How To Make Poland A Truly Modern Nation

First-rate car for second-rate roads in Warsaw, Poland
First-rate car for second-rate roads in Warsaw, Poland
Adam Leszczyński


WARSAW - Poland has always lacked capital for important investments. The roads have always been bad, muddy, full of ruts and potholes. We have great universities, but they are woefully underfunded.

In Poland there have always been “islands of modernity in a sea of backwardness,” according to economic historian Witold Kula. In this sense, Poland’s standing in the Western world has always been precarious. But now, there is a chance to change that, though the potential potholes and pitfalls remain.

Our new highways are a sign that we are catching up to the West, but they also show that Poland is taking the wrong approach to modernization. Germany and France, for instance, built new highways because their countries are actually modern – whereas Poles think that they will become modern by building new highways with EU money. As long as it keeps doing that, Poland will always be a second-rate country – only with better infrastructure that has been paid for by their richer neighbors.

Poland's first highway in Upper Silesia - Photo: Krzysztof Duda

According to international statistics, Poland is a rich and developed country – but always in last place on the list. In the European Union, only Romania and Bulgaria usually fare worse than Poland. The Czech Republic, Hungary and other Baltic countries, on the other hand are doing better than us. It is worth noting however that in regard to GDP per capita, Poland is doing as well as Hungary. This is a huge accomplishment considering the huge gap in prosperity between Hungary and Poland in the 1980s. But this is only half of the battle.

The civilizational difference between Poland and the West is still deep, much deeper than can be revealed by GDP statistics, which don’t paint the full picture in regard to economical or social issues.

Case in point: Polish food exports are breaking records. Moreover, Poland ranked fourth in the world for furniture exports. Apple stores, which pride themselves for their design and quality, use Polish shelves to display their products.

However, Poland is not an innovative country – only Bulgaria does worse than us in this regard. According to Eurostat, Germany had a 79.3% rate of innovative companies, while Poland only had a 28.1% rate. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, only 0,12% of world’s patents and inventions come from Poland – nine times less than Spain. High-tech products represent only a tiny fraction of Polish exports.

The Polish answer to this problem is to spend more money on education – but simply doling out money is not a solution.

Poland has a really long and rich history of intellectual life and an impressive gallery of writers and poets. However, the Polish nation also ranks last in Europe for reading books and newspapers. This is not a question of money, because poorer countries do not have this problem. Money – whether it comes from the EU or from oil riches – is not always an indicator of the level and quality of life.

Revamping our public institutions

The late eminent British historian Eric Hobsbawm summed it up in one question: “Why is Switzerland richer than Albania?” This question might seem odd, but in fact both countries are very similar – they are small, mountainous and deprived of natural resources or good soil. Both of them were poor for centuries, and both fought fiercely for their independence and made it by sending young people to serve in mercenary armies. Switzerland doesn’t even have access to the sea.

The answer to Hobsbawm’s question requires looking at historical, religious and economic reasons, as well as the long and complicated story of both countries’ evolution, which is impossible to summarize in one sentence.

So economists and economy historians prefer to compare what they call “institutions:” the level of corruption, the competence of civil servants, the efficiency of public services (schools and hospitals), the quality of the education and banking systems, the judicial system and social norms. For instance, Danish people do not take bribes, but the Russians do. This has to do with tradition but also with the judicial system, the police and the courts. Its institutions have made Denmark one of the richest countries in the world even though it is small country without natural resources. Russia, meanwhile, despite its huge resources and large-scale industry, remains far behind Denmark.

So how should Poland spend the EU money? The answer to that question is quite simple. It should be spent on public institutions, so that they can work more efficiently. Not only is the state conducive to economical growth, but it is also responsible for making its citizens feel safe and comfortable. Residents of rich countries trust the state, including its courts and police, unlike residents of poor countries, who are often afraid of the state.

In this area, there are so many dysfunctions in Poland that it would be impossible to list them all in this newspaper. A perfect example is the dysfunctional welfare system, where a large proportion of resources are wasted and not given to those who need it most. This system does not work, and it undermines public confidence.

Of course, all the money from the EU is not for us – just 3% of the Polish GDP. Institutions are harder to change than it is to build a road or a highway, but it is a more profitable investment. My colleague Witold Gadomski once wrote about “strategies” and long-term plans developed by various government agencies. There were dozens of them, he said, stuffed in drawers.

The Polish state is not good with long-term planning, or projects that require consistency and that take years to be carried out. We cannot decide whether we want nuclear plants or high-speed trains. Each project is a gigantic investment, and because of this they rarely leave the planning phase.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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