Why is Romania so poor?

Imagine a science fiction scenario, a book (or film) set in the far future. A lone spaceship is hurtling through the galaxy, the humans on board desperately looking for a habitable world on which to settle.

Suddenly, on their long-range scanners they pick up what looks to be a suitable candidate. Further inspection of the planet reveals good news. There is a breathable atmosphere and liquid oceans of water. As they get closer, the weary humans happily discover that there is a land mass with a gentle, four-season climate and they begin to celebrate, realizing that they have just found their new home.

Now let’s further imagine that this imaginary planet’s terrain is identical to that of Romania. It has the same trees, flowers, forests and grasslands. It has the same mountain valleys, wide plains and sandy beaches. It has the same dark, rich soil. Computer scans reveal that it has the same mineral resources, from salt to copper to zinc and gold. It has the same energy resources, from (natural) gas to coal to petroleum. It has the same rich springs and rivers of clean water. And it has the same abundant wildlife, everything from pollinating bees to herds of deer and flocks of birds.

I think any imaginary spaceship of humans coming across a planet with all of Romania’s natural features would believe that they’d hit the jackpot. Literally everything necessary for a rich and wonderful life exists in this country.

And yet here on the real Earth, in this real country called Romania, life is very difficult and millions of its citizens are suffering from privation and poverty.


Why is Romania so poor?

That’s a question I’ve been asking for a long time. I’ve been to a lot of truly poor countries, lands where the soil is dry and broken, places where people can barely feed themselves and where disease, famine and war are endemic.

Once you get past the superficial political causes, in nearly every case the source of poverty in those countries is immediately obvious. There are simply too many people fighting over too few resources, whether that’s arable land or potable water (or both). Look at any country that regularly appears in the news because of fighting: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan. All four of those countries have vast amounts of deserts and sub-marginal lands and not enough clean drinking water for the people who live there.

Romania is only poor in comparison to its neighbors here in Europe. Compared to the billions of people suffering in Africa and Asia, Romania is clearly quite wealthy. But still though, why is Romania so poor compared to other European countries?

I’m not going to provide my answer to that question today, as it is part of a larger idea that I’m going to write about soon. But I’ve been asking this question for a long time and gotten a lot of answers that I think fall short of the mark.

Lack of resources – Certainly this cannot be the cause of Romania’s poverty as nearly every form of natural wealth, whether that’s a moderate climate, the planet’s most fertile soil, abundant wildlife and lots of fresh water is found here. Likewise, “commodity” resources such as gold and other valuable metals or fossil fuels like coal and petroleum are also abundant.

I really can’t think of a single country in Europe that is more blessed with natural resources than Romania.

On top of that you have millions of well-educated citizens, many of whom speak multiple languages and there is a large workforce here that is very adept at modern technology, particularly computers and programming. Certainly there is an abundance of “human resources” as well as natural ones.

Corruption – I’ve certainly written dozens of articles on corrupt and greedy politicians, so that’s certainly a factor. But taking a larger look at the European Union, you can see that corruption is everywhere, even in far wealthier countries like Sweden, Germany or France.

Nor is Romania the most corrupt country, as nations like Greece are far more corrupt than anything that exists here and the situation in Italy is pretty bad as well. So again, why is Romania so poor compared to those countries?

Low Salaries – Years ago I was riding on a train to Bucharest when I met a young man from China and we got to talking. He told me that in his country, his salary was roughly equivalent to the salaries that Romanians make. But what surprised him was that the prices were so much different. Where he came from, a bottle of water (or Coca-Cola) costs the equivalent of 20 bani, whereas here in Romania it’s well over 1 leu (or more than five times as much).

Likewise, prices in countries like Switzerland or cities like London are sky-high. But if your salaries are commensurate then the actual price of goods there is not that expensive. In other words, if salaries in Romania are low but the prices here were also low then it wouldn’t be a big issue.

Of course, prices aren’t low here and in many cases are far higher than anything I paid back in the United States. But why?

Stupidity – There are certainly stupid people here in Romania, as I’ve written about quite often. But you’d have to believe in some rather foolish racial theories to say that, on average, Romanians are stupider than all the other 400 million people living in the European Union.

I, for one, don’t believe that there’s anything special about Romanians as a race or nationality when it comes to intelligence. There are a few idiots here and there are also a few geniuses but the majority of people here are just like everyone else.

Victims of History – I can’t think of a single historical force in recent history that affected only Romania and not also the rest of Europe.

There were dozens of countries in Eastern Europe who suffered equally (if not more so) at the hands of Soviet oppression. There are lots of other countries who were also overrun by Nazi Germany. There are many other countries that were bullied and influenced and dominated by their more powerful neighbors. There were fascist leaders and cruel monarchs and Communist dictatorships and political prisoners and collectivized farms and population transfers and gulags in many other countries, all of which have somehow overcome those historical injustices to become wealthier than Romania is today.

Poland, for instance, was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, had half of its population shipped off to labor camps and saw its capital city of Warsaw completely destroyed once by the Nazis and then a second time by the Soviet Red Army. Poland had Russian troops on its soil right up until 1989 and Poland had its own fair share of domestic Communist dictatorships under Gomulka, Gierek and Jaruzelski, the latter imposing martial law on the country in 1981.

Latvia was wiped off the face of the map at the end of World War 2 and absorbed into the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberia and 150,000 were sent to work (and die) in Soviet gulags while hundreds of thousands of Russians were sent to Latvia to “Russify” the country and the Latvian language was banned in most schools and universities. Even today its own capital city is deeply divided along racial and linguistic lines, with more Russians living there than ethnic Latvians.

And yet both of these countries managed to rise up from their pasts and become more prosperous than Romania. Why were those countries able to succeed and Romania not?

The Butterfly

No, I don’t think any of the above are the true answer as to why Romania is so poor. Those answers above are not inaccurate, but I think they are just symptoms of the problem and do not adequately address the underlying etiology. I truly do think something unique happened to this country but its roots are far, far older than most people would ever guess.

I believe that everything began on September 23, 1543 when a Chinese man named Wu-Feng had his boat was blown off course and landed on the tiny Japanese island of Tanegashima. What happened on that fateful day in that remote fishing village was the butterfly flapping its wings that would lead one day to a “hurricane” of poverty and suffering halfway around the world in modern Romania.

That’s a long story to tell but I’m afraid you’re just going to have to wait a bit longer to read it as it is an important one, and I want to make sure I get it absolutely right.

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13 Responses »

  1. mIe nu prea mi-e clar ce inseamna cu metafora fluturelui saraciei plecate din Japonia in sec.16…

  2. It could be IQ. If you look at the average IQ scores around Europe, Romania is at the lower end, ahead of only the Balkan nations (eg Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece). Romania, and Europe as a whole, still does better than most of the rest of the world in this aspect. If you compare market economies, there is a clear correlation between human capital and economic indicators.

    • An interesting follow-on point on IQ, and education from a general perspective: would it be true to say that Romania has a more highly educated “elite” than the rest of Europe or the world (taking into account repeated wins at “maths/science olympiads” and so on), but with the larger majority significantly less educated than the European average (or the world, perhaps with the exception of India)?

    • Yes. I’m hearing this said more and more these days … not about IQ as such, but broadly speaking, about the problem being something inherently useless and non-beneficial in the Romanian system of education, in terms of how it lacks something in terms of teaching “citizenship” on some level. Can anyone else comment? I did not have the benefit of being educated in Romania, but based on the Romanians I know, if pushed I would probably say this is NOT true. But people I know are saying this IS the case: the education system is failing “average people” i.e. the vast majority, although not more naturally intelligent people. In short: our smart folks are smarter than most other countries smart folks, but our dumb folks may be dumber, and more numerous. Clearly this may not be working out best for the majority.

      • Judging from results, our smart folks are not smarter than more Western countries’ smart folks. Romanians (mainly outside of Romania) have contributed a few things of note, but far and few in between, given our population. Let’s not flatter ourselves. We shouldn’t sell ourselves short, but we shouldn’t exaggerate in the other direction either. It’s silly. And many of those math olympiads were circle jerks among warsaw pact members by the way (not to diminish the merits of all kids involved).

      • On the contrary jos_cenzura, we should flatter ourselves. I’m on the side of accentuating the positive anyway eg. http://goaleurope.com/2011/07/28/outsourcing-to-romania-country-overview/

        Quoting: In terms of IT specialists, Romania is the leader in Europe, and ranks sixth in the world.

        Romania is also famous for hacking talent, looking at “the dark side”, but why not be proud of these folks also? They’re all smart people. Some of them are so smart, the FBI wants to jail them for it.

  3. It’s a combination of some of the factors you mentioned (and some of your facts are exaggerated: resources and the ‘butterfly effect’), but what is important is not why it is the way it is, it’s that it’s not deserved, innate nor immutable. The rest is up to us (and not being fucked over by nature or more powerful nations, which are sometimes unavoidable).

  4. Maybe inertia plays a role? When I asked my cab driver in Constanta,
    who was telling me what a struggle daily life is for most people in
    the country, why he thought that situation had been slow to improve,
    he replied: “I think it’s because we like Romania the way it is.”

    I’ll be eager to see if Sam offers a better explation — from Wu-Feng
    in 1583.

  5. I can’t wait to read your idea. I’ve also always wondered why Romania is so poor compared to other European countries.

  6. For some reason there are starker contrasts right next to each other, more than anywhere else in the world. Right next to each other in the environment and within individuals. I could give a thousand examples, but for one there is extreme arrogance and extreme insecurity, ready to surface and express itself, within every Romanian I’ve met.

  7. The answer is this : Romania is a “wealthy” country, romanians just don’t appreciate or even know it.Wealthy by human not economical standards of course.We are not a wealthy country economically because frankly romanians are greedy and egotistical assholes,”As long as I have it good fuck the rest”, the business ppl think so, the politicians think so and the ordinary citizen thinks so. As long as we stand alone and don’t pull for each other Romania will always be poor. I know you’ll never agree to this but the root cause is communism , after the fall romanians were like little kids who never had anything and suddenly got toys and would never share them.That’s what i think anyway. PS: Regarding victims of history.I’m sure you heard it loads of times but if you weren’t born and raised here you’ll never know.Even if they were exaggerations and communist propaganda that’s the way we learned it in school and it shaped our view of the world and psychology.

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