Links I liked


  • African Arguments is running a fantastic ten-part series on African political thought, complete with reading lists and videos
  • Helicopter parenting in the US can’t just be attributed to a status-obsessed culture; it’s more fundamentally driven by our lack of economic mobility
  • Just for Berkeley grad students: are you beginning an original research project soon?  Do you want to learn more about the logistics and ethics of doing research?  Justine Davis and I are launching the Research in Practice Working Group at the D-Lab with a kickoff meeting on Thursday next week.  Come to talk about your research design, stay for the wine!
  • Song of the Week: it might be too early to conclude that this is the video of the year, but Blitz the Ambassador’s video for Shine is a perpetual favorite.  A gorgeous meditation on tradition and contemporary culture, race and vulnerability, familial love, and exuberant confidence.

Links I liked

  • Ainehi Edoro’s Brittle Paper is my new favorite blog on African literature
  • “Behind the wave of migrants crashing into Europe lurks another story. The Mediterranean shore of Africa is becoming a vast waiting room for the record numbers who fall short” (Wall Street Journal)
  • Why has Uganda done a relatively better job using its oil revenues than Ghana, even though its institutions might be weaker overall?  A new report from Sam Hickey, Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai, Angelo Izama and Giles Mohan
  • “When we imagine ourselves as scholars, who do we actually imagine? The international student in US/EU or the Pakistani student specifically, cannot imagine themselves as their US/EU/UK citizen peers” (Chapati Mystery)
  • Video of the week: Baloji’s “Unité & Litre” critiques the outsize influence of mobile phone and alcohol companies in the DRC, complete with soukous beats and fantastic dance moves

The political economy of mass atrocities

This recent post from Alex de Waal on the structural causes of mass violence should be required reading.  I’m quoting here a bit out of order because it ranges rather widely, but there are several important main points.

On targeting prevention activities:

The Enough Project has a habit of targeting the well-known gallery of rogues. It wasn’t news to anyone that Sudan’s president Omar al Bashir ran a government responsible for mass atrocities against civilians. A project aimed at stopping mass atrocities needed to point out that Bashir’s challengers—the leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army—did not have a better record. Since the eruption of civil war in South Sudan in December 2013, that fact has become painfully obvious—but the depths of corruption and militarization, and South Sudanese leaders’ sense of impunity and recklessness were evident beforehand. Similarly, everyone agrees that Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army is a villain. But in terms of sheer numbers of people harmed and damage done to the fabric of society, the Ugandan army is comparably destructive. The Ugandan defense budget is the black heart of corruption in that country—and remains a valued partner for U.S. security cooperation. South Sudan’s pathological political economy appeared on American advocates’ radar only after mass atrocities occurred—let that not be the case for Uganda.

On the internationalization of the US war on terror:

The firehose of counter-terror funding—now increasingly blended with peacekeeping operations—is generating out-of-control security establishments across the world. Army generals and security chiefs receive hard currency for which they do not need to account. We shouldn’t be surprised to find that these security entrepreneurs have an interest in keeping crises bubbling away, and are networked in both to counter-insurgency and insurgency.

Corruption, violence and impunity are not anomalies: they are how individuals respond to the incentives and opportunities they face. The black budgets of the U.S. national security establishment, the monies associated with arms deals, and the blanket secrecy that covers all of these, are the fuel in this engine.

And on the US role in supporting brutal dictators:

Sarah Chayes in her recent book Thieves of State describes how U.S. money and license to act with impunity changed Afghanistan from a corrupt patrimonial system into a vertically-integrated and transnationally-linked criminal cartel. The Pentagon and the CIA were the chief accomplices in the criminal takeover of the Afghan state. Repeatedly, when anti-corruption officers identified a highly-placed person responsible for thievery, they found that individual was protected by the CIA—purportedly indispensible for America’s war on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

It is no different in Africa. Chad’s president Idriss Déby is a ruthless dictator who runs his country as a personal business. But his troops are valued by France and the U.S. for military operations against militants in Mali and Nigeria, so he gets a free pass.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan, international interventions have made a bad situation worse. … We have a closed security establishment that considers itself above the rules that govern society as a whole. Their worldview subordinates public interest to greed and fear, and their prescriptions for global problems don’t challenge this formula.

More books on development for the interested generalist

I’ve read quite a few fine books on on international development since I last wrote about books on development for the interested generalist.  I still stand by books 1 -4 and 6 on that list.  I suspect that 5, 7 and 8 may now be outdated.  Here’s what I would add to the list.  Please send your suggestions in as well!

  1. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, by Douglass North, Jim Wallis and Barry Weingast.  A succinct and compelling discussion of why some states become rich and stay rich over the long run, while most remain relatively poor.  Does a great job getting past arguments focused on geography or technology to look at the politics of economic growth.
  2. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan.  A fascinating look at the cognitive effects of poverty, which are considerable.  The brief version of the argument is that people who face constant stress about whether they can afford to meet their basic needs often find it difficult to focus on making longer-term investments, such as making sure their children attend school regularly.  Could be read along with James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak as a short course on why behaviors that might look confusing to outside observers are often quite rational.
  3. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed, by James Scott.  Essentially a treatise on standardization (of names, languages, railway gauges, what have you) and the role that this has played in many ambitiously large but ultimately unsuccessful development schemes.  Scott is a wonderful writer, and he has a gift for taking topics that might be dull in the hands of a lesser writer (like the standardization of basket sizes for paying grain taxes in medieval Europe) and finding the human drama within them.
  4. More than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm and Stay Healthy, by Dean Karlan & Jacob Appel, and Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Esther Duflo & Abhijit Banerjee.  Both books offer a great introduction to a new type of research in economics aimed at finding effective policies to reduce poverty.  What I appreciate about this type of research is that it represents to me a type of hopeful pragmatism.  It isn’t geared toward identifying the type of big push policies that might lift a whole country out of poverty in a generation (which few states besides China have the capacity to carry out anyway), but it takes an experimental, iterative approach to finding new products and services that are useful to ordinary people in low income countries.
  5. Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  A truly remarkable book about daily life in a small town in the mountains of southern France in the early 14th century.  Many people in the town held Albigensian beliefs, and were subject to an inquisition by the Catholic Church, which produced exhaustive records of their interactions with their neighbors and with visiting Albigensian holy men.  Le Roy Ladurie used these records to reconstruct a richly detailed portrait of personal, political and economic life in rural France nearly 700 years ago.  It’s a poignant reminder that even today’s high income countries were once basically just as poor as anywhere else – but also that poverty doesn’t inherently have to mean isolation, deprivation, or constant unhappiness.
  6. The Zenith, by Duong Thu Huong.  A fantastic recent novel by one of Vietnam’s leading authors.  It’s an imaginative retelling of the end of Ho Chi Minh’s life in an isolated mountain villa, and how it comes to intersect with the daily lives of the people living in the small towns nearby.  Rather like Montaillou, this is a much more complex, interesting, and deeply felt portrayal of rural life in a low income country than people from high income countries are usually exposed to.

The myth of imperial stability

Benjanim Denison and Andrew Lebovich have a very insightful piece in The Monkey Cage refuting Robert Kaplan‘s argument that neoimperialism will bring stability back to the Middle East.  Many of their points are equally applicable to the debate about whether African states like South Sudan should be placed under neotrusteeship.  Quoting at length because they had so many good points:

More troubling, however, are Kaplan’s claims about supposedly artificial borders and the “order” brought by colonial rule. The artificial borders argument is a common myth that sadly continues to pervade policy discussions of the Middle East. Kaplan simply regurgitates the claim that the Sykes-Picot Agreement was arbitrarily drawn, and did not conform to sectarian or national realities on the ground, implying that the “artificial” borders drawn by the agreement have contributed to the sectarian strife we see today.

Complaints about artificial states imply that borders can ever be natural. While nationalist elites may like to portray borders as natural to their kin groups, around the world, states were formed through social processes involving conflict and negotiation to create the borders we see today. That’s true whether those borders have expanded, contracted, or been drawn by outsiders or insiders, but in all cases they are socially constructed and no more artificial than any other borders. To hold up some imperial divisions (like Ottoman borders) as “natural” while calling more recent colonial borders “artificial” greatly confuses the extent to which all borders are drawn through social processes, politics and violence.


The crux of Kaplan’s neoimperial argument is that imperial control over the Middle East promoted more social order and less conflict. This rosy view of imperialism misses the various forms of resistance to foreign rule and the incredible violence of colonial conquest. This is most obvious in areas that faced the most intense forms of settler colonialism, such as South Africa, Kenya or Algeria. In these countries, British and French colonial governments alike faced repeated uprisings. They regularly resorted to brutal and horrific repression and awful legal regimes like the corvée or the indigénat in North and West Africa, statutes that forced colonized peoples to provide labor for the colonial government or gave colonial officials enormous latitude to criminalize many aspects of daily life. Both existed at least in part to regulate labor and exert greater control over colonized peoples. … Imperial “order” often involves almost ceaseless bloodshed and repression, something the United States learned after “liberating” Iraq.


“Empire” is not one constant thing; it’s an idea, acted out by people, in very different ways. And imperial rule doesn’t necessarily deliver stability. The Italians struggled to consolidate rule over Ethiopia, the Ottomans faced resistance in the Balkans, and the British stumbled seriously in attempting to govern Iraq after World War I.

Kaplan and others call for imperialism-lite — without acknowledging that empires aren’t always sunny, stable and successful. Policymakers and scholars alike need accurate historical examinations of imperial rule, and need to stay alert to the ways in which local politics, outside political forces and military intervention affect countries in untold and infinitely complex ways.

Updates on Burundi

The attempted coup failed after only 36 hours, and Nkurunziza is back in Bujumbura and in control of the country.  There’s a lot of concern at the moment that the ensuing crackdown will be worse than anything that happened during the pre-coup protests.  Coup leader Godefroid Niyombare is on the run in the expectation that he’ll be killed if caught, and there are reports that soldiers have entered hospitals in the capital and killed patients thought to be involved in the coup.  A Storified sampling of some concerns I saw going around Twitter today:

burundiCara Jones has written a good summary of why tensions might continue to increase in the run-up to the May 26 election.  She’s also put together an Indiegogo campaign to support citizen journalists, who are some of the only people said to be reporting on repression outside Bujumbura.  If you want to track reports in real time, Peace Direct has an interactive map of reported insecurity and election irregularities.  For more regional context, this piece by Daniel Kalinaki is a must-read.

Coup attempted in Burundi

The story, as I understand it at the moment, is that Nkurunziza was in Tanzania for an EAC meeting.  Major-General Godefroid Niyombare, a former intelligence chief, apparently announced that the current government was dissolved shortly after Nkurunziza left the country, and named himself interim president.  What will happen if Nkurunziza tries to return to Bujumbura is anyone’s guess.  Nearly all of Burundi’s previous presidents have been overthrown in coups or assassinated (save Pierre Buyoya), so while this is a disappointing shift away from the idea that the post-Arusha military was committed to staying out of politics, it is true to precedent.

If you read French, your first stop for news should be Iwacu.  The #BurundiCoup hashtag is interesting but largely speculative.  I’m following journalists and policy analysts from Burundi and elsewhere for updates: