Does precolonial political centralization matter in Africa?

7-KumasiKumasi in the late 19th century, from Encyclopaedia Britannica

For a long time, Northern scholars of Africa used to write about the continent as though the colonial period was the beginning of history.  Jean-François Bayart famously argued against this, but even after his book appeared well-known authors like Mahmood Mamdani and Crawford Young made the case that colonization changed everything in Africa.

More recently, however, Northern researchers have started to take precolonial politics seriously again.  I was thinking about this recently when Tanu Kumar sent me a link to this working paper by Mark Dincecco, James Fenske, and Massimiliano Gaetano Onorato.  They argue that precolonial warfare in Africa led to greater levels of political centralization, but is also associated with higher rates of civil war today.  Since civil war is generally bad for state capacity and development outcomes, this suggests that more centralized states in the precolonial era should be less developed today.

How does this argument hold up?  Jacob Hariri suggests that stronger precolonial states outside Europe tended to resist the spread of European institutions which could promote democracy and economic growth, leading to lower income levels and higher rates of autocracy today.  However, a number of other authors find that precolonial centralization in Africa is actually good for development.  Nicola Gennaioli & Ilia Rainer and Stelios Michalopoulous & Elias Papaioannou all find higher rates of local public goods provision in places that had strong precolonial states.  The mechanism here is presumably that strong states are able to solve coordination problems and engage in more economic activity.  Philip Osafo-Kwaako & James Robinson also find that stronger precolonial states lead to better development outcomes today, although they argue that centralization wasn’t driven by warfare like Dincecco, Fenske and Onorato suggest.

It’s a really interesting literature, and I think it would be even stronger with more of a focus on mechanisms, and more explanatory case studies.  If you look at subnational examples within Ghana and Uganda, you do tend to see stronger economic growth in the southern parts of those countries where precolonial polities were strongest (the Asante and Buganda kingdoms, respectively).  But does this mean that the kingdoms were solving coordination problems somehow, or that centralized states simply arose where the economic prospects were better in the first place?  Similarly, the link between precolonial centralization and contemporary civil war isn’t very intuitive to me.  Civil war is badly overdetermined in Africa, in that most countries fit the criteria (poverty and weak institutions) that are thought to increase civil war risk.  Academics still don’t seem to have a good model of why war happens when and where it does, rather than looking at aggregate risk factors, and I think until we understand more about the specificity of civil war it’s hard to know how to add precolonial centralization into the equation.

What’s more expensive, war or murder?

If you guessed war, you’d be wrong.  Anke Hoeffler and James Fearon recently released a fascinating systematic review of the benefits of programs aimed at reducing different types of violence.  There’s a brief summary at the CSAE blog, which was also the source of the graph below.  To quote the introduction to the full report,

Our estimates suggest that the costs of violence are high; the welfare cost of collective, interpersonal violence, harsh child discipline, intimate partner violence and sexual abuse are equivalent to around 11 per cent of global GDP [annually]. The cost of homicides are much larger than the cost of civil conflict. However, violence perpetrated in the home appears to be the most prevalent form of violence. Domestic abuse of women and children should no longer be regarded as a private matter but a public health concern. … We argue for moving beyond a near-exclusive focus on civil war violence – concern with which has increased in the development community and is admirable and important – to recognizing that the costs of interpersonal violence are probably much larger but are almost wholly neglected in current development programming (pp. iii – iv).

The comparison between the estimated costs of civil war and “domestic” crimes like child abuse or intimate partner violence is staggering.

global cost of violenceSo why do academics, policymakers and development actors tend to focus on the form of violence that’s actually least costly?  There’s the obvious point that conflict and terrorism are very public events, while child abuse and intimate partner violence tend to occur in private and often go unreported.  War is also perceived as being more likely to be deadly, which might be true, but fails to account for the fact that domestic violence is much more prevalent.  And I think there’s also a strong component of structural misogyny at play here.  Civil wars and terrorism are seen as serious topics, often analyzed and carried out by men, while domestic violence is described as a women’s issue – something only of importance to a lesser constituency.  (Consider the fact that no one’s asking if the Yazidis somehow deserved ISIS’ violence towards them, while many people claim that female victims of domestic violence must have done something to provoke their abusers.  Now think about how notions of “deserving violence” correlate with the importance we put on crafting good policy responses to violence.)  This report is a really important corrective to our tendency to write off domestic violence, and I’m quite interested to see how policymakers and development practitioners will respond.

This post brought to you by the department of really weird survey questions

I’ve written about Theodore Trefon’s article on public administration in the Congo before, but rereading it now, I’ve come across a striking sentence that I missed the first time around (p. 13):

The only certainty is that personal opportunism governs [the] actions [of state employees]. It is for this reason that administrative service providers in Congo are perceived as unmanageable, undisciplined, mercenary, corrupt and, quite simply, useless. A recent survey on how the Congolese perceive the state included the question: ‘if the state were a person, what would you do to him?’ ‘Kill him’ was the unequivocal reaction of most respondents (World Bank 2005, p. 22).

I kind of expect this to show up on a future UChicago undergraduate admissions essay.  Perhaps respondents can choose between this one and “How do you feel about Wednesday?”.

Does development aid lead to overpopulation?

The GiveWell team has apparently been asked this question with such frequency that they commissioned David Roodman to do a study on it for them.  Specifically, the question is whether lowering death rates in low-income countries by providing better access to insecticide-treated bednets for malaria prevention could lead to a boom in population growth.  The existence of the demographic transition is accepted by everyone here, so the research focused on how people’s fertility choices respond in the short term to having a lower lifetime risk of death for their children.  Key point from the GiveWell team’s description of Roodman’s work:

Overall, it appears that life-saving interventions unaccompanied by other improvements, where access to contraception is weak, are likely to lead to some acceleration of population growth. With that said, we wish to note the following:

  • No intervention takes place in isolation, and we expect population growth to slow in the future in most low-income areas as poverty falls.
  • Acceleration of population growth should not necessarily be associated with overpopulation and its connotations of a net decline in standards of living.

Frankly, I was surprised that someone would ask this question in the first place, since the clear implication is that letting people die of malaria might be a better policy option than facing overpopulation.  I’m trying and failing to think of a way that someone might ask this that isn’t undergirded by the belief that the lives of the poor (who face the risk of malaria) are inherently worth less than those of the rich (who don’t).  Aside from the morally problematic nature of this statement, it also fails to account for the fact that most low-income countries have a very long way to go before they have consumption rates anything like those of high-income countries.  The average American uses 100 times more electricity each year than the average Nigerian.  If you as an aid donor are concerned about pressure on global resources from overpopulation, the question you ought to be asking is about your own behavior, not about whether the poor ought to have access to bednets.

What’s the right analogy for Rwanda?

As the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide approaches on April 7, people who don’t usually pay much attention to African politics will be seeing two main types of commemorative stories about the country.  The first will focus on the incredible progress that Rwanda has made in areas like fighting corruption, promoting economic growth, and rolling out universal health insurance.  The second will acknowledge these domestic policy achievements, but note that Kagame’s government has also been repressing political expression, physically attacking its opponents, and fostering rebellions in the neighboring DR Congo.   Underlying some of these concerns about domestic repression is the fear that ethnic grievances from the genocide era have only been partially addressed, and that these could spill over into renewed conflict in the future.

These two sets of stories present such diametrically opposed visions of the country that I think many people will feel that they can’t both be equally true.   One must trump the other in the final analysis, right?  Either the big development goals are being met, at the short term cost of lesser goals like freedom of speech, or these gains are secondary to the threat posed by the RPF’s willingness to use violence to achieve its ends.  I too find myself struggling with this tendency to weigh the two narratives against each other.  I am generally concerned about the patterns of repression that can be seen today, but I’m also aware that this leads me to discount some amazing development achievements that I’m sure I would be endlessly commending if they had took place in, say, Ghana.  It feels uncharitable at best and dishonest at worse to look past these accomplishments.

Since it’s hard to weigh the situation in Rwanda on its own merits, it’s common to try to explain it through analogy.  Kagame himself is fond of saying that he’d like Rwanda to be the Singapore of Africa – a tiny country that punches far above its economic weight.  Singapore, of course, has achieved its own growth through a similar combination of good governance and repression of dissent.  However, when most foreigners think of Singapore today, I suspect they’re contemplating its role as an international financial hub, its insanely expensive rents, and its great culinary diversity rather than its freedom of the press.  The obvious conclusion here, if you believe that Rwanda really is on a path to emulate Singapore, is that in 50 years no one will care about a spot of repression today, because it won’t have any negative long term effects.

On the other hand, there are analogies which express more concern over the RPF’s authoritarianism.  Laura Seay tweeted last month that “Rwanda today is terrifyingly like Rwanda circa 1992.  Power held by a tiny minority, no real freedom.  Development is better, but fragile.”  The point here is not that Kagame’s government is using its power to start planning a genocide, as the Habyarimana government was doing in 1992 – whatever its faults, the RPF is definitely not out to kill every citizen it perceives as a threat to its power.  Rather, the point is that extreme concentration of power can be politically destabilizing, and potentially lead to renewed conflict.  In 1992, Rwanda was in the middle of a civil war between the Hutu-led Habyarimana government and Kagame’s RPF, at that point a rebel group based in Uganda.  Kagame and many of his companions were the children of Tutsis who had been driven out of Rwanda when a Hutu government came to power at independence in 1962. Lacking any impartial or democratic means to redress these ethnic grievances, they formed an armed group instead, and invaded in 1990 after a series of economic crises had weakened Habyarimana’s authoritarian control.

There are several implications of this analogy.  Most obviously, it suggests that there’s a problem with the RPF’s ban on discussions of ethnic identity, which means that ethnicized grievances among both Hutu and Tutsi can’t be openly resolved.  At this point both sides have complaints about everything from the RPF’s behavior during and after the genocide to contemporary land policy.  It’s by no means guaranteed that these issues will spill over into violent rebellion, of course – they might simply simmer at a local level, or even fade away as shared economic growth and the passage of time reduce some of the sting of current grievances. However, the other lesson of this analogy is that conflict doesn’t always happen immediately.  After 1962, exiled Tutsis made a handful of attempts to invade Rwanda, but it was nearly 30 years before the RPF succeeded.  Authoritarian stability today doesn’t necessarily predict stability in the future.

So which is the “right” analogy?  I still don’t really know.  For a number of reasons, I think it’s harder to finance a violent rebellion in most African countries today than it was in the mid-1990s.  The RPF’s control of the countryside is strong, as is the Rwandan military.  It’s hard to imagine how they could become sufficiently disorganized that other armed groups could form within the country, or even pose a real threat across its borders.  Of course, if a severe schism formed within the party (as happened with the SPLM in South Sudan recently), this could change the balance of power.  Ultimately, the analogy you prefer may come down to your tolerance for risk.  Mitigating the chance of a worse-case outcome under the “Rwanda in 1992″ analogy may seem like a better policy choice for some people than trying to maximize the chance of high economic growth under the Singapore scenario.

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The team at the Development and Aid World News Service (DAWNS) recently asked me to review their email digest and write a blog post with my comments.  The daily email features a selection of development-related news stories from around the world, as well as a round-up of blog posts, opinion pieces, and recent academic research on development.  Proceeds from the $2 monthly subscription go to fund a grant program for journalists with humanitarian stories to tell.  So far journalists from the Philippines, Yemen, India and Cameroon have won grants of $500 – $1000 each.

I’m a regular reader of English-language development blogs and African newspapers, so I was initially skeptical about whether the digest would provide me with much new information.  Happily, it defied my expectations.  Each digest features detailed summaries of two top news stories (generally focused on humanitarian emergencies), and 1 – 5 headlines from a variety of regions around the world.  I was pleased to see that the regional focus was pretty specific, including East & Central, West, and Southern Africa; the Middle East & North Africa; Central & South Asia; East Asia; the Americas; and other global news.  The blog posts and research reports cover an equally broad range of countries.  Many of the Africa stories weren’t entirely new to me, but I found it very useful to see consistent coverage of development stories from other regions, since I don’t otherwise tend to seek this information out.

Most of the news pieces came from major American or British newspapers (NY Times, Associated Press, Guardian) or humanitarian news sources such as IRIN, although most regional coverage included at least one headline from local newspapers as well.   One of the only things that I would have liked to see done differently would be the inclusion of more articles from local newspapers.  If possible, it would also be nice to have more articles in languages other than English, or (keeping with the Anglophone audience) English translations of pieces in other languages, like the Wilson Center’s Africa Program does.  However, the global scope of the digest does mean that the number of languages to choose from could be rather overwhelming, so I acknowledge that this might be difficult to do equitably.

In general, though, DAWNS has been great.  After my free one-month trial was over (which everyone, not just reviewers, is eligible for), I signed up to continue the service.  I’d definitely recommend it to anyone working in development.