Affirmative action has existed in countries on every inhabited continent -- not only in democratic countries like India and Britain, but in totalitarian countries like the Soviet Union and China, as well as in nations such as Nigeria, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, among others.
Perhaps the most widespread similarity among affirmative action programs in these very different countries has been that group preferences and quotas are almost always discussed -- by critics and advocates alike -- in terms of their rationales, rather than their actual results. Some countries have not even bothered to collect data on outcomes.
The most common outcome is that the benefits of affirmative action programs go to only a small minority within the groups that are supposed to benefit from them. This is almost invariably the already most prosperous segment of these groups.
Another common pattern is that group preferences have been initiated as temporary measures. But even where these programs have begun with a specified cutoff date -- as in Pakistan, Malaysia, and India -- they have continued on for decades past those dates by subsequent extensions, with no end yet in sight. Often these programs have not only persisted but expanded, covering more sectors or more groups, or both.
Perhaps the most ominous common pattern has been a backlash by others who resent the special preferences given to particular groups. In India, violence against Dalits [formerly known as “untouchables”] has escalated in the wake of preferences on their behalf -- preferences which, ironically, relatively few Dalits are able to take advantage of.
In Sri Lanka, where the groups live concentrated in different regions, the escalation of violence has gone all the way to civil war. This small nation has suffered more deaths from this internal strife than the United States suffered in combat during all the years of the Vietnam War.
Adapted from "International Affirmative Action," by Thomas Sowell
(June 4, 2003).