Why don’t African governments invest more in infrastructure?

Brian Klass has shared some interesting speculation on this question at Good Governance Africa.  He makes several good points, but I don’t think this is the whole story.  From his article:

Only 16% of roads in sub-Saharan Africa are paved—the world’s lowest rate by a wide margin (58% of South Asia’s roads are paved), according to the World Bank.

African governments have not built needed roads or maintained existing ones. This sluggishness runs against strong evidence that financing infrastructure is a valuable long-term investment that creates almost immediate payoffs. Every $1 of public infrastructure spending can contribute up to $0.25 in annual GDP, according to a 2012 World Economic Forum study. This means that savvy investments can pay for themselves in as little as four years.

So why do African governments neglect infrastructure while claiming to search for ways to lift their economies? Two major reasons: constituencies and a penchant for grand projects.

First, “development funding is driven by constituencies,” explained Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington, DC-based think-tank, in a 2013 report on donor aid efficacy. “There’s a strong constituency for health and education funding but there’s no constituency for infrastructure.” It is hard to imagine a TV ad in the US asking for money to pave a road in rural Mozambique the same way it might plead for funds to sponsor a sick child in Somalia. Similarly, when a road is built, statistics cannot back up its impact the way that a public health NGO might showcase the number of vaccinations it has provided. …

Second, government investment in infrastructure—and foreign donor support—is disproportionately skewed towards “big ticket” items rather than smaller projects and ongoing maintenance. Whether it is an African government or a donor-led aid programme, both entities benefit more from grabbing headlines by funding a massive new dam than upgrading a network of roads lost in the hinterland.

While I’m sure both of these things contribute to underinvestment in infrastructure, this can’t possibly explain all of it.  One point here is that there should be an obvious domestic constituency pushing for better roads – business owners.  Even if most businesses are state-owned, no enterprise benefits from high shipping costs and late deliveries, so you don’t need an independent middle class of small business owners for this prediction to work.

The other point is that construction is a great tool for patronage.  Most countries produce the materials that go into roads (cement, gravel, etc.) domestically, since they’re bulky and low-value.  Setting up a political ally with a cement firm and a paving contract seems like a really defensible way of promoting local industry and improving infrastructure while also reinforcing one’s patronage network.  I can’t find the citation now, but I’ve heard that Japan has proportionately more roads than other countries because construction contracts are such a mainstay of patronage there.

What else do you think might lead to underinvestment in infrastructure?

Why I’m not doing “fieldwork”

I’m approaching the end of the second year in my PhD program, and the topic of dissertation research comes up in conversation constantly.  “Are you doing any fieldwork this summer?”  “How long do you think you’ll be in the field?”  “How many field sites will you have?”  And the answer is that while I do hope I’ll be spending part of the summer in Africa, I won’t be going to “the field,” because I think that phrase reflects a lot of odd things about how researchers and development workers interact with places in the global South.  (It’s not confined to Northerners working in the South, either; I’ve met plenty of people from large cities in Africa who would use similar language about going to rural areas in their own country.)

What strikes me here is that if you’re going to the field, you have to be coming from somewhere else.  Particularly among people who work in Africa, the field is often discussed as a place of opportunity – all that data to be collected, all those programs to be run! – but also of great challenge – poor infrastructure, corruption, the risk of disease, and so forth.  Semantically, saying that you’re going to the field doesn’t just mean that you’re physically coming from another location, but also implicitly sets up that location as one which doesn’t suffer from those problems.  You’re coming from a different type of place, off in search of knowledge.  Just think about whether you would use the phrase “field visit” to describe both a trip to rural DRC and to the colonial archives or an NGO’s headquarters in Belgium.  The latter being in the North, I think most researchers or development workers wouldn’t call that “the field” even if they had to travel from another country to get there.  But functionally, what’s the difference?  You’re coming from a different place, off in search of knowledge.  (In many ways this echoes the expat vs immigrant debate.)

The problem I see here is that using “the field” like this essentializes low-income countries (and particularly rural or conflict-affected areas within them) as places that are fundamentally different to anywhere else.  They’re not places where people live or work or go on holiday like any other; they’re sites of research and development programming, because they’re poor and they have all these problems that need to be fixed.  They are defined by their poverty and its associated challenges before anything else.  And when you start conceptualizing a place primarily in terms of absence – of health, of security, of good roads – you’re likely to miss a great deal of what’s actually present.  Moreover, and perhaps more essentially, this strikes me as disrespectful.  No one wants to be seen primarily as a problem to be solved, be it in international development or in interpersonal relationships.  I think being respectful is about trying to look at people as individuals instead, with their own stories and their own inherent worth.

It’s a very small thing, to avoid saying “the field,” and obviously it doesn’t change any of the other unequal power dynamics between development workers and the intended subjects of development.  But language has power, and I think it’s important to avoid these semantic shortcuts which suggest that people in certain places are fundamentally different to those elsewhere.  So no, I’m not going to the field this summer, and I haven’t got any research subjects.  I’m going to Kinshasa, or Nairobi, or Kampala (research plans still clearly up in the air!), and I’ll be doing interviews or piloting survey questions with people who are polite enough to take time out of their work days and talk to an inquisitive foreigner.

(If you want some additional takes on the idea of the field, a number of other development bloggers have written about this recently as well.  Check out these reflections from J., Tobias Denskus, Duncan Green, and Dave Algoso, who has my favorite title of the lot – “everyone’s office is someone else’s field.”)

Was Singapore’s growth really exceptional?

The success of the Asian Tiger economies has always posed an interesting question for African economic policy: if these post-colonial countries could grow so rapidly, why haven’t most others?  Strong authoritarian leadership and favorable geography are generally thought to explain some of the difference, but the rest is usually attributed to poor industrial policy on the part of African leaders.

Since the death of Lee Kuan Yew earlier this week, I’ve seen a number of articles questioning this narrative of Singapore’s exceptional growth.  Kevin Lees notes that Lee’s own policy ideas weren’t always very good – the disasterous federation with Malaya being prime among them – and that he was supported by capable finance ministers who might have achieved good outcomes even under a different leader.  More importantly, however, both Singapore and Hong Kong benefited greatly as destinations for overseas investment from China.  As Lees writes, “The obvious inference is that, though British colonial rule of Hong Kong through 1997 may not have been democratic, liberal freedoms didn’t especially hinder the same kind of economic ‘miracle’ there.”

Tom Pepinsky points out that Singapore’s per capita GDP was already fairly high at independence.  In his words,

Already by the 1970s, Singaporean GDP per capita actually exceeded that of the UK. But the main point to take away … is that Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time. That Singapore has progressed tremendously since independence is true, but not a story of turning the “Third World” into the first. If anything, it is a story of how to escape the middle income trap.

In another post, Tom shared a video that makes a similar point: the Singapore of 1957 looked more similar to the Singapore of today than one might have expected.

While not directly related to economic growth, I also found Emmanuel Yujuico’s post on the establishment of the Singaporean military fascinating.  Lacking the domestic capability to build a strong army quickly, Lee solicited help from Israel, and the strong military relationship between the two countries persists to this day.

Five myths about governance and development

The World Bank’s People, Spaces, Deliberation blog recently ran a post that questioned pretty much all the conventional wisdom about making Northern-style good governance the centerpiece of development efforts.  All five  points are worth a read.  Here are the first two:

1. Good governance is important for development. If this means that a large set of worthy ideals – including transparency in public affairs, accountability of power-holders to citizens, ability of citizens to make demands, absence of corruption, freedom of enterprise, secure property rights and rule of law – are necessary conditions for development success, the answer is clearly no.

The history of human progress, from 17th century England to 21st century China and Vietnam, is completely clear on this point: governance ideals are realised over time on the back of economic progress, not the other way round.

2. Governance-improvement is a good entry-point for developmental reform. This corollary might appear more defensible, but it isn’t. All experience tells us that institutions and social norms change slowly at best. Aid-supported institutional change has a well-documented tendency to produce either ‘capability traps’ or purely cosmetic improvements. History, especially the last half-century in Asia, shows that very significant gains in economic transformation and human well-being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems. Reform initiatives should surely aim to repeat those gains by whatever means are to hand.

As Matt Andrews and his colleagues have been arguing, reforms should be problem-driven and oriented to finding appropriate solutions. There is increasing evidence that problem-solving, adaptive methods can work, even when governments are largely unwilling partners in change. In contrast, donor ‘governance programmes’ contradict the idea of problem-driven reform almost by definition: even in the best of cases, their solutions are set out in advance.

Visualizing aid flows to Africa

The World Bank has announced an updated version of its global project map which includes its complete portfolio of projects for the first time.  Of course I had to check out the Africa section.  I definitely didn’t expect Nigeria to be the single biggest recipient of Bank aid, given that it’s currently the largest economy south of the Sahara.  Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique round out the top five.

World Bank - Africa

The AFDB also publishes geocoded data on its projects, along with an interactive map. It’s not quite as attractive as the Bank’s, but does give a more precise breakdown of project locations.  With the exception of South Africa and Somalia, projects appear to basically be distributed in accordance with population density (only logical, of course).

AFDB Africa

Finally, AidData also publishes geocoded datasets and has a useful maps portal, with both interactive and static maps.  The visualization is a bit less intuitive when the interactive map is zoomed out to cover the whole continent – note that the bubble for 1606 projects in Mozambique is the same size as that for 161 projects in South Africa – but ultimately this is the single best source of data on aid flows, as it incorporates the WB and AFDB data as well as data from other donors when available.

aid data africa

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.