The Arab Spring: Have We Missed the Real Story?

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This podcast took shape when economist Hernando de Soto called me recently to talk about all the time he and his team spent on the ground in Tunisia and Egypt. He's convinced the West is missing the real story of the Arab Spring. It's not just about throwing off political oppression, he argues, it's about profound frustration with the denial of basic economic rights, such as the ability to own your own pushcart and goods. In other words, to have clear title to your property – something we take for granted, but for which Middle Eastern peddlers have set themselves on fire after being stripped of this basic dignity.

"Five-sevenths of the world has no address," De Soto says. That is, most people in this world have no proper title to a home or abode they can call their own. Can you imagine?

book.jpgI first became acquainted with Hernando's extraordinary thinking in 2001, when a publisher sent me an advanced copy of his book, The Mystery of Capital. I'd heard of the Peruvian economist; he'd gained renown for bravely urging his countrymen to reject the ideas of the "Shining Path," the terrorist group trying to bring Marxism to Peru. De Soto argued that property reforms and broader ownership rights – more capitalism, in other words, but in ways that empowered the poor – was the real path to prosperity. He was the target of assassination attempts, but de Soto was right.

His book, which cast his reform ideas on a much broader canvas, immediately struck me as globally significant. I called my then-editors at The New York Times Magazine, where I was a contributor at the time, and said we had to do a profile of Hernando. Soon I was in Haiti trailing de Soto for three days as he peddled his ideas in dozens of meetings across that impoverished isle. We've been friendly ever since (Bill Clinton called him after reading my piece, which -- trust me -- does wonders to cement a friendship...).

De Soto's insights and reform agenda remain vital 12 years later, yet just as hard to implement because they challenge the oligarchies that control property in much of the Third World. Last summer I was thrilled that our daughter got to spend time with Hernando when we were in Lima. I hope you'll feel the same way when you sample his original mind on the challenges now facing the Arab world, and how the West needs to think – or rethink -- about it.



Matt Miller