Monday, September 10, 2012

The ultimate gated community is just a free zone with a new name

MR cautions not to "equate charter cities with extraterritoriality": a charter city works either "because a dominant hegemon — perhaps at a distance — supports the external system of law" or because "the external system of law serves up some new and especially tasty rents to domestic interest groups."  Either way, the charter city is not sovereign, rather some established sovereign is exerting control.  So a charter city is really just a free zone: another experiment in relaxing regulation that Honduras has already tried (along with many many countries, yes, including the U.S.), this one just has a name that taps into some emotional sentiment having to do with freedom and choice and entrepreneurialism.  If Honduras just called this another free zone project, perhaps few would take notice or wonder about it.

As this is just a new name for an old idea, it should not be surprising how quickly we see the familiar accountability/transparency issues pile up.  MR points to the Guardian, which reports:
Plans to create a neo-liberal start-up city in Honduras with its own laws, tax rules and police force suffered a setback on Friday when the economic guru who inspired the project said he has been unable to act as its guarantor and watchdog. 
...days after the deal was announced, Romer said he had not been given the powers and information necessary to fulfil his role as chairman of the transparency commission, which is meant to ensure governance of the new development zones.
Romer said he and four other international figures were appointed by presidential decree to the commission, which has wide-ranging powers to appoint and fire governors, nominate judges and hire auditors in the proposed new zones. But the five will issue a statement distancing themselves from this week's announcement and calling into question the legality of their appointment, which they say has not been published in the official gazette as required by Honduran law, ostensibly because of a challenge in the constitutional court.
Free zones have been around for a long time, they have been studied extensively, and they don't have a great track record, most especially when they lack major up front governance policy planning.  Calling the project a charter city won't avoid these difficult problems.

As an aside, I notice that the Guardian puts a price tag on the deal: a business consortium called NKG is paying $14 million for its city.  Who is NKG?  Not the Northern Kite Group or the Neumann Kaffee Group, I suspect.

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