Political Favoritism Is Visible from Space, Study Finds

International Space Station image of lights at night in North Korea, South Korea and China.
In this image, snapped from the International Space Station on Jan. 30, 2014, while South Korea (lower right) and China (upper left) are aglow in lights, poverty-stricken North Korea is really in the dark. (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

Political favoritism can quite literally be seen from space, according to a new study that finds the home regions of leaders become brighter at night after the person comes to power.

The findings apply mostly to countries with weak political institutions and limited public education. One prominent example was Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during the reign of Mobuto Sese Seko. Mobuto, who was president between 1971 and 1997, was born near the small town of Gbadolite. While he was in power, the town flourished.

"Mobuto built a huge palace complex costing millions of dollars, luxury guesthouses, an airport capable of handling Concords, and had the country's best supply of water, electricity and medical services," study researcher Paul Raschky, an economist at Monash University in Australia, said in a statement. Years of satellite data reveal Gbadolite as initially dark at night, brightening under Mobuto and quickly fading again after the authoritarian ruler's exile and death.

Electricity and the economy

At night, when rural areas go dark, urban development remains bright and sparkly, lit by electric lights. These bright spots are handy indicators of wealth and development. In fact, multiple researchers have used light intensity at night as a proxy for a country's economic power. ['Black Marble:' Images of Earth at Night]

One recent image of North and South Korea shows how striking the night light difference can be. In a photograph snapped from the International Space Station (ISS), South Korea and China look bright as day. Isolated and poverty-stricken North Korea is a dark gash between the two. Only a small glow from the country's capital of Pyongyang is visible.

Raschky and his colleague, University of St. Gallen economist Roland Hodler, used data on light intensity from U.S. Air Force weather satellites and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to track nighttime light intensity changes worldwide between 1992 and 2009. They had data from 126 countries, broken into 38,427 provinces, states or subregions.

Political patronage

The results revealed regions that birthed leaders saw a boost in light after the election or power takeover, a sign of economic favor.

"Our results suggest that being the leader's birthplace increases nighttime light intensity and regional GDP by around 4 and 1 percent, respectively," Raschky said. 

The effect was basically nonexistent in regions with well-developed political systems and educated populations. Light intensity showed little change related to leadership in Europe, the Americas, or Australia and its surrounding islands, the researchers reported in March in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. But the effect was strong in Africa and Asia.

Beyond Zaire, another major example was Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa, president of the country since 2005, was born in the rural Hambantota district. That area's largest city is home to only 11,000 people, but since Rajapaksa's election, Hambantota has become home to a 35,000-seat cricket stadium and an international airport, with plans for an enormous port.

In the countries with the weakest political institutions, being the hometown of a leader sent nighttime lights soaring by 30 percent, reflecting an estimated 9 percent increase in GDP. When sorting countries by education, those with the least-educated populations saw a leadership effect of 11 percent more light in a leader's home region, and a boost of approximately 3 percent in that region's GDP.

Autocracy clearly drives the trend, the researchers wrote, probably because dictators have few constraints on how they spend money or direct resources.

"Sound political institutions and education are socially desirable and help keep political leaders accountable," Raschky said.

Unfortunately for the regions lucky enough to be favored under a rising leader's star, the effect does not last. Shortly after a leader leaves power, the researchers found, the region's gains ease off, and the changes are not sustained.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.