Americans tend to think of affirmative action as a uniquely American institution: an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, intended primarily to improve economic opportunities for African Americans, who have continued to face obstacles to equality long after the Jim Crow era of segregation and overt discrimination. And it is true that as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. government began to implement affirmative action policies. State agencies and public universities soon followed suit. As these programs expanded to assist other groups, such as women, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans, affirmative action began to seem like a strategy specifically suited to a Western liberal democracy struggling to reconcile its ideals with its history.

In fact, however, affirmative action is a global phenomenon, practiced by different countries in different ways for different reasons—but always with the goal of redressing inequality. In Malaysia, for example, the federal government has adopted a wide range of policies to boost the status of ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups, who have historically occupied a lower socioeconomic position than the country’s ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian citizens, prioritizing them for land contracts, university admissions, and civil service jobs. In India, the constitution establishes generous quotas in colleges, for public jobs, and in elected assemblies for lower castes and tribal communities, two groups that have suffered centuries of discrimination. (One state, Tamil Nadu, has set aside nearly 70 percent of undergraduate positions for those who belong to “backward classes.”) And after the end of apartheid, the South African government introduced policies designed to mitigate deep-seated socioeconomic disparities among the different racial groups in South Africa.

Comparing affirmative action across countries is not easy. Although most programs are designed to benefit groups that have been historically disadvantaged, the groups themselves vary significantly, as do the details of each country’s approach. Even within countries, affirmative action policies are applied inconsistently, largely because of disputes over who qualifies for them. In India, for example, the definition of “Other Backward Classes”—one of the main groups singled out for quotas—varies by state and has been hotly contested. And even when there is consensus about who belongs to which group, eligibility can still be a difficult issue. In South Africa, for example, members of that country’s ethnic Chinese population demanded to be included in affirmative action policies, citing the discrimination they faced during the apartheid era. In 2008, South Africa’s Pretoria High Court found in their favor, ruling that ethnic Chinese who had arrived before 1994 were eligible for affirmative action, as were their descendants.

Differences aside, however, affirmative action programs around the world have enjoyed similar successes—and fallen prey to many of the same failures. Most succeed in reducing economic inequality, although often less significantly than policymakers hope. They have a mixed record when it comes to improving social cohesion: affirmative action policies tend to underscore ethnic divisions rather than reduce them, although there is some evidence that racial unrest becomes less likely as economic inequality ebbs. And their most negative effects tend to be in the political sphere: in many countries, policies intended to assist the disadvantaged have been corrupted by political elites who manipulate the system to their own advantage and block any attempts at reform.

Balancing this less-than-impressive track record is the fact that affirmative action has often played an indispensable role in nation building in multiethnic societies. In the West, nation building is usually thought of as something that happens only in postcolonial societies or in places recovering from recent periods of intense intercommunal conflict. Today, in fact, thanks to immigration, shifting demographics, and changing beliefs about identity and ethnicity, prosperous Western countries also experience a kind of slow-motion nation building, as ideas about what it means to be “American,” or “British,” or “Dutch” evolve. As a result, the role of affirmative action in creating national identities in places such as Malaysia and India may be more relevant to places such as the United States than most Americans realize.

For the benefits of affirmative action to outweigh the harm, however, the programs must effectively target the poor. Programs that lift only a select few out of poverty or become corrupted by elites will neither reduce inequality nor bolster the nation. At best, such programs will quickly lose popular support; at worst, they will fray the social fabric they were meant to strengthen.


Malaysia offers perhaps the best example of the kind of qualified economic success that affirmative action programs have enjoyed. Under British colonial rule, Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian citizens were favored at the expense of native Malays and other indigenous groups, collectively known as the bumiputra, or “sons of the soil.” After independence, the bumiputra, who made up around half the population but owned just a fraction of the country’s wealth, grew increasingly resentful, and in 1969, ethnic riots broke out, killing hundreds. In response, the government instituted the New Economic Policy, which gave indigenous groups preferential access to loans, stock in public companies, university admissions, and government jobs and contracts.

To the extent that the goal was to reduce inequality, the program appears to have worked. In 1970, one year before the law was enacted, the bumiputra controlled just 2.4 percent of Malaysia’s total corporate wealth. By 2004, according to some estimates, they controlled roughly 19 percent—although they also represented a greater share of the population, at roughly two-thirds. In 1970, ethnic Chinese households made roughly 2.3 times as much as their native counterparts. By 2009, they made just 1.4 times as much. Critics of the New Economic Policy argue that it has distorted labor markets, reducing inequality at the expense of growth. But Malaysia’s GDP per capita contradicts this claim: it has increased quite steadily since the adoption of the program, rising from roughly $392 in 1970 to roughly $10,500 today.

In South Africa and India, the economic effects of affirmative action have been more mixed. When apartheid ended in 1994, the South African government instituted a policy of “black economic empowerment,” which promoted the transfer of stakes in white-owned businesses to black investors. The government hoped that change at the top would trickle down to the bottom, as black-owned businesses would be more likely to hire and promote other black South Africans. In fact, the program succeeded primarily in creating a coterie of well-connected black entrepreneurs. In 2003, partially in response to this failure, the government enacted the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, which expanded the affirmative action program to include the training and promotion of black workers. This policy has been more positively received, and in the past ten years, the percentage of black South Africans living below the poverty line has dropped by about 15 percent—although, at more than 50 percent, it remains quite high.

India’s affirmative action program—the world’s oldest, enshrined in 1950—was originally intended to benefit two groups: Dalits, or “untouchables,” oppressed for centuries under the caste system, who represent about 16 percent of the population, and historically neglected tribal groups, who represent about eight percent. Under political pressure, the government expanded the program in the early 1990s to include the so-called Other Backward Classes, a collection of lower castes that represent about 25 percent of the country’s population.

In some respects, the quotas have succeeded. In 1965, Dalits held less than two percent of senior civil service positions; by 2001, they held 11.4 percent. According to other metrics, however, the results have been less impressive. A 2008 article in the academic journal Demography found that the college graduation rate for male Dalits aged 24 to 29 increased from roughly two percent in 1983 to almost five percent in 2000, but this improvement was still markedly lower than that of upper-caste male Hindus, whose college graduation rate rose from roughly nine percent to almost 15 percent over the same period. For Dalit women, the rates were even lower, reaching just 1.67 percent by 2000. Research published by the U.S.-based National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that political quotas have helped to slightly reduce poverty rates for India’s tribal populations, but poverty rates among Dalits and the Other Backward Classes have remained about the same.


Many countries adopt affirmative action programs on the theory that reducing economic inequality will reduce ethnic tensions. Proponents of affirmative action often invoke the contact hypothesis, which posits that increased interaction between groups improves their relations. First floated by psychologists after World War II to explain why racially integrated combat units reported less racial prejudice than their segregated counterparts, the hypothesis has won wide acceptance among scholars. Of course, the frequency of the interactions is not determinative: after all, white slaveholders in the United States constantly interacted with their black slaves. But if the interaction takes place between groups of equal status—something affirmative action can help facilitate, according to its proponents—social scientists predict that the contact will encourage tolerance.

But there is no guarantee that affirmative action on its own can sustain this sort of contact, especially if people continue to self-segregate. In the United States, one of the main arguments in favor of affirmative action in university admissions is that it promotes diversity within such institutions. But this diversity is undercut when students resegregate on their own: by socializing with only white friends, for example, or by joining all-black study groups or fraternities. U.S. affirmative action policies have also been criticized for stoking resentment between groups that qualify for assistance and those that don’t. Many white Americans believe that minorities have been given an unfair leg up. The 2012 General Social Survey, conducted by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, found that 85 percent of white Americans opposed affirmative action in the workplace, and 60 percent said that white Americans had been hurt by such policies. Meanwhile, some members of minority groups feel that affirmative action subjects them to what George W. Bush, while running for president in 2000, famously referred to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Similar complaints crop up outside the United States: instead of helping transcend ethnic divisions, critics claim, affirmative action programs entrench them. In Malaysia, for example, affirmative action has contributed to a kind of collective hyperconsciousness of ethnicity. In 2010, when Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, said publicly that he considers himself Malay first and Malaysian second, he was expressing a widely held view. Ethnic Malay and ethnic Chinese communities maintain something akin to parallel societies, often attending their own schools, forming their own clubs, and speaking their own languages. Job advertisements routinely stipulate the required ethnicity of the applicants, and even something as mundane as an eye exam can involve filling out a detailed form about one’s ethnic heritage.

Policies designed to aid the historically disadvantaged ethnic Malay majority have created new inequities: until relatively recently, most public Malaysian colleges reserved around 
70 percent of their spots for ethnic Malays, driving many students of Chinese or Indian origin to attend private schools or study in foreign countries. Indeed, a 2011 assessment by the World Bank confirmed this trend: in 2010, the Malaysian diaspora reached roughly one million, a third of which could be attributed to a brain drain. Asked why they had gone, 60 percent of those surveyed cited “social injustice.”


If the economic and social impacts of affirmative action have been mixed, 
its political impacts have been almost universally damaging. In a wide range of countries, political elites and special interests have consistently exploited affirmative action programs for their own gain.

In Malaysia, for example, a small group of wealthy Malay entrepreneurs have used their political connections to reap disproportionate benefits from the New Economic Policy. In the mid-1990s, a court case revealed that the government had allocated 1.5 million shares of subsidized stock intended for poor Malays to a wealthy lawyer—who also happened to be the son-in-law of the minister of international trade and industry. Among the other Malay investors chosen to receive stock shares were the prime minister’s son, the finance minister’s brother, and the brother-in-law of a top official in the Ministry of Home Affairs. These revelations were embarrassing, but not particularly surprising, as wealthy, politically connected Malays have long gamed the system.

The story is much the same in India. University officials told The New York Times in 2012 that most of the spots reserved for the Other Backward Classes go to the children of powerful and wealthy figures. The officials would not give their names, the Times reported, “for fear of angering the government ministers who benefit politically and personally from the program.” In 1992, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the “creamy layer”—the wealthiest and most privileged of the Other Backward Classes—should be excluded from quotas. But most state politicians have largely ignored the ruling, fearing a political backlash.

Even when reforms are clearly necessary, politicians often have a vested interest in keeping flawed affirmative action programs the way they are, or even expanding them. The equation is simple: more benefits to more people equals more votes. In the 1990s, when India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought to expand its voter base, it began lending greater support to affirmative action policies, a strategy that has been repeated successfully again and again in elections across the country. Electoral politics has also deterred reform in Malaysia. In 2010, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced plans to overhaul the country’s affirmative action program to make it more “market friendly” and “merit-based.” But he was thwarted by parliamentary backbenchers in his own party, who feared losing the electoral support of ethnic Malays if they spoke out against the status quo.


The successes and failures of affirmative action in India, Malaysia, and South Africa offer important lessons for the United States, where government agencies and other institutions have often struggled to define, justify, and reform their programs. The major lesson is that affirmative action policies work best when they target the poor. The “creamy layer” problem undermines the very purpose of affirmative action and makes such programs politically unsustainable. Indeed, interethnic support for Malaysia’s affirmative action program reached its peak in the 1970s, when it primarily targeted poor and rural indigenous groups, and began to drop as 
the program became a tool of the political elite.

In designing affirmative action policies that cannot be exploited by the wealthy or the politically connected, transparency is key, both in the rules of eligibility and in the awarding of benefits. If the Malaysian government wants to award shares to Malay investors, for example, the selection should not happen behind closed doors. Instead of giving politicians discretionary control over the selection process, the government should award benefits by lottery or through a merit-based point system. Similarly, in the United States, policy­makers should craft affirmative action policies with benefits that are awarded according to clear metrics. Other states would do well to follow the lead of California, Florida, and Texas, where a set percentage of top students in each public school—both rich and poor—are guaranteed admission to state universities.

Above all, the success of affirmative action depends on preventing programs from outliving their economic and social efficacy. In countries such as Malaysia, where affirmative action is enshrined in the constitution, such programs are difficult to revise. Had Malaysia put in place a clear expiration date for the New Economic Policy from the start, its renewal would have required public consultation and legislative debate—and many of the program’s pitfalls might have been avoided. In the United States, for its part, affirmative action programs are overseen by the courts, not enshrined in the Constitution. But it would be better if such programs were subject to congressional renewal, as this would allow the policies to be more easily revised. As things stand now, as state and federal courts strike down more and more affirmative action programs, proponents are left scrambling to find new ways to justify the policies.


Given the complex and persistent nature of ethnic prejudice and socioeconomic inequality, it should not 
be surprising that affirmative action programs often fall short of their goals. Inequality is usually the product of decades—sometimes centuries—
of economic, social, and political discrimination.

Put simply, affirmative action on its own cannot reverse decades of racism or colonialism, nor should it be expected to. To temper expectations, politicians should set modest policy targets. Unfortunately, political incentives usually run in the opposite direction. More often than not, affirmative action programs are implemented in response to a transformative event: the civil rights movement in the United States, the ethnic riots in Malaysia, the end of apartheid in South Africa. Politicians feel pressure to do something extraordinary, and pragmatism often falls by the wayside. This all but ensures that affirmative action programs will be less impressive than advertised.

Nevertheless, in many developing countries, these programs have played a vital role in nation building, creating a political community committed to equality and equal representation. Affirmative action policies can, therefore, be symbolically important, even if they are economically ineffective. In India, for example, affirmative action has embedded an ethnic secularism into the country’s political order that even the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party currently in power, finds difficult to contest. And even in prosperous Western countries, where nation building appears to be a thing of the past, affirmative action has the potential to catalyze important conversations about national identity and what it means to fit into increasingly diverse, multicultural societies.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now