International Perspectives on Affirmative Action

International Perspectives on Affirmative Action


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 Nigeria, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, among others….

Perhaps the most widespread similarity among 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.

In India, for example, it has long been known that many university places reserved for Dalits — formerly known as “untouchables” — remain unfilled. Where the various benefits offered are actually used, they are used disproportionately by particular subgroups who have the money, education, and other advantages that enable them to make use of preferential access to higher education, higher level jobs, and the like.

In India this problem has been so widely recognized that there have in recent years been demands for a “quota within quota,” so that the more fortunate subgroups do not continue to take the lion’s share of the benefits from affirmative action. A similar problem exists within the United States, but has not been nearly so widely recognized.

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 — these programs have continued on for decades past those cutoff 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 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 during all the long years of the Vietnam war….

Excerpts from “International Affirmative Action,” by Thomas Sowell (June 4, 2003).

Additional Resources:

The Global Debate over Affirmative Action
By Thomas Sowell
March 9, 2004

International Affirmative Action
By Thomas Sowell
June 4, 2003


Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study
By Thomas Sowell

Preferential Policies: An International Perspective
By Thomas Sowell

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