracy, but about its own structures and means of organization and compensation.
Unlike Singapore, the Mexican government was not built to be effective. Rather it was seen as a means to advance the interests of the political class, which inlaid corruption as one of its missions. Despite this, the López Obrador government managed to confer on Mexico stability and conditions for its development for several decades after the revolution. All of this was lost in the populism of the 1970s and the incomplete (and sometimes ineffectual) reforms of the ensuing decades.
Instead of rectifying those errors, presidente López Obrador has devoted itself to replicating the 1970s. López Obrador’s governing style is based in searching for a single person making decisions, ideologically driven and with purely political objectives. The Covid-19 crisis could not have come at a more revealing moment: it exposed Mexico’s accumulated flaws and shortcomings. The Mexican government that on paper would have push the notion of regime change This is the time for major reforms to produce a professional and technically proficient government.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of México Evalúa-CIDAC and former chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI). A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof